On our mission to create and inspire sustainable lifestyles, we chatted to fashion design academic, Desiree Smal. Besides her on-going teaching, she has written a doctorate on sustainable fashion in South Africa and continues to research the issue here and internationally. We got her advice for South African designers and for consumers about creating and supporting sustainable fashion. She also shares her golden shopping rules.

The biggest challenge for designers is knowledge. To work from a sustainable base you need to engage with life in a totally different way. So for the designer it means a fundamental shift in thinking and doing. But this is not easy if you don’t have the tools to do so: Tools to help you understand what you can do, where you would find resources and how to apply them.

There are many misconceptions as to what sustainable practice is. Designers often think that it is either all or nothing. This is not a good approach to take because you’ll most likely give up if you can’t find the resources or can’t change all your practices. Designers need to eat as well (in other words they need to generate an income).

Take a position and then develop a strategy to assist you to achieve this position. For example, if you’re going to focus on local; then you need to only source local, only produce local and only sell local.

As fashion design educators, we need to make a shift too. We are still either focused on creating star designers or encouraging our students to ‘chase the money’ to build big business. How often do we stop to deal with the issues that should be important, such as the environment and social issues, and ethical practices. In our department we refer to it as design with intent.

Consumers need to make better lifestyle choices. If you are concerned about what you eat, check the labels. If you are concerned about what you wear, you need to be more conscious of what the label says, empower yourself with what is acceptable for you and what is not. Ask yourself if you should focus on local design, or am I only willing to wear organically grown fibers?

My consumer choices are socially inclined. Here are my golden rules:

• Support local design. We have some amazing designers, we have to support them.
• For every item I buy, I have to donate an item to someone else in need

We need to develop these key areas to grow the fashion industry sustainably:

• Share information. A lot of people know a lot of things, but unless we share what we do – be it research or information about or new ideas to do things differently – the information will remain isolated.
• We need to openly advocate. Only when there is a stronger collective voice will we get the attention of the consumer and of government.
• Environmental sustainability must be the core in fashion design education.
• We need to explore and experiment. I think we have become too complacent with finding an easy way of doing, its through exploration and specifically experimentation that we can design very interesting things and find acceptable alternatives.