Cutting edge

Dilys Williams, director of the new Centre for Sustainable Fashion, looks to a greener future for the clothes we wear

May 15, 2008

Fashion has "almost redefined" itself as something highly disposable, according to Dilys Williams, but it is time to reverse the trend.

Ms Williams, the director of the London College of Fashion's new Centre for Sustainable Fashion, has worked with some well-known ethically aware designers, including Stella McCartney and Katharine Hamnett.

She admitted that "eco-fashion" has had an image problem. "It is sad. I went into a shop the other day and the only organic babywear was oatmealy stuff with 'organic' written on it. Sustainable fashion is not just about using organic cotton," Ms Williams said. But things are starting to change and it is now possible to buy beautiful and fashionable clothing that is sustainably made, she added.

The designer argues that this has to happen because the environmental impact of the fashion industry is on a par with that of the chemical industry. "The global fashion industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and employs more than 26 million people. In the UK, 90 per cent of the clothes we buy are imported, but all of them are thrown away. The average person throws away £12,000 worth of clothes over a lifetime, and 80 per cent of the clothes we buy every year are being sent to landfill."

Technological developments and the opening up of China have meant that catwalk looks can be replicated in just a few weeks, so price has become a key driver, she said.

"Around 80 per cent of the impact of a piece of clothing is defined at design stage. Sustainable fashion can be designing something using a material that can be washed less frequently, or that can be recycled, or is made so that you want to hold on to it for a long time. One of the exciting breakthroughs we've been working on is user-centred design. We've got body-scanning equipment here and foot scanning, so patterns can be digitally made, perfect to the customer's body shape. If consumers are involved in the process then hopefully when they receive their beautiful pieces, they will feel better wearing them and will want to hang on to them," Ms Williams said.

Research carried out by the college found that industry wanted a one-stop shop for sustainable fashion. From September, the new centre will also offer a masters degree in fashion and the environment, and it will devise content for existing courses. The demand from industry for innovation puts students in a powerful position, Ms Williams said. "For many years I saw students coming through the education system preparing themselves for the current job market and gearing themselves to particular retailers. Now industry is coming to them."

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