This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
After a year of limited geographic variety, I recently found myself packing a travel bag for the first time in a long time. As I sifted through a closet full of clothing (with more pieces I hadn’t seen in months than I care to admit), the items that made their way into the "must bring" pile all shared one quality: they were durable.
Like many, my relationship with clothing has evolved drastically over the last 15 months. The variety of clothing in my daily routine has shrunk significantly. Gone are the days of uncomfortable fabrics and fits in lieu of practical pieces that perform functionally and provoke a smile or provide winks of personality. Less is more, and more is getting worn more often.
In the camp of evolved wardrobes, I’m certainly not alone. Working from home changed outfits across the globe, and more than 50 percent of consumers intend to make long term changes to their fashion consumption, aiming to buy less and make their clothing last longer. Conscious consumption is in vogue to the point that "the very notion of disposable seasonal trends ... is increasingly irrelevant."
With longevity comes sustainability
If you’re looking to tackle the ever-increasing footprint of global fashion — an impact that accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, 20 percent of waste water and 98 million tons of non-renewable resources each year — all these trends are great news.
Extending the average life of clothes in the UK by just 9 months could equate to over $7 billion in saved resources.
According to a WRAP report in the U.K., designing for durability or longevity is the single largest opportunity to reduce the carbon, water and waste footprints our clothing requires. When an outfit has a longer lifespan, it reduces the need to consume and manufacture a replacement, saving valuable resources that would go towards production, delivery, disposal and even laundering. In fact, extending the average life of clothes in the U.K. by just nine months could equate to over $7 billion in saved resources.
Perhaps that’s why the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) has made incentivizing and supporting "design for longevity" its first call-to-action in the Circular Economy Action Agenda for Textiles, while encouraging the market to "use less clothing, and for longer" is action item No. 3.
Designing for durability
When we speak about durability, it’s not simply the strength of the fabric, or its ability to weather the elements — although these qualities are important. Grandmother’s garments may still be kicking, but that doesn’t mean we’re eager to wear them.
If an extended product lifespan is the goal, the best opportunity to affect a clothing item’s longevity is in the design phase. So what are the qualities that should be prioritized in apparel design?
When we talk about durability, we often think of physical strength above all else. This means selecting materials that are sturdy, can handle wear and tear and (ideally) don’t shed microplastics in the process.
When that unexpected accident inevitably occurs, it also means enabling repair. Providing ample seam allowance, clear care instructions and extra buttons or thread can allow consumers to tailor and fix their clothing when the dreaded rips, stains and even a couple unexpected pounds come along.
Of course, physical strength will mean different things depending on the material and garment style. From denim to knitwear, WRAP has some solutions and suggestions for you to consider.
Beyond physical strength, a garment can only stand the test of time by successfully traversing the ever-evolving, sometimes fickle nature of style. An "it" trend today can be fashion faux pas tomorrow, so it’s dangerous to lean too heavily into the bravado of an individual moment. Instead, the gold standard is timelessness.
Clothing won’t hold a longer lifespan if we don’t care to keep it around (or as Marie Kondo would say, if it doesn’t 'spark joy').
Timeless design is an oft sought after trait that’s difficult to define. It embodies quality, craftsmanship and a bit of luck. For me, this means clean lines, intentional color palettes and pieces that "play well with others," allowing for flexibility to mix and match one’s wardrobe.
As conceiver of the term, Jonathan Chapman notes, "We are consumers of meaning not matter." When we form emotional bonds with the objects around us, we tend to hold on to them longer, like a cherished family heirloom or a favorite sweater that’s survived a memorable (or pandemic-induced) year. Building emotional durability into our everyday objects may just be the key to the circular economy, and that is especially true when it comes to clothing — clothing won’t hold a longer lifespan if we don’t care to keep it around (or as Marie Kondo would say, if it doesn’t "spark joy.")
Although critical, emotional durability is an elusive goal. Meaning often comes from the unexpected or personal, a hard quality for a clothing creator to ensure. But there are certainly ways to encourage a tug at the proverbial heart strings, and they all come with a user-centred design.
Some emotionally durable tricks to consider: create novelty with items that are designed to fade or age with grace; create exclusivity with limited edition runs; create connection with a relatable product story; or create attachment by affording customization or enabling DIY repairs.
For apparel that’s mastered the art of durability, my suitcase is waiting.