Sustainable Design Challenge – Why is knowledge of materials relevant?
Material knowledge is a natural part of textile, fashion and accessory design processes, although the rapid growth of currently available materials, both synthetic and natural origins but often a combination of both, complicates the orientation.
Material knowledge is needed to build conceptual ideas, combine certain materials to achieve well-behaving three-dimensional forms and structures and suggest the tools, techniques and supplementary materials to gain the expected function and user experience. The richer the knowledge of materials, the more solutions a designer can create and express.
However, material knowledge has several dimensions. The selected materials not only provide technical functionality but also create the personality of a product. It is about aesthetics, meanings, values and emotions perceived through visual and tactile senses. Also, smell and hearing can be important ingredients in the process. The context of sustainability adds the origin of the material components, production background information and expected lifespan of materials as relevant dimensions.
Currently made research shows a diminished knowledge of materials from the side of consumers. For example, the survey of 2000 UK adults conducted in November 2021 by LeatherUK shows that misinformation, falsehoods and marketing tactics that promote ‘vegan’ alternatives have contributed to blurring consumer knowledge around accessory materials. A consumer might find themselves buying ‘vegan leather’ that is a pure petrochemical-derived synthetic such as PU, PVC or vinyl, or it could be any number of the newer plant/plastic materials such as apple, pineapple or cactus. It could even be ‘mushroom leather’, a mushroom textile created using mycelium fibres. The study shows a move towards meaningful, slow consumption, where people ‘take, make and re-use’ in order to keep natural resources within the economy for as long as possible. The research realises that people associate nature-based and natural products with doing less harm to the environment but strongly need to know what they are buying. There is a call for clear labeling with digestible facts and the exact and detailed composition of the material to allow customers to make more informed decision-making about the products they choose to invest in for the future of our planet.
Transparency implies knowledge and shared experience. It means that besides manufacturing processes of materials that form only an early-stage life cycle, designers cannot forget about the whole lifespan of their product´s materials, whether virgin, re-used or combined, including longevity and time of active use of their products. Their responsibility is to add information on the expected duration of use of a product type in the specific material context and the possible disposability/re-use options of both the product and materials. The Fashion for Change Accelerator Programme is an excellent opportunity to learn about new textiles and leather-like materials, get to know certificate systems and study from the mistakes and successes of experts and practitioners of the field. Partnerships created in the programme unite concerned parties with similar beliefs and sense of responsibility and ethics.
Instead of declaring to design and sell environmentally friendly, vegan or sustainable products, the knowledge on material origins needs to be advanced both among designers and consumers who need to be openly informed about the origin, longevity, lifespan and impact of the materials their products are made of.