Circular Design Series

SAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation came together to discuss the global circular economy. Brands, independent designers, experts and activists joined forces to discuss how they have made the Circular Economy central to their work. In the frame were topics of plastics, fashion and food.  

A discussion exploring how circular design is reforming one of the most wasteful and polluting industries.

As consumers, it is logical to think that we can shop ourselves out of the problem, but sadly it isn’t that simple.

“Every aspect of the fashion industry has to be rethought and redesigned,” says Professor Carole Collet. As director of Maison/0, the Central Saint Martins-LVMH creative platform for regenerative luxury, and co-director of Living Systems Lab, which looks at the intersection of biological sciences and design to create new sustainable materials and production forms for the future, she is fully aware that that is no small feat.

“Creativity is still thriving in the fashion industry, but if creativity leads to destruction and exploitation, we need to really start working at every angle.”

LanVy Nguyen, founder & creative conspirator of FASHION 4 FREEDOM – which aims to support artisans and craftspeople, while helping the fashion industry become more sustainable, responsible, and ethical – points to the lack of a cohesive global approach to circularity as one of the biggest challenges the fashion industry faces today. 

“The solutions or the attempted solutions that we're seeing now – the rise of resale and rental fashion, mending and repairing, small ateliers working on material innovation – exist because they are tangible to designers and brands,” explains Nguyen.

“Designers now need to think beyond making pretty dresses, we need to think about reengineering the supply chain in itself; to think outside of the framework of product development into process development.”

It sounds like a meta concept, but Nguyen is keen to solve the problem through design. “The fashion world tends to focus first and foremost on the product,” she explains. “What's trending? We need to have Pantone exactly this or else we're going to chuck it, and I've seen tonnes and tonnes of stuff get burned. We need to start the design process there: not redesigning a product, but to redesign the process by which we design. The process currently allows for so much waste, but I truly believe if we start with the student thinking about the end result first, we can take out the cost in between and create a system that accounts for sustainability and circularity.” 

Collet agrees on the need to educate fashion designers to truly understand how to operate within a circular economy. “We need a fundamental new type of fashion education. Designers need to learn to create differently, and to source materials differently. And they need to actually understand ecosystem thinking and how ecosystems work. Because how can you understand regenerative agriculture if you don't even understand how agriculture works? If you don't understand permaculture principles?”

Not that she means to turn fashion designers into ecologists or ecosystem analysts, she adds. Instead, she wants to provide them with the understanding and a fundamental level of infrastructure (or database) that allows them to make better decisions. 

Clear targets and objectives – around circularity, transparency, and climate biodiversity – and their monitoring is key, adds Born founder and CEO Jean-Christophe Chopin. 

“Without targets you have a shifting ground,” says Collet.

“You do a bit better here in that collection, but then the next season you do something else. We're not accounting for the value of services provided by nature. If that had to be built in the cost of a product, then fast fashion wouldn't exist.”