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Dr. Natascha van der Velden: ‘Fashion and sustainability have to go hand in hand’

By Natasja Admiraal

7 Dec 2016


Amsterdam - "A lot of people say fashion and sustainability do not go together. Whereas animals are content with wearing the same attire throughout their lifetimes, people feel the need, much like Barbie, to dress differently every day. So fashion and sustainability will have to go hand in hand," says doctoral student Natascha van der Velden to her audience from the auditorium in the Technical University of Delft. She is defending her thesis, 'Making Sustainable Fashion - The Role of Designers and FashionUnited has a front row seat to her talk. Afterwards, we speak to the Doctor to learn more about the potential, future positions designers can take and the responsibilities they would have to bear during the transition to a more sustainable fashion industry.

Where did your interest in sustainable fashion originate?

"From the moment I could hold a needle, I busy was making clothing for my dolls. Although I studied industrial design and am trained as a product designer, I was able to integrate my love for textile in my graduate project in 1994 with Peek & Cloppenburg. The company had it own atelier in the Netherlands at the time and was actively busy conducting quality research. I developed an eco-mini collection together with them. The combination with sustainability gave my project sufficient depth to be able to graduate from TU Delft, because analysing the lifecycle of products is quite a technical story."

Photo: Installation Fashion Machine, Conny Groenewegen

Since then a lot has changed within the fashion industry

"At the time there was a lot of media interest in my graduate project and I was asked to give several lectures. At the same time, fast fashion was on the rise. I noticed that interest in sustainability slowly ebbed away around the turn of the century. Luckily, this interest is back and sustainability is a hot topic now."

Yet, doctoral research concerning this topic remains unique

"Yes. In many other countries, particularly in Scandinavia and England, a lot of scientific research into sustainable fashion takes place. But the life-cycle approach I retent and my approach to fashion from a product perspective remains unique. I'm the first person in the Netherlands who has obtained a PhD through it. For me it was a very interesting follow-up study from my graduation project so many years ago: the conclusion I made at the tin, were based on qualitative research which could now be quantitatively calculated because there is so much more data available.

What does 'life cycle thinking' mean?

"Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) is a method used to calculate 'environmental and social pressure.' Not only does it include the manufacturing stage of a product - the material and the production method - but it also includes the way the garment is used: washing, any repairs and how it is eventually discarded at the end of its lifecycle. Once you have made such a lifecycle analysis you can take the design process into account with all the stages."

What are you findings in terms of production?

"When setting up an up-to-date benchmark it emerged that knitting has less of an environmental impact that weaving: this production technique consumes twenty times less energy. Although this was perhaps not a surprising outcome for textile experts, many designer do not know this. Having access to the correct information is vital for designers when considering which type of techniques or technology can be utilized. It also triggers new thoughts like, why not knit a pair of jeans?"

The thickness of the yarn also plays an important role, according to your research. Why is that?

"The thicker the yarn, the lower the energy usage. However, thanks to today's technological advances everything can also be made much thinner and finer, so this is also a trend. You may wonder if this is necessary. Spinning also consumes a lot of energy. Together with a PhD colleague Kirsten Lussenberg, one of my assistants, I looked at the 3D printing of textiles. In modern technologies such as these, it is important to not only take the material into account, but also the production process, which structures you can achieve with it and if it is useful to make apparel out of. The trick is to find the optimal blend of it all."

What bias currently surround sustainable fashion and how can you refute this?

"In the study we were able to refute that the usage phase has the greatest environmental impact. The impact was not as big as previously thought, in part because washing machines have become more energy efficient."

Photo: 3D-printed corset, Kirsten Lussenburg

In your thesis, you compare different types of materials. Anyone who does not know any better would think that natural fibers are more environmentally friendly than synthetic fibers. But in reality, the opposite is true. Why?

"For the first time it has been scientifically shown that cotton and wool have a bigger environmental impact than synthetic and half synthetic fibers such as acrylic, polyester, spandex and nylon. This is in contrary to what most people believe is true."

Many designers are eager to do something with sustainability. How would the results of your thesis be applicable to their design principles?

"I hope that designers will be encouraged to integrate the LCA-method into their design process, in order to gain better insight into the most critical stages of the life cycle of a garment. Insights into this can then accelerate the industry's transformation to a more sustainable manufacturing system."

Can you tell us about the exhibition "Rhapsody of Ideas for Sustainable Fashion" in collaboration with the TU Delft Library, based on your thesis?

"The exhibition was designed to inspire and consists of twenty different installations. In addition to presenting their own work, many other designers were asked to share their ideas for possible solutions for sustainable fashion. For example, Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven is currently in the first stages of developing algae textile. It is expected that algae textile will have a much better environmental profile than cotton for example, although this still has to be scientifically supported. Another interested installation is the building project from Stephan van Berkel. He invented Happy Factory, a proposal from a sustainable building that is specifically designed for where Rana Plaza, the collapsed garment factory, once stood. After closely studying what garment workers need there and only using local materials, van Berkel created his design which for example can act as a source for inspiration for fashion companies looking to improve their infrastructure."

Does the social impact also play a role in your thesis?

"Yes, for example when it comes to the wages garment workers earn, a hot topic. We calculated that if a minimum living wage is paid to all workers in garment production, the total extra manufacturing costs (excluding VAT and profit margins) would be 0.43 euros for a t-shirt and 3.36 euros for a pair a jeans. This will be an eye opener for many people."

What advice do you have for designers who want to start their own sustainable fashion label?

"My thesis consists of two parts: the scientific articles and a summary. In the summary, I have included a list of solid conclusions that are very useful for designers. I tried to formulate this list as clearly as possible: avoid cotton and look at synthetic materials. Use knitted rather than woven fabrics and wherever possible, use thicker yarns. Although this list is mainly directed at designers, I also offer a number of recommendations for different stakeholders in the fashion industry, such as businesses and political players."

What do you hope to achieve with your thesis?

"The summary is a call to action to designers to take on a different role in the fashion industry than their predecessors. I say to them: inform yourself well and integrate the life-cycle approach to your design process. Become a trendsetter! Designers have the creativity to consider new business models and can offer new interpretations like no other. And let us not forget that fashion also makes many people happy."

The exhibition "Rhapsody of Ideas for Sustainable Fashion" runs from December 1, 2016 to then February 2, 2017 at the TU Delft Library.