Arts·Point of View

Ready to care: How can we redesign the fashion industry to be good for both the earth and humanity?

The carbon footprint of what you wear is worse than the aviation industry ... and it's time that changes.

The carbon footprint of what you wear is worse than the aviation industry ... and it's time that changes

Slow Factory's Landfills as Museums. (Quil Lemons)

Like everything else in 2020, the fashion world has been hit hard by this global pandemic, but it's also become an opportunity to pause and reflect on an industry that might be overdue for some major changes. This story is part of a CBC Arts: Exhibitionists episode focused on a better way forward for fashion, streaming now on CBC Gem.

Designing, or redesigning, is a process. Its goal is to create a solution given the set goals and parameters. What were the parameters that informed the design of the current fashion industry? We can see its history as a product of mass production and industrialization, as well as its goals of making clothes according to a mass-market approach, mostly driven by Western cultural and economic expansion around the globe. Within this context, the drive for cheaper goods that need to be replaced more often seems like it was a goal to be reached at any cost.

Much has been written about the difference between the price that the industry recovers from its end consumer versus the "true cost" of producing mass goods in an exploitative manner. To redesign this broken system, if we want a different result, we have to embed a different set of goals and parameters.

According to Victor Papanek, author of the book "Design for the Real World," design is one of the most "dangerous" jobs. As he puts it: "By creating a whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed." Let's look at, for example, the fashion industry from an environmental context. It produces 10% of all humanity's carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply, according to the World Economic Forum. The fashion industry surpasses the aviation industry's carbon emissions, while 85% of textiles produced go to landfills each year.

The injustices aren't simply recorded from a climate perspective. The fashion industry is built on an exploitative system rooted in colonialism. I wrote in 2018 for The Cut that if we were to trace all materials and labour in the fashion industry and map them out to understand where they came from and where they were sourced, we would observe that the routes for so many resources — like cotton, wool, and even labour — are mapped identically to historical colonial routes. Some of the products have changed, but the extraction has not. Colonialism isn't a thing of the past; it is an economic reality empowering a 1.5 trillion dollar industry to continue designing products that mostly nobody needs, made by mostly underpaid women in the Global South, toxifying the earth and creating waste at an alarming rate — which is, in turn, shipped back to the Global South.

Tracing colonial routes. (Slow Factory)

So first, a redesign will require an acknowledgment of the roots of inequalities that exist and underpin the entire industry. Racism and structural inequalities, as well as environmental impact, must all be raised as core design parameters. With a goal of being good for the earth and humankind, the majority of current practices will have to radically transform.

Design is far bigger than the desirable objects it produces: design is the system in which these objects are created. It is a discipline that provides the tools to look at a situation from both a macro level (zooming out and looking at the big picture) as well as a micro level (being able to zoom in and address micro-interactions along the way). In order to redesign the fashion industry, one must be able to address the sociopolitical and environmental context, as well as the culture around this system and the interactions between various players and the public.

To redesign an entire industry, we need to tackle the fundamental building blocks of the system: the mindset and priorities of the designers within the system.

In order to help train people to think in systems, the Slow Factory Foundation — the foundation I co-founded focusing on human rights and climate justice, particularly in the fashion industry — has launched a series of free classes through a program called Open Education. Our goal is to teach and inspire the next generation of designers to think of better systems — ones that are good for the earth and good for the people. Each semester, over 5,000 students embark on the journey to learn and unlearn oppressive systems in order to redesign better ones. In one of our programs, Landfills as Museums, we take young designers from New York fashion and design schools to landfills in order to witness where the products they aspire to create end up. After their visit, students are invited to draw circular systems — ones that look at the end of life of products first. As they sit to draw their systems, students then replay their emotionally charged experience on the mountains and mountains of trash, where they see themselves in an almost out-of-body experience, walking on their everyday objects: a toothbrush, a yogurt pot, a coffee cup, a t-shirt, a shoe, a pair of pants. Essentially, everything they have either used or worn now lies inert in a landfill.

We designed this project around the idea that landfills are sites of cultural importance, encapsulating our humanity and culture on this planet; they will outlive us. Some of the students cried as they relieved their experience after our trip. Something shifted in their perception. With this cognitive shift, a new kind of design was born: waste-led design, where circularity and system design need to be addressed before aesthetics or functionality.

To redesign the entire system of the fashion industry, there needs to be a collective action at every single level. Designing systems also means working closely with the communities impacted and making them an integral part of those systems. By defining clear values that help guide the process and refine what the constraints and parameters might be, decisions can be made more clearly. Simply put, if it destroys our planet or contributes to oppressing people, then it shouldn't be done — no matter how good it looks.


Céline Semaan-Vernon is a Lebanese-Canadian designer, writer, advocate and public speaker. She is the founder of Slow Factory Foundation, a 501c3 public service organization working at the intersection of environmental and social justice, which produces a conference series promoting sustainability literacy called Study Hall, and the first science-driven incubator in fashion called One X One. She is on the Council of Progressive International, became a Director's Fellow of MIT Media Lab in 2016, and served on the Board of Directors of AIGA NY, a nonprofit membership organization that helps cultivate the future of design in New York City from 2016-2017.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now