Friday 8 August 2014

The Great Recovery

You're a fashion designer, and you're passionate about sustainability. You have a vision: a range of clothes that's completely recyclable. Congratulations. The industry needs more people like you.

The thing is, how do you go about making sure that your vision gets carried across from the sketchbook to the shop floor--and most importantly of all, to the recycling centre? Can you be sure that the materials that you've so carefully chosen and incorporated into your design can be easily broken back down? Indeed, do you know what happens when your clothes hit the recycling bins?

In The Guardian, Maxine Perella recently followed four designers as they found out what happens to clothes bound for their second life. They took part in The Great Recovery, a "design residency" at three sites: a community drop-off point in Camden, an Ecopark in Edmonton, and a textiles recycling plant. The brief: discover the challenges inherent in taking a design-led piece of clothing and breaking it back down to its constituent parts.

Those challenges are wide-ranging, and show just how far we have to go before cradle-to-cradle models become the norm. The designers found that products dropped at the Camden site were already assumed to be waste once they'd been deposited. At the Ecopark, the incentive is on tonnage processed, with little focus given to separating out materials.

Things are little better on the design side. Sophie Thomas, co-director of design at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and head of The Great Recovery points out that sustainability is rarely part of a project brief, and designers are rarely given the time to properly work out how to roll it successfully into their clothing. They tend to fall back on outdated or marketeer-led notions of what sustainability means, with often unsuccessful results.

It all sounds gloomy, but while the project showed up the flaws in the system, it also made it powerfully clear what needs to be done. Waste management experts have lots to offer at the design stage, while designers have the ability to view the bigger picture, and visualise how their products can track through the different stages in the recycling process. Communication, as ever, is the key, and both sides found The Great Recovery to be instructive, insightful and inspiring.

The scheme, I'm glad to say, is moving to a second phase in September, with the aim of putting the earlier findings to work in finding practical solutions to the challenges of modern sustainability. There's a long way to go, but what we've seen so far is a great start.

The Guardian, as ever, has more.

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