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Sustainable approaches to textile design: Lessons from biology

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Sustainable approaches to textile design: Lessons from biology

Abstract and Figures

Models such as the circular economy, offer guidance to actors from the fashion and textile industry on how to navigate the negative environmental, ethical, and social impacts of the sector's current and historic practices. The principles underpinning these models originate from the intersection of biology and general systems theory and have provided us with valuable alternative paradigms via a top-down lens. This paper seeks to explore the potential for additional insight into sustainable textile design practice from biology by reviewing sustainable design principles emerging from top-down (ecology + systems view) within the context of a bottom-up (biology + engineering) approach for opportunities to mitigate the environmental impact of design decisions informing the physical products we consume. The results suggest a novel practice-based conceptual framework that could enable textile designers to better understand the impacts of resource efficiency, longevity and recovery of their design practice by shifting from a substance and energy approach to designing with structure and information.
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Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons
from biology
Professor Veronika Kapsalia, Dr Cathryn Aneka Hall
aUniversity of the Arts London
*veronika.kapsali@fashion.arts.ac.uk
https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2022.XXX
Abstract: Models such as the circular economy, offer guidance to actors from the
fashion and textile industry on how to navigate the negative environmental, ethical,
and social impacts of the sector’s current and historic practices. The principles
underpinning these models originate from the intersection of biology and general
systems theory and have provided us with valuable alternative paradigms via a top-
down lens. This paper seeks to explore the potential for additional insight into
sustainable textile design practice from biology by reviewing sustainable design
principles emerging from top-down (ecology + systems view) within the context of a
bottom-up (biology + engineering) approach for opportunities to mitigate the
environmental impact of design decisions informing the physical products we
consume. The results suggest a novel practice-based conceptual framework that could
enable textile designers to better understand the impacts of resource efficiency,
longevity and recovery of their design practice by shifting from a substance and energy
approach to designing with structure and information.
Keywords: sustainable; biomimetic; circular design; textiles
1. Introduction
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to research
published by the European Commission (2019). This marks one of many roadmaps seeking
activities that could enable us to navigate our way out of this age of waste and into a
sustainable, possibly regenerative space. Models such as Cradle to Cradle (Braungart &
McDonough, 2002) and the Circular Economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013) propose a
shift from linear to circular resource flow. These in turn have inspired approaches for new
practice within the fashion and textile industry (F&TI) such as the introduction of innovative
business models that go beyond reselling (second hand/ vintage) and repair (mending of
garments) to borrowing models from other industries such as rent/leasing of apparel.
Although we are the first generation to know that we are destroying our planet (World
Wildlife Fund, 2019) and consumer awareness of F&TI environmental impacts has improved,
this has yet to reflect on our collective behaviour as consumers (Zhang, Zhang, Zhou, 2021;
Wagner, Heinzel, 2020). But what about the role of the designer?
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
2
Papanek (1972) discerns that few professions are more harmful to the environment than
designers. Every design decision made in the planning of a product or service has some form
of social, economic and environmental impact. As the design profession has become more
aware of this, we have developed a series of strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of
the decisions we make. In the textile sector, these include reclaiming pre- and post-
consumer waste streams in a Design for Cyclability approach (Goldsworthy, 2014), Zero
Waste Design (Rissanen & McQuillan,2016; McQuiilan 2020), adapting principles from
Design for Disassembly (Forst, 2020) and using waste streams from other industries such as
agriculture and the food industry (Stenton, Kapsali, Blackburn & Houghton, 2021).
This paper reviews sustainable design principles emerging from top-down (ecology +
systems view) and bottom-up (biology + engineering view), to enhance our understanding of
what nature can teach us in order to create reduced impacts through design in the F&TI
using a bottom-up approach.
2. Background
2.1 Top-Down
Sustainability is defined as the ability to sustain certain rates or levels (Oxford Languages,
n.d.). Events leading to the first fuel crisis in 1973 highlighted the scale of our dependence
on fossil fuels and their contrasting finite nature. In the late 1969, an interdisciplinary group
of scientist founded the New Alchemy Institute to seek alternative paradigms, and
demonstrate the possibility to live within a society whose infrastructure did not rely of fossil
fuels and other polluting industrial practices such as the use of pesticides in modern
agriculture. The research outputs built on the transdisciplinary framework from general
systems thinking (Von Bertalanffy, 1950) to include concepts from ecology (branch of
biology that studies the relationship between organisms and to their physical surroundings).
The resulting ecosystem model informed a pioneering set of strategies (such as renewable
energy and organic farming) that enabled a small community to survive with minimum
reliance on fossil fuels (Wade, 1975).
At a similar time, iconic industrial designer Victor Papanek considered how design can
contribute to this discourse. In his seminal book: Design for the Real World: Human
Ecology and Social Change, Papanek (1972, p186-214) maps out opportunities for biology to
inform ecological strategies for industrial design. Although, we are not presenting an
exhaustive review of the discourse within the subject of environmental sustainably in the
60’s and 70’s, it is clear that pioneering ideas emerged both via the sciences and humanities
during this period.
2.2 Bottom-up
However, there is another perspective that is less studied by the creative design sector.
Brothers Otto and Francis Schmitt, began to explain biological phenomena using the models
Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons from biology
3
and methods of physics and chemistry since the 1920’s in the US. Otto, the youngest sibling,
focused his post-graduate studies on modelling the communication mechanism between
squid nerve ends using principles from electrical engineering. This interdisciplinary approach
is known today as biophysics. Otto was interested in applying this new knowledge from
biophysics into new technology. He did not devise a name for applied biophysics until the
1960’s when he coined the term biomimetic to explain his approach to innovation. Bionic
was another term created by Otto’s peers at the US air-force who had gained interest in this
space (Schmitt, 1963).
Although, this work was not directly concerned with the environmental impacts of the
industrial world, it did take a human-centred approach in the sense that it was motivated by
seeking lessons from biology that can help us design/invent things that are useful for
humans (Harkenss, 2004). Among Otto’s inventions are the Schmitt trigger (an electronic
switch used in key boards to convert pressure into a signal) and later the field of biomedical
engineering (the application of engineering principles and design concepts to medicine and
biology for healthcare purposes).
Today, the grand narratives underpinning our perspectives on sustainable or regenerative
models are defined by a top-down approach which serves a very important purpose in terms
of signposting problems and potential solutions. However, a shift in perspective to a bottom-
up approach could offer insight in terms of specific and practical design lessons.
3. Methodology
A design principle is a value statement that determines the most important goals a product
or service should deliver for users; its purpose is to frame design decisions. From a top down
perspective we consider: the circular design guide (Ellen MacArthur Foundation & IDEO,
2018), Teds Ten (Centre for Circular Design, 2021 ), Biomimicry 3.8 (Biomimicry 3.8, n.d.) and
Nature Inspired Design (Tempelman et al., 2015), as authoritative sources of sustainable
design principles which are drawn on extensively by the design community. We also utilize
the comprehensive study of design for sustainablility (DfS) conducted by De los Rios &
Charnley (2017), as a baseline to ensure we capture the most widely used guides and
terminology.
We checked for potential gaps in the range of DfS approaches via a literature search using
the keywords ‘sustainable design’, ‘circular design’, ‘sustainable design principles’, ‘circular
design principles’, ‘sustainable design guide’, ‘circular design guide’, ‘sustainable textile
design’ ‘circular textile design’. For each manuscript, preliminary relevance was determined
by title and abstract. We searched Google Scholar, Web of Science, and EBSCOhost. The
name and definition of design principles were recorded from the relevant manuscripts.
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
4
Figure 1: Interdisciplinary map of established sustainable design approaches (dark green lettering) and design practice (lilac
lettering) in relation to the knowledge bases that inform them.
Design principles from the bottom-up approach were drawn from the formative research
conducted on this topic by Vincent et al (2006) whose work assumes that the driver for
change in both biology (adaptation, evolution) and human engineering is based on the
resolution of technical conflicts. The research team, composed of engineers and biologist,
set out to study the difference between solutions to design problems in the technical and
biological spheres.
The team constructed a framework to enable the analysis of design problems across both
spheres. The framework is based on THINGS, DO THINGS, SOMEWHERE. Specifically, THINGS
refers to the substance (matter) and structure (the way matter is combined and organised
across scales); DO THINGS denotes energy (the power that drives the action) and
information (the instructions that define and trigger the action); SOMEWHERE relates to
space and time, this aspect is outside the scope of our current study. Although the approach
can be regarded as reductionist, the research methods remain the most rigorous, variation-
based, comparative analysis between biology and technology on the topic of design
solutions from an engineering perspective.
We distilled design principles from Vincent’s analysis of the biology/ engineering review
(ibid), while remain mindful of the philosophical differences between textile and engineering
design. The resulting range of design principles from each source is reviewed and discussed
within the context of textile design.
Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons from biology
5
4. A Top-Down Approach
4.1 Interdisciplinary mapping of bio-related disciplines and design
The interdisciplinary interactions between biology and design that define the current range
of sustainable textile practice, are not always transparent. The bio- prefix is used
ubiquitously in terminology that functions more as a brand rather than an indicator of the
specific disciplines or areas of knowledge that have informed the practice (Kapsali, 2022).
Figure 2: Work in progress thematic analysis of data on design for sustainability from literature review
To trace the link between these concepts, we mapped key DfS design approaches in terms of
the disciplines that informed them, as illustrated in figure 1. This map highlights the
relationship between key sustainable approaches to design that are relevant to the F&TI. For
example, design for disassembly (DfD); Johnson & Wang (1995) were among the pioneers of
sustainability driven design for disassembly from a waste management perspective. In 2005,
industrial designer and researcher Dr Chiodo produced a set of design guidelines specifically
for consumer electronics (Chiodo, 2005), more recently textile designer and researcher Dr
Forst published research focused on design for disassembly of garments (Forst, 2020). These
examples embody approaches to understand and mitigate the problem of reclaiming
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
6
resources from products at the end of their use lives via a bio-systems framework. Figure 1
highlights the indirect link of DfD to biology via ecology and systems theory.
4.2 Sustainable design principles top-down
We compile the range of principles resulting from the top-down literature search into a list
of design for sustainability (DfS). The DfS list consolidates the data from the analysis of
resources from authoritative sustainable organisations with the data extracted from De los
Rios & Charnley (2017), figure 2 illustrates a snapshot of visual exercise in organising data
from the DfS list, thematically. The contents of the list are regarded as indicative rather than
exhaustive. We observed a large range of terms used to describe the same or similar values,
for example design for recycling or disassembly is expressed using different terms across
several themes i.e. design for ease of end of life recovery, design for remanufacture, design
for reassembly, we consolidated these according to their meaning within the context of
design (see Table 1).
We consolidated the dataset (list of DfS priciples) and categorise according to pertinence to
production process. The non-tangible category includes aesthetic and wider system view
aspects. The resulting groupings are not difinative, principles can span across several
categories. The purpose of table 1 is to present a view of the range of principles.
Table 1: Categorise of DfS principles
Non-tangible
Manufacture
Material
Use
End of life
timeless aesthetics
(re)manufacturing
biodegradability
easy maintenance
biological and technical cycles
biomimicry
eliminating loses
healthy materials/
processes
upgradability and flexibility
easy end-of-life recovery
pleasurable experiences
quality control
easy reuse and repair
swapping, renting and sharing
entire value chain
reducing resource use
cascade use
repair/refurbishment
meaningful design
reduction of production steps
appropriate lifespan
upcycling/recycling
local value chains
light weighting, miniaturizing
dis- / re-assembly
on demand or on
availability
product-service systems
5. Bottom-Up Approach
5.1 Substance versus structure
If we consider an atom as the basic building block that forms the molecules of our materials
and compare the range of elements that compose living organisms with the range employed
within the technical sphere, we observe two distinct approaches. In biology, the range of
basic building blocks is primarily limited to carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, calcium,
phosphorous and sulphur as main ingredients. We know from chemistry, that molecules
formed by these components tend to occur in ambient conditions and result in low
molecular weights. This means that due to the relatively low energy that is involved in the
creation of the molecules, their bonds are relatively easy to break and degrade easily.
Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons from biology
7
In the technical sphere, we draw on the 118 elements of the periodic table to use as building
blocks. We have developed technology that allows us to build molecules with higher
molecular weights, these are stronger, but require quite a bit of energy to build and similarly
large amounts of energy to degrade. So the meaning of substance in the context of design
problem/solution means that if we want a strong material (for example), we build heavy
molecules which require a lot of energy but are relatively indestructible such as
polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) otherwise known as Teflon.
The property of a material in biology, is determined by the configuration of its building
blocks, these can merge to form clusters of polymer that in turn form nano
1
- scale strings,
clusters of strings can form fibres and concentrations of fibres can form larger structures
such as tissue, this is a simplified account of a hierarchical approach to design from nano- to
macro- scale. For example Keratin is a molecule made of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and
sulphur, the molecules can be arranged in two different configurations, helical or sheet. In
helical configuration the resulting structure at macro scale is soft, flexible strands of hair; in
sheet formation the macroscopic result is horn which is tough and hard.
So in biology the complex synergies between simple building blocks within hierarchical
structures across scales result in extraordinary properties from basic materials. In contrast,
we rely on the chemical bonds and complex molecules to engineer the properties of our
materials and structures.
5.2 Energy versus information
In the technical sphere we have global complex supply chains, raw materials are sourced in
one location, shipped to a string of locations for different levels of processing and assembly
before they are distributed to various destinations for consumption. Energy captured from
the burning of fossil fuels powers the production of our everyday goods. According to
research published by the Global Fashion Agenda et al. (2017), the global textiles and
clothing industry was responsible for the production of about 1.715 billion tons of CO2
emissions in 2015. Power in biology is harvested from ambient conditions such as the sun,
moisture and pressure, in addition to the conversion of raw materials i.e. via photosynthesis
or digestion. The emerging field at the intersection of biotechnology and textiles seeks to
harness these low energy processes to produce alternative materials for the F&TI using living
cells and micro-organisms (Lee, Congdon et al, 2020).
We have to power every aspect of the creation of our products, as such solving problems is
intrinsically linked to the use of energy and lots of it. Energy in the form of fuel/ food is
scarce and difficult to come by in nature, as such organisms have evolved ways in which to
draw on abundant energy sources from the environment such as sunlight and moisture to
induce certain behaviours. This is achieved via information that is physically embedded
within their structure, for example within DNA. Genetic information is physically coded using
1
There are 1 million nano meters in a millimeter
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
8
sequences of four bases of nucleic acid, these bases form specific pairs with one another
that are stabilized via hydrogen bonds forming a double helix. The purpose of the helix
structure is to twist round its central axis to enable the packing of lots of information
(nucleic acid pairs) within a compact space.
Information can be embedded into a structure at larger scale, for example the composition
of a pinecone bract. Pinecones are made of wood which is primarily composed of cellulose
polymers. The job of a mature pinecone is to protect the seeds from spreading when the
weather is damp because this causes germination of the seed to happen too close to the
parent tree. This is not ideal, the chances of the seed accessing the right resources (light and
nutrients) to survive are limited because the seedling would have to compete with the
established parent for resources.
The solution to the problem in this case (resulting from millions of years of evolution) is to
create a package for the seeds that limits their dissemination only in favourable dry
conditions. The pinecone is able to sense the level of moisture in the environment and close
up when it is damp to protect the seeds. The mechanism is very simple, it does not rely on
living cells or a nervous system. The pinecone bract (which is the part of the cone on which
the seed rests) is composed of two types of dead wood cell, one which swells when it
absorbs moisture and another that doesn’t, the combined effect is that when wet the
swelling part pushes against the non-swelling cells it causes the bract to bend upwards
locking in the seed. When the external conditions are dry again, the moisture evaporates
away from the bract causing the swelling cells to return to their original position and open
up the cone. Information is embedded within the design of the bract structure from nano- to
macro to reversibly change shape in the presence of moisture.
5.3 Bottom up summary
The results of the analysis suggest that in the technical sphere, we tend to solve our
engineering ‘design problems’ via substance i.e., using chemistry to create specific
properties and energy i.e., increasing the power input into a product. In contrast, using the
same lens from biology, ‘design problems’ are addressed via structure i.e., the way basic
building blocks are organised to form a material and information i.e., the physical nature of
instruction/code. The implications for the design sector are the provision of an alternative
paradigm to the prevailing substance +energy model that underpins both historical and
contemporary design and engineering practice. We could learn how to design with
information and structure.
6. Lessons from biology and engineering: a bottom-up approach
The lesson from biology, based on section 5, is that the environmental impact of the design
decisions informing the physical products we consume could be enhanced or mitigated if we
worked out how to shift from designing with substance and energy to designing with
structure and information. However, if we attempt to correlate the list of design principles
Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons from biology
9
from table 1 into either of these themes (design with structure, substance, energy, or
information), we encounter a disjuncture. The list of design principles from the bottom-up
approach can only be classified as approaches to manage the use of substance and energy.
Which inspires an alternative approach to reviewing the findings.
If we consider resource the substance and energy that is invested in the products we create
and consume, then could the lessons from the bottom-up approach (i.e. design with
structure and information) show us how to use our resources:
a. efficiently by using the least amount of substance and energy,
b. longevity by ensuring that the resources, while captured within a particular
product, have multiple uses and/or last as long as they need to and,
c. recovered at the end of their use life.
In summary, biology can teach us how to ensure resource efficiency, longevity, and recovery
RELR (figure 3) via design with structure and information.
Figure 3: Design principles for resource efficiency longevity and recovery (RELR)
As textile designers, we are rarely involved in the chemistry of fibres and finishes, our main
range of influence is via decisions on how to organise fibres into textile structures. There are
several disciplines involved in this process, in general terms yarn spinning, textile structuring
(knit, weave, non-woven), finishing (dying, calendaring etc.) and post-production
manipulation (printing, embroidery, etc.). Within this context, substance refers to the fibres
and materials (printing pastes, finishes, embellishments etc.) we draw on to create textiles,
and structure denotes the various forms that can be created using the discipline specific
techniques and tools. For example, a knitted textile designer can opt to create a plain knit
structure or create a cable (technique), this can be done by hand or machine (tool). A mixed
media designer might use pleating or smocking (technique) that can be created by hand or
machine (tool).
Energy refers to the effort, fuel that is used to create a textile. This includes the energy
involved in collecting the materials as well as manufacture. Regardless of whether this
includes craft or industrial processes, production requires energy input (from burning fossil
fuels) and effort (time/ calories) invested by the artisan or factory worker.
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
10
The role of information within this context, is less obvious because we are not used to
embedding instruction into our textiles and when we do, the knowledge base for this resides
within the tacit space (Polanyi, 2009) and is the subject of niche practice. One example is
embodied within the work produced by Ann Richards, a weave designer who uses
contrasting twist and fibres with different shrinking properties to engineer 3D structures
from 2D woven textiles via washing or steaming (Richards, 2012). The example in figure 4
demonstrates how information (direction of yarn twist, pattern of weave) and structure
(positioning of specific twisted yarn in warp or weft) combine to impact the efficiency of
energy use for the manufacture of the final textile artefact.
Figure 4: Detail of woven textile structure in loomstate (left) and after wet finishing (right). The difference in texture
between the top and bottom parts of the sample are implemented by the interactions between the different twists
directions of the warp and weft yarns. Source: Richards, 2012
Pre-determined structural shape change (understanding of which is developed via
investment of time and effort from the artisan) is implemented without additional effort
from the maker, other than exposing the textile to water. This removes the need for
additional processing steps such as pleating and heat pressing which require additional
energy to implement. Unknown, non-tangible factors such as the artisan’s unique metabolic
rate, prevent a quantitative comparison between energy expenditure by the artisan to
understand how to implement information into her textile structure, and the energy
required to arrive at the same result via the substance and energy route. However, any
energy spent for the development of skills and knowledge pertaining to the implementation
of information into a textile structure by the artisan is transferable and not lost, as this can
be reused in repeated actions or new contexts; an investment. Inversely, any energy spent
on the processing of a flat textile into a textured one is lost once the transformation is
Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons from biology
11
complete; spent. The incineration of the same weight of treated and untreated textile would
release the same value of kilo Watt hours (kWh)
2
.
Another more recent development is the influence of programmable design
3
on textile
practice, evident in the doctoral work of Jane Scott (Scott, 2018). Scott combines high twist
yarns with knitted structures to create fabrics that reversibly alter their texture in relation to
the levels of moisture in the environment (fig 5). Similar to Richard, Scotts work
demonstrates how energy efficiency can be achieved via design with information. In this
case reversible shape change behaviour is directly related to the level of moisture in the
environment and requires no additional input from an external source. Consider a curtain
that can alter its length in response to environmental conditions, this would require a
complex system of sensors, actuators motors and processing devices within a
material+energy context. However, the structure + information approach requires none of
these.
Figure 5: Detail of knitted structure composed of yarns with differnet twist directions. The textile develops a pre-designed
texture when exposed to moisture, the peaks (texture) dissapear when the sample dries. Source: Scott, 2018
The potential for longevity is demonstrated via the implementation of additional functions
into the textile; the autonomous shape change property could be applied to a product that
can adapt its behaviour such as its texture, thermal resistance, opacity etc thus combine the
function of several products or devices.
Both Scott and Richard’s work demonstrate enhanced resource recovery because of the
mono-material nature of their textile outcomes. In the case of Richard’s work, a sewing
phase would introduce a binding element (sewing thread) that is usually a cotton polyester
blend. Scott’s work would typically incorporate electronic textile components such as a
2
The kilowatt-hour (kWh) is a unit of energy equal to one kilowatt of power sustained for one hour.
3
Programmable also active are new terminologies used within the context of design to describe structures able to self-
assemble either via the use of motors (programmable origami paper) or material choice. This terminology has been used by
Skylar Tibbits and collaborators to describe properties of some of the practical outcomes from the Self-Assembly lab at MIT.
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
12
power source, sensors and actuators. Due to their design, both examples can be easily
integrated within a circular system because they retain a mono-material composition.
The creation of composite structures using polymers with different thermal shrinking
properties also falls within the scope of efficiency and longevity but not recovery.
Researcher, Walters (2018) takes a practice-led approach to develop lateral, heat induced
shape change into textiles via the combination of thermal shrinking and non-shrinking yarns
using a jacquard weave structure. Similar to Richard and Scott’s work energy is salvaged
from the reduction of processing steps (see figure 6).
Figure 6: Detail of Walters (2018) jacquard textile composed of yarns with different thermal shrinking properties. The textile
is woven flat, then exposed to heat which causes one type of yarn to shrink more than the other creating forces within the
textile that result in a 3D texture.
Examples of design with information and structure from a broader range of design
disciplines can be found in artefacts created either by or in collaboration with the Self
Assembly Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. Projects such as the
Active Shoe
4
prototype created in collaboration with Swiss product designer Christophe
Guberan. The technique combines additive printing with a stiff polymer onto a pre-stretched
textile. The flat, 2D structure ‘springs’ into a 3D shoe form when the tension is removed
from the textile. Information in this case is embedded in the structure via material choice (ie
textile and stiff 3D print medium) and process (introducing pre-stretch into the textile and
specific design of the printed component in 2D). Similarly, the Active Wood
5
projects
combines knowledge of the way the components interact with moisture to inform the
4
https://selfassemblylab.mit.edu/active-shoes
5
http://www.christopheguberan.ch/active-wood/
Sustainable approaches to textile design: lessons from biology
13
design of the prototype composite material and control the way it bends and curls in the
presence of moisture.
Longevity via emotional design (Van Hinte, 1997), recovery via design for recycling or
disassembly (Kriwet, 1995) and cyclability (Goldsworthy, 2016) are examples of the
mobilisation of resource efficiency, longevity and recovery within contemporary design
practice. As discussed in section 4, these notions are informed primarily via a top down
approach and provide strong, standalone theoretical frameworks that guide designers to
think about the materials they use, the quality of design output i.e. how a product is valued
by the consumer, and how it can be disassembled at the end of its life. The focus is on
mitigating the impacts of design with substance and energy. The bottom up approach could
offer a new paradigm that enables a shift from design with substance and energy to design
with structure and information.
7. Conclusion
Goal n.12 of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, n.d.)
emphasises the need to shift towards more sustainable consumption and production
patterns. This research explores how design informed by biology can contribute to this goal
by teaching us how to revere our resources and ensure the efficiency, longevity and
recovery of the materials and energy invested in our products.
We discuss the use of resources (substance and energy) by combining lenses from
engineering, biology, systems theory and textile design and identify two distinct approaches.
A prevalent top-down view which has informed key thinking around alternative circular and
sustainable models for design and manufacture from a systems perspective and a bottom-up
approach emerging from the opportunities for applying research findings from biophysics
into engineering and technological innovation.
We compare design principles resulting from the above study via the lens of resource
efficiency, longevity and recovery (RELR). We find that principles emerging from the top
down view focus on improving the use of substance and energy. However, the same
approach from a bottom up perspective results in a completely new concept; RELR via
design with structure and information. We present some examples of textile and broader
design practice that exhibit elements of this approach (not necessarily informed by biology)
and explore how RELR is implemented within the artefacts and prototypes.
We conclude that biology can teach us how to intentionally design with structure and
information, in turn this could help us create products that genuinely consider the value of
the resources invested, not from a fiscal but environmental perspective. Practical examples
of this approach exist within a niche, research orientated space, however this paper suggests
that there is unexplored potential within this new approach that is worthy of further study.
Acknowledgements: This paper and the research behind it would not have been
possible without the exceptional support of our colleagues Dr Kate Goldsworthy (co-
Kapsali, V. and Hall, C.A.
14
director, Centre for Sustainable Design, University of the Arts London) and Professor
Carole Collet (Director, CSM LVMH Sustainable Innovation, University of the Arts
London) for challenging and insightful discussions on circular and sustainable design
within the creative sector. I would also like to thank the Biologically Inspired Textiles
(BIT) advisory group for their contributions to discussions on this topic. Finally, I would
like to acknowledge the AHRC for funding this work (grant AH/T006412/1) and the
University of the Arts London for hosting the research.
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About the Authors:
Professor Veronika Kapsali is Chair of Materials Technology and
Design at The University of the Arts London. Veronika is also an AHRC
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Dr Cathryn Anneka Hall completed her PhD on Design for Textile
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