How Can Fashion Designers Make Clothes Less Disposable?

Salvation Army, recycled clothing, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

Photo by Howard Lake

The following is an excerpt from Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes (2011, Earthscan), edited by Alison Gwilt and Timo Rissanen

The current disposability of clothing is problematic. While clothes are seemingly durable goods, they are often marketed as fast-changing fashions and made of increasingly inexpensive materials with quality of construction often neglected. Clothing today is more economically accessible than ever before, at least in developed nations. Compromises in the quality of fabric and construction, and the outsourcing of manufacture to nations of cheap labor enable us to buy clothing in quantities not seen before.

sewing machines

Photo by Roger Nelson

Despite the relatively low economic costs of fabric and clothing, these should be treated as precious and valuable due to the investments embodied by the fabrics and garments, investments made during fiber generation, design, and manufacture. These investments may include water, material resources, energy, and time. Fabric is a product with an ecological footprint attached but arguably not always treated as such by the fashion industry. Nevertheless, relatively small increases in material inputs (fabric) at the fashion-design stage can result in more physically and visually durable garments. Hypothetically this could result in a lesser need for new clothes.


Fifteen percent of the fabric used to make an average garment is waste; this waste is disposed of after cutting. This may not sound substantial until one thinks of the entire global fashion industry. Much of this “waste” could be incorporated into garments, for example, to reinforce parts that are prone to stress.

Much of cutting “waste” could be incorporated into garments to reinforce parts prone to stress.

Some of the “wasted” fabric may also be incorporated into larger allowance, which enable alteration, whether to accommodate a change in the wearer or fashion. Making a pair of pants larger without the insertion of extra fabric, for instance, is easy with strategically planned wider seam and hem allowances. Perhaps future alterability should become a consideration for fashion design.

One obstacle for this may be the perception of seam allowances as waste. Some 5.5 percent of the total fabric in a garment is in the seam and hem allowances, and generally, the pattern maker is responsible for ensuring that the allowances are kept to the “practical minimum.” This does not, however, account for the entire use-life of a garment; seam allowances in fact can be an asset, an investment in the garment’s future. “Fast fashion” may be more difficult to repair for practical, economic, and psychological reasons, perhaps tempering the view of seam and hem allowances as waste.

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