Textile Toolbox: , image 1

Map of the Design and Garment Worker relationship in a large fashion company

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Factory worker in Shanghai, from author’s visit to Chinese garment factories (2013)

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BSR/Her Project (2014)

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Fashion image of denim bags from Design for Change project, Vuletich (2012)

Design and garment production

Clara Vuletich
PhD Researcher, Textiles Environment Design, University of the Arts London

24 November 2014

In my last post I discussed the role of design and social impact in production contexts that involve people who are artisan producers, most often in traditional craft communities. Using the notion of a ‘designerly way of knowing’ (Cross 2006), I explored how designers can engage their unique design knowledge and value to support producers as human beings with lives, skills, values and needs. In this post, I will look at the production context that involves people working in garment factories, fulfilling large volume orders for global fashion brands. Here the barriers and opportunities for the textile/fashion designer to intervene for positive change are different but as equally challenging as the artisan context. 

Clara Vuletich

Posted on 24 November 2014 by Clara Vuletich in:
Design for Ethical Production

Definitions of design

The designer in a fashion brand is often part of a team of buyers, product developers, production staff and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) managers. They are most likely working within a fast moving trends landscape that requires lean and flexible supply chains. Although the design and production processes are deeply interconnected, the designer often has no point of direct communication, or understanding, of the worker who is making up their garment designs, as seen in the diagram in Image 1. We will explore the barriers and opportunities for the designer to connect and positively impact the garment worker below, but firstly it is important to understand what is meant by design in this context.

Cross’s definition of design activity as a ‘designerly way of knowing’, is used to describe designers’ epistemology as different to scientists, artists or other professions, however most research into design practice is based on product or service designers, not fashion or textile designers. So does a ‘designerly way of knowing’ describe a fashion design practice in this context? While there is no scope here for the specifics of fashion/textile design thinking, it is important to identify that fashion designers, as opposed to the other actors in this context (production, CSR or management staff) demonstrate a particular way of ‘thinking and doing’ design, that works with fabric, colour, pattern, form and the human body. I will call this type of design practice here a ‘textile/fashion designerly way of knowing’.

Garment workers in factory settings

The issue of ethical production and workers rights in garment factories has been a contentious one for the fashion industry worldwide for more than a decade. While on the one hand fashion brands demand that their supplier factories (based in countries such as China, Bangladesh, Cambodia) enforce humane working conditions and fair labour rights, on the other hand, the brands have increased pressure for lower prices for products and for faster production times, called ‘race to the bottom’, which in turn affects the garment workers. As a response to the work of several activist NGO’s such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Oxfam in the last fifteen years, and a growing demand from consumers for more transparency, fashion brands have established Codes of Conduct for their suppliers, that are monitored either by independent auditors sent in by the brands, or by the brands own production or CSR staff. However, there is evidence to suggest that working conditions and labour rights in garment factories in these countires continue to be violated. It is now widely understood that the auditing process is a quick-fix solution to a ‘wicked’ problem that requires a more systems-based approach to be most effective.

So what are the more systems-based approaches to improving social impacts in garment production and what is the role of the designer and their ‘textile/fashion designerly way of knowing’? There are several opportunities within the organisational structure outlined above, that include: educating the designer about the impacts of their design decisions on workers; and new models for a design and values-led approach to managing social impacts in garment production.

Better design and purchasing practices

While brands have been heavily focused on the monitoring of their suppliers’ factories, there is now evidence to suggest that it is the purchasing practices of the brands, such as last minute changes to either design or quantity of an item by the designer or buyer, causing negative impact on factory conditions (Galland & Jurewicz 2010). Although many brands have developed ‘internal alignment’ initiatives (Cisco and Wong 2008), the importance of the designer in this system is underexplored. A CSR manager at H & M in Stockholm explains, “The aesthetic changes made by the designers at the last minute really effect everything….we need to produce more samples, there are delays in the process, there is overtime for the workers and we may even need to find a new supplier.” (H & M, 2013) The problems arise because the designer, and the organisation as a whole, are prioritising the aesthetic and design value of the garment, without considering the impact of each design decision on production. The problems are also exacerbated due to a lack of communication between departments, and this reflects a wider issue of who carries the ‘values’ within an organisation, with designers often being excluded from the sustainability or values narrative.

Several fashion brands have begun to incorporate strategies that support the designer in understanding the impacts of their designs on production workers. Nike has created a cross-department Overtime Task Force, to study the impacts of design and merchandising on factory working hours (Business for Social Responsibility 2010). And H & M in Stockholm is currently developing an internal strategy to communicate impacts on production workers to buyers and designers (H & M, 2013). Hence, the ‘textile/fashion designerly way of knowing’ in fashion brands is being expanded or developed to consider other actors who are involved in, or effected by, design decisions.

New partnerships in production countries

While improving brand’s purchasing practices is vital to reducing impacts on production workers, these are still only incremental changes. The Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) initiative advocate a values-based and stakeholder model that attempts to create a shared vision across the whole system, what they call ‘beyond monitoring’, (2008) an approach that has been adopted and tested by brands including Nike, Gap and H & M since 2008. This approach works with four tiers that includes all the stakeholders – brands, suppliers, workers, NGO’s and the local government of the supplier country. Rather than the brands or NGO’s dictating what is ‘ethical’, a values-based approach is creating initiatives that meet the specific needs of workers in the specific country, such as the BSR/Her Project (2014), a workplace-based empowerment programme for women in garment factories, that brands are investing in.

However, again the fashion or textile designer is missing from this conversation. From a design perspective, designers are best at visioning possible futures and are comfortable in ‘wicked’ contexts. While the design thinking discourse has been highlighting the value of design beyond the product/artefact - in services, social innovation and strategy/management contexts, fashion and textile designers are absent from the discussion. New roles for designers such as ‘Designer as Facilitator’, or ‘Designer as Capacity Builder’ (Tan 2012, Fletcher and Grose 2012) have been discussed in theory for several years, but what would it look like for a fashion designer to use their ‘textile/fashion designerly way of knowing’ to work with CSR/production staff and factory workers on a values-based initiative?

My project Design for Change (Vuletich, 2012) attempted to explore this question. For this project I developed a business model concept in collaboration with a social business expert, where the fashion designer within a US-based denim brand creates a range of fashion accessories, using denim waste from the supply chain, and sets up a social enterprise that trains and employs people from the neighbourhood around where the garment factory is located (based in the US). The designer brings their ‘textile/fashion designerly way of knowing’ to collaborate with a range of stakeholders, including a local community initiative and the CSR department, and uses design-led innovation methods to create a ‘shared vision’ to improve the livelihoods of people in the community.



BSR/Her Project (2014) www.bsr.org
Business for Social Responsibility (2008)Beyond Monitoring: A New Vision for Sustainable Supply Chainswww.bsr.org
Cisco and Wong (2010) Internal Alignment: an Essential Step to Establishing Sustainable Supply Chains, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) www.bsr.org
Cross, N. (2006).Designerly ways of knowing. London, Springer
Fletcher, K. and L. Grose (2012).Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change. London, Earthscan
Galland, A. & Jurewicz, P. (2010)Best Current Practices in Purchasing: the Apparel Industry,As You
Sow: US www.asyousow.org
Sustainable Apparel Coalition (2014) http://www.apparelcoalition.org/higgindex/
H & M (2013) Interview with author
Tan, L. (2012).Roles for Designers in Design for Social Change. UK: Northumbria University. PhD
Vuletich, C (2012) Design for Change, www.claravuletich.com