Episode 94: Circular design is bringing back a focus on this overlooked design principle




Hello and welcome to episode 94 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. 

So for this episode, I'm often asked where to start, or at the end of speaking engagements, what's the one thing you want people to take away? And this one thing or word can be a starting point, regardless of where your business is at. 

But before I reveal the word, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I work and record this podcast on the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to elders, past and present, and acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded.

Now the word. It links back into how to design for circularity and a circular economy and is also what I talk about in the circular design workshop, my latest offering that is for product teams or leadership to go into the nuts and bolts of how to actually design for circularity so that your products are future fit and ready for the circular economy. So if that is something you're interested in, email me info@belindahumphrey.com and we can set up a time for a conversation and chat about some options. 

So the word is quality and it's precisely because of my 20 years plus in fashion that I chose this word. So, for context, my first job in the industry was way back in 2003. And it was as a quality assurance technician, so not purely a pattern maker, but more of a technical designer that uses pattern making knowledge to control a fit fabric and bulk production of a product. And it was in this first job that I had the pleasure of working with one of the best bosses I've ever had. She was inclusive, available, she would always bring cakes in and, most importantly, she would fiercely defend her team, because quality is often the department that gets lumped with solving the problems at the end. They are constantly putting out fires. She was a real example of true leadership and I often think of her. But my heart was in design and creation. So not long after that I jumped across to design, but that experience still helped to inform, particularly my early days as a designer. 

Then over the years, in fashion fashion gets faster sentences like “speed to market” and “fail fast” to start to become the norm, until the planet sort of enters the chat, so to speak, and we start talking about planetary boundaries being breached, increased catastrophic weather events, disruption to trade routes, global fights over resources and the consumer starts to wise up and question a little bit more, with social media providing a platform to easily share information. 

Next, predominantly because of the creation of fast fashion terms like eco-friendly, then sustainability starts getting talked about, and now we are talking about circular economy and circular design. Now the one big change I've seen over the industry in the last 20 years predominantly due to speed and price, in my opinion is the stripping out of quality. An example of this is a retailer that was changing all of the twin needle stitching on children's wear shorts and trousers to single needle stitching. Or another example is a buyer doing a cost exercise on how much they could save if they remove all of the spare buttons off shirts. Sometimes it's in an effort to get the price down and sometimes concessions are made just to get the product in store so that it's there to achieve those sales budgets that have been forecasted for that week, and it's led us to really short term thinking, with the final destination being the customer, as long as it gets into the hand of the customer, what does it matter what happens to it after that? which is a big part of the problem. 

But the good news is and while I'm mentioning all of this, is that for those of us that have been in the industry a long time, we know what quality is. We were taught about like-minded fabrics being together, not because of a new term of circularity and mono-material design, but because it made sense from a quality perspective. You don't put a polyester lining in a cashmere coat or a wool blazer. So while some might think that circular design is this whole new framework they have to incorporate, the reality is the circular economy is a great way to get us back on track, to remember how product used to be designed, a way to lengthen the life cycle we consider when we design products and then layer on top some recent innovations and advancements. 

We know that the ideal is to address all three pillars of the circular economy: eliminating waste and pollution, regenerating nature and circulating products and materials in use longer and at their highest value. So, when it comes to design, what is within your control Right now? Today? Just saying start “small” is too vague. I would invite you to start with quality and the performance of your product. Focus on this and your eliminating waste, through poor quality product. You are regenerating nature by not using resources to create those poor quality products. And finally, getting the quality right means the product can be kept in use for longer. 

If you're an accidental designer and I work with a lot of those through coaching start by understanding what quality is. Really. Start to examine your product performance and other brands performance and if you've been going for a while, look at your return rate. This will give you some clues on where to start. And if you want to broaden that, think about what quality means to the people working on your product. Do they have a high quality working day? Do they have a high quality of life because of the precautions around businesses, chemical management in the communities and the level of wages? I think the word quality just encompasses so much and if you can get that right and design your products to have an afterlife, then you get your ticket into the circular economy. 

Which brings us to the end of today's episode. I hope this has given you a practical view on where to start and if you are wanting to upskill either yourself or your team on how to design for circularity. I would love to have a chat to you about some of the options. Email me at info@belindahumphrey.com and we can talk all things circular design workshops. As always, you'll find the show notes and any links for today's episode on the website belindahumphrey.com in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.

Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch, head over to or you can find me on Instagram @BelindaHumphrey_ 

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change. 


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