Design and material choice affect not just the aesthetics of a product, but also its environmental and social footprint. Creative directors and their design teams thereby play a vital role in transforming fashion into a more conscious industry.

The fashion industry’s overall Pulse Score has increased since last year, going from 32 to 38, which is clearly reflected across the value chain: in almost all areas, except retail, the score has gone up according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report. Although it is one of the weaker steps in the value chain, design and development shows the second-largest improvement of all value chain steps this year, going up five points to 27. With two thirds of the sustainability impact happening at the raw materials stage, design and development is a key function in fashion’s transition to a more sustainable footprint.

Empowering design teams to make smarter choices

To improve the Pulse Score of design and development, the teams working within this step must be held accountable for incorporating sustainability measures into the final product. A range of decisions and actions taken within the design and development stage determine a product’s environmental and social impact, but most important is the selection of materials, which in turn affects not only the footprint within dyeing and processing but also end-of-use. Implementing design standards that facilitate better repair and care of a garment and thereby increasing its longevity has also proven vital at this stage.

“RefScale is an incredible design tool used on a day-to-day basis. It sets the goal posts for our design and product teams, and supports them to see in actual gallons of water or pounds of carbon, the tradeoffs between selecting certain materials or other product attributes. It takes the very abstract idea of embedded resource use in fashion, and makes it real. And it let’s them be a part of making our products better,” says Yael Aflalo, Founder and CEO of Reformation.

Reaping the benefits of resourceful design

Awareness of the strong need to improve the ways of design and development is definitely rising and a growing share of executives have assigned design and development highest priority within their sustainability efforts going forward. However, the majority of the industry has only just started to focus on this stage of the value chain and it is still the Sustainability Champions paving the way. These are typically smaller companies, who have sustainability as part of their core strategy and decision-making framework. They are the main driver in this stage of the value chain scoring 70 points.

Companies have progressed by making design and product development teams more aware of the impacts of their decisions. Reformation has used the tool RefScale to estimate the environmental footprint of its entire collection. Comparing the results to the environmental impact of similar products made from conventional materials, Reformation is able to calculate the reduction of its collection’s footprint adding up to a 20% reduction in CO2, 30% reduction in water and 20% reduction of waste.

Download and read more in the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report, published by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, pages 16-18 and in the CEO Agenda 2018 under the priority Sustainable Material Mix.