Design and Sustainability, How to Get Textile Designers on The Case?

Talk by Carole Collet, Course Director MA Textile Futures, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design


Carole’s talk will address some of the specific environmental issues that the textile industry is responsible for. She will discuss possible design approaches and solutions to these issues, including a focus on eco-materials and biomimicry as a design tool. The link between smart and sustainable textiles will also be explored.

This is the transcript of the talk by Carole Collet at the Luminous Green Symposium in 2007

Before I begin, I wanted to apologise that am the luminous freak who panicked when told that we could not use a data-projector. So we have one now, thank you very much for that!

I think it is very difficult to talk about sustainability in the educational context, following the presentation of the activities of the Barefoot college. I think it is a very humbling experience. So this will be a very, very different presentation. I will talk about education in a fairly wealthy country, the UK. The college that I will talk about is Central Saint Martins, belonging to the University of the Arts. Which is the largest University in the world that produces - and I use that word on purpose - produces creative people. We deal with anything from drama, dance, theatre, ceramics, product design, narrative design, illustration, graphic design, etc. But very little of it has to do with sustainability. There are a few people that try to push this agenda in this huge organisation. And it is not a message that is heard very easily. The best way for us to push it, is to just go on with it and ignore others, really. They will start to listen when they realize how successful we are in doing it.

Textiles. Some people have asked, why are there so many textile designers here? Maja explained that one of the motivations for this conference came from the Active Materials workshop lead by Rachel Wingfield and Joey Berzowska two years ago. Textiles are materials that really enter all little corners of our lives. You wear them, sit on them, they are used in roads, in insulation in architecture, in space - they are used everywhere. But we often forget that there are textile designers behind this.

One of the issues I want to talk about is the global perspective. How do we handle overpopulation and it's associated evils, that is something we as designers need to look at. How do you clothe another 3 billion people. My students will face these challenges in 20 to 30 years time, when they are in the primetime of their careers.

The textile industry is a very polluting industry, always has been, it is a bit of a tradition. We can simply not keep on producing as much raw material as we currently do. Main problems associated with textiles are - energy use, use of toxic chemicals, release of chemicals in waste waters, particularly for the printing and dyeing industry. An example of pollution - rivers in Bangladesh destroyed by textile mills throwing away they're waste water. This is fairly common. Conventional cotton is now started to be known for being rather nasty, but even up to 10 years ago, whenever I mentioned sustainable issues, people would say; but what is your problem, we use cotton and natural dyes, it is all fine. But cotton is a very damaging crop.

There are alternatives, now, lots of them, on a global level. Organic cotton in Turkey and the USA, India and China, so it is not a very pocketed field. You can actually get it recycled or organic. Recycling is such an obvious solution and one all my students immediately pick up. But I think there is a limit to how successful this can be. Still if everyone in the UK bought a reclaimed woolen garment, we would save 371 million gallons of water and 480 tons of dyes. Recycling does not just reuse the actual material, but also saves on using water, chemicals and energy.

Part of why I was invited to work at Saint Martins was to introduce sustainability issues in the curriculum. We were the first course to integrate sustainabilityin the assessment criteria. So at the end of the course students have to place their project within a sustainable debate. This was not easy, I had a lot of serious arguments with quite a few people to get there. Why don't you just call it a sustainable textile course? My argument was, no, don't brand it sutainable textiles, because I think any design course should implement these kinds of principles. And also I did not want to preach to the converted.

Often students are not particularly interested in these issues, but once they encountered them in practice, they often integrate sustainable principles in their Master's projects. For us, this is where our success-stories are. One project was done in association with a recycling factory. We took the students there on the first day of the course. We told them - look, this is all your waste; all your designs will end up here. The factory has problems to recycle composite materials, like stiletto shoes, diving suits, etc. So our students started working on reusing these materials. Stiletto shoes became coat-hangers, diving suits became planting-pots, because they keep in the moisture. This project dealt with a real production problem outside of the university. And we have found these kinds of projects to be the most fruitful.

The fashion world is probably the worst to look at. You are trained to produce obsolescence. Some fashion houses produce up to 12 collections per year. But the last two London Fashion Weeks have featured an Ethical Fashion Week as a part of it. I don't know if it is greenwash, but it is obviously a growing interest and the sales are picking up.

We have students working with plastic recycling, mono material designs, silicone leftovers, printing techniques using no water, local crafts like felt-making, sustainable wallpaper design, photovoltaics, products that evolve with time and can age. Some recycling processes are damaging and as designers we need to be aware of that. More and more we need to be material scientists and understand how materials and processes work.

When you deal with textile design most people think that is all you do. We have been called all kinds of names including 'a stylist' - 'All I can do is colors, pretty flowers and butterflies.' We do a lot more than that. Textile design is a part of industrial design. But aesthetics are important. In the early nineties there was a trend for eco-fashion, remember that? Unbleached bland and boring. It lasted maybe for one season. The products were just not desirable so they failed. The boring image stayed and this is still bothering us now.

Unfortunately, I'm running out of time, so I will just briefly mention a current project that several of us here are involved in. We have started to look at science as a model for design practices. We are currently coupling four designers to four Nobel laureates. We are looking at scientific models within the sustainability context, to redefine what we do in out textile practice.

Carole Collet is a textile designer and consultant in the area of textile print, R&D, trend forecasting, sustainable design, and intelligent textiles. Her consultancy work has included clients such as DMC, Boussac, Koji Tatsuno, Hoechst, Global consultants, Ian Ritchie architects. Carole’s current academic research ‘Poetic Textiles For Smart Homes’ is a design quest which aims at developing innovative textiles for the domestic market. Sustainable values underpin both the design process and the design outcomes.


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