Help us help the fashion industry

This is the last blog post in the four part series about the fashion industry. We have tried to highlight the various problematics the industry is causing and how we can solve them. In the first blog post, we mapped how we see the current fashion industry and how it is developing, and also what role the engineer have had in transitions.. In the second and third blog post, we have suggested two different approaches on how to make the fashion industry more sustainable either through a visionary approach or through a reconfiguration of the actors.

In order to finalise this four part series, this last blog post will be more reflective discussing how we as Sustainable Design Engineers (referred to as SDE) can support the needed transition to a sustainable fashion industry. We will therefore draw on the various conceptual approaches presented in the three previous blog posts such as the ‘Multi-Level Perspective’ [1] (referred to as MLP), ‘Transition Management’ [2] (referred to as TM) and ‘Arenas of Development’ [3] (referred to as AoD) and discuss how they can assist us and be used as tools in the transition. Transitions can of course be made using other approaches, however, we will only reflect on the ones we have already used and applied throughout the blog posts.

Our role reflected in the images of the Designer, the Engineer and Sustainability

We often get the question, “so what do you become as a Sustainable Design Engineer?”, and every time we are lacking words, because as we always answer, “it depends”. It depends on the situation at hand and aspects such as the actors involved and the aim. This is also the case of  transitions. A transition is basically defined as a change from one state to another and it can therefore be everything from introducing or developing a new technology (a product, service or concept) to reconfiguring a network of actors. But depending on the transition, our role often gets associated with various images or archetypes. So in order to understand and to grasp how we as SDE’s can support the needed transition to a sustainable fashion industry, we will try to reflect on our role by contrasting the images and archetypes connected to the specific words ‘Designer’, ‘Engineer’ and ‘Sustainability’ which is the essence of our title as Sustainable Design Engineers.

‘The Engineer’

Comparing the archetypes of the designer and the engineer is like two poles. The archetype of the engineer, discussed in the first blog post, have only been known for introducing incremental innovation, because of their focus on technology. However, market, behaviour and economy has been neglected in this process. The ‘engineer’ is traditionally thought of as a person, who ‘thinks inside the box’ and optimises the current status of technological systems. Therefore, it is essential to develop the role of the engineer, so that the engineer also learns other elements in order to have what it takes to do transition research such as STRN (2010) suggests:

“Transition research conceives markets, technologies, political and social institutions, behaviour and values as temporary, changeable outcomes of evolving long-term co-evolutionary processes. Because transitions research perceives sustainable development as an open-ended journey, the analytical emphasis is on processes such as learning, radical innovation, experimentation, searches for new paths, participatory approaches, multi-actor interactions, selection processes, reactions, and network evolution.” [4]

‘The Designer’

On the other hand, there is archetype of the ‘Designer’. The designer is traditionally thought of as a person mainly producing artefacts. However, if we look at ‘design’ from the point of view of Carl DiSalvo in ‘Adversarial Design’ (2012) or Nelson and Stolterman in ‘The Design Way’ (2012), we can see that the concept becomes broader. Their visions embrace organisations, processes, systems as well as political activity as a form of design. Nevertheless, as we mentioned in the beginning, we still get confronted with the traditional image of the designer even though our role as Sustainable Design Engineer’s encompasses the broader context perspective as well.

As such, both traditional archetypes, the designer and the engineer, have in common that they are focusing exclusively on the artifact or technology, but not the context around it, and that is where ‘Sustainability’ comes into play.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘Sustainable Development’

‘Sustainability’ or ‘Sustainable Development’ was defined by the Brundtland report (1987) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [5]. It gathered the world and identified “common ground on which to build further action and agreement” [6]. However, it has received a great deal of criticism because it is too vague when it tries to encompass a “multidimensional, encompassing social, ecological and economic goals and perspectives” [7].  Consequently, many researchers have tried to suggest other definitions to meet the criticism. Baker (2006) suggests talking “about ‘promoting’ rather than achieving sustainable development” [8]. This understanding encompass a less contradictory understanding of when we will reach a sustainable future. However, the “how” is forsaken by both Brundtland (1987) and Baker (2002). Therefore, we suggest a third definition and approach to sustainability made by Blake Ratner (2004), who talks about the “notion of sustainability as a ‘dialogue of values’ which constitutes the most fruitful way of engaging with, and understanding, the theories, values, perspectives and practices of sustainable development.” [9]. Ratner’s (2004) definition of sustainability encompasses our job in transitions and as SDE’s. We are striving for sustainability. That is our role. As we have showed in the third blog post, there is a lot of greenwashing in the industry. So the challenge a SDE faces is how to support systemic change in the long run, which is the essence of what a transition is. As such, our intervention in a transition should be reflected in the process of envisioning a future through a transition. Also,

“The task is to develop concepts and theories that can help us to understand how to unlock processes, and stimulate path-breaking changes towards more sustainable systems. Transitions research adopts a broader perspective than other approaches to sustainable development, which it can encompass and complement by shifting the focus to interactions between approaches in wide-scale system transformation” [10]

‘Sustainable Design Engineering’

Combining these images of ‘the Engineer’, ‘the Designer’ and ‘Sustainability’, our role fulfill a gap in profession: We as SDE’s are not just designing the artifact, but also the whole system around it.

We are therefore not exclusively focusing on the artifact; the product or the technicality. As seen in the illustration below, the innovation processes needed to design a sustainable context and artifact is illustrated.

sustainabledesign

[11]

The multiple process requires a holistic approach, which is deeply rooted into our mindset – a different way of seeing the world (research wise, it is another ontological perspective than the traditional designer and engineer). Consequently, this is reflected in more than our profession, but in our way of seeing the world. The mindset enables us to have a more critical sense towards established societal structures and artifacts herein, and thereby enable us to transition society towards sustainability.

Sustainable Design Engineer’s role in transitions achieved through MLP, AoD and TM

The role of the Sustainable Design Engineers’ is to integrate different knowledge and help changing systems. All the theories in transition contexts are all used to make sense of the world and connect context with content.

Nevertheless, in the perspective of transitions, we as SDE’s cannot change the whole system, but attempt to intervene at a systemic level. This is where the MLP is a great tool to anticipate these systemic opportunities or “windows of opportunity”, which gives the niches a chance to break through and interfere with the incumbent regime.  

In the first blog post, we used the conceptual framework of the MLP [12]. Here, we mapped the three levels of the fashion industry and looked into its development towards a sustainable future. Hereby our role is to anticipate the systemic opportunities, and not about disrupting the regime. Consequently, it is about nurturing niches, when the regime becomes unstable because of external influences.  STRN (2010) formulates our potential role in a MLP approach saying that:

“Radical innovations emerge in niches, where pioneers and entrepreneurs nurture their development on multiple dimensions, e.g. social organisation, business models, technological artefacts. These niche-innovations may break through more widely if external landscape developments create pressures on the regime that lead to cracks, tensions and windows of opportunity. Subsequent interaction between niches and regimes occur on multiple dimensions (e.g. markets, regulations, cultural meanings, infrastructure) and are enacted by interpretive actors that fight, negotiate, search, learn, and build coalitions as they navigate transitions.” [13]

As such, SDE’s appears in the roles of pioneers and entrepreneurs. Our role is therefore to nurture our developments on multiple dimensions, and this can be done by using the theoretical concept of Strategic Niche Management (SNM) [14], where the niches are shielded, nurtured and empowered. As STRN (2010) also mentions in the quote above, new coalitions are also part of transitioning societal structures, and these coalitions can be build or reconfigured using the theoretical concept of AoD [15]. We have used the AoD framework in the third blog post to design a transition strategy in order to change the current state of the fashion industry. Our role in AoD is to reconfigure the network of actors based on each of their matter of concern. The actors can therefore be found in other industries as well.

In the second and third blog we suggested two different approaches on how to make the fashion industry more sustainable. The first approach made use of the conceptual framework of TM, where our role is to envision a transition through a problematisation and with the actors within the fashion industry. Contrary to AoD where as mentioned above our role is to reconfigure the actors in the network based on each of their matter of concern.  

Our role in TM is to facilitate a participatory process of envisioning a sustainable future and defining the activities to get there, with stating the vision as a central. Some of the instruments used to get there are instruments which been developed outside the transition research domain – these are among others back-casting, scenario-building, community engagement, innovation portfolios, network management and envisioning [16].

So how can we help transition the fashion industry?

So now that we have reflected on our role as SDE’s in general, we will reflect on our role in the needed transition of the fashion industry.

There is no such thing as a totally sustainable fashion industry, because an implicit characterisation of the fashion industry is consumption. Therefore we are not claiming that we can change the whole system, but we can attempt to intervene at a systemic level. In the fashion industry, it is mostly the social sustainability that is addressed, but by using the two strategies suggested in blog post 2 and 3, the environmental aspect could also be included so that it does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Sustainable fashion however, is characterised as various things depending on the actor. Some defines it as using sustainable certified textiles, others define it as high quality textile and others again defines it as being able to style a piece of clothes in an unlimited number of ways. However, these definitions does not need to be aligned under one, but can be combined. As long as the industry and its consumers accepts their role in its current state, which is essential for it to move in a more sustainable direction. Here, ‘more’ defines the relative size. Because through acceptance, an ambition and clear vision to actually want to change the fashion industry, can be made.

Sum up and shout out!

As we have tried to highlight throughout this blog post, our role as SDE’s is to strive for sustainability and to enter a dialog of values. We can do this through various tools and conceptual and theoretical frameworks such as the ones we have used throughout this four-part series; the MLP, TM and AoD.   

We have used the MLP to map the current system and its systemic opportunities. And as we have not got any technology involved, it seems useful for us to suggest to use either of the two approaches presented being TM and AoD. Based on the two strategies usefulness, TM is conceptualised whereas AoD has not. This makes the latter more difficult to apply and communicate. However, both strategies imply a form of intervention and facilitation which both requires good communication skills.

In the case of the fashion industry we have tried to elaborate how different concepts can be used differently to make a change in the fashion industry. For instance in the perspective of MLP, can Vigga be seen as a niche which has a potential to change the incumbent regime. While TM and AoD makes constellations with actors for them to make a change.

In order to change the fashion industry or any other industry, it is about seeing the opportunities and seizing them. The more who does that, the merrier. So no matter who you are, whether you are a company, a consumer, a network organisation or an entirely different actor, we hope that we have inspired you to contribute to change the fashion industry to become more sustainable. Where to begin is always difficult, but we hope that with this blog we can give you some tools (check the tab ‘HOW‘) to navigate in the jungle of “sustainable fashion”.

This was the last blog in this 4-part serie, but make sure to subscribe to our blog in the bottom of the page, in order to get tools and more information about sustainable fashion.

Main author of this post: Stine Kolding
Second author of this post: Dorte Mindegaard

 


[1] (Geels, 2005)

[2] (Roorda et al, 2012), (Loorbach & Rotmans, 2010)

[3] (Valderrama & Jørgensen, 2015)

[4] (STRN, 2010)

[5] (Brundtland, 1987)

[6] (Blewitt, 2012, p. 37).

[7] (Blewitt, 2012, p. 36).

[8] (Blewitt, 2012, p. 37)

[9] (Blewitt, 2012, p. 37)

[10] (STRN, 2010, p. 4)

[11] Picture

[12] (Geels, 2002)

[13] (STRN, 2010, p. 6)

[14] (Smith, 2007)

[15] (Valderrama & Jørgensen, 2015)

[16] (STRN, 2010)

References:

Blewitt, J. (2012). Understanding Sustainable Development. Routledge. Chapter 1.

Brundtland Report, 1987. Brundtland, G., Khalid, M., Agnelli, S., Al-Athel, S., Chidzero, B., Fadika, L., … & Singh, M. (1987). Our Common Future (\’Brundtland report\’). Retrieved from: http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf

DiSalvo, C., (2012), Adversarial Design, 1st edn., Cambridge: MIT Press.

Geels, F. W. (2005). The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: a multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horsedrawn carriages to automobiles (1860–1930). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 17(4), 445-476.

Loorbach, D., & Rotmans, J. (2010). The practice of transition management: Examples and lessons from four distinct cases. Futures, 42(3), 237-246.

Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. (2012), The design way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, 2st edn., Cambridge: MIT Press.

Roorda, C., Frantzeskaki, N., Loorbach, D., Steenbergen, F. V., & Wittmayer, J. (2012). Transition Management in Urban Contextguidance manual, collaborative

Smith, A. (2007) Translating sustainabilities between green niches and socio-technical regimes, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 19, 4: 427-450

STRN manifesto (2010). Available at http://www.transitionsnetwork.org/files/STRN_research_agenda_20_August_2010(2).pdf

Valderrama & Jørgensen (2015) Creating Copenhagen’s Metro – on the role in transitions of protected spaces and arenas, EIST

Picture retrieved from http://www.core77.com/posts/26546/Aspiring-to-Improve-the-World-by-Crafting-a-Career-in-Sustainable-Design-Part-2-Putting-Theory-into-Practice

Stine Pedersen

Stine is 27 years old, and is the main editor of The Fashion Footprint, which is based on her passion for sustainability and fashion and the ongoing question of how to make a transition of the industry. She has studied civil engineering in Sustainable Design at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, where she was engaged in 2 projects on how to make the fashion industry more transparent for the buyers and another on how to implement Circular Economy in a large danish fast fashion brand. Besides this interest, she always has a full calendar either with yoga or training, or with photography and installation exhibitions as possible.

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