Chapter 13. Needs – Fashion & Sustainability

Chapter 13: Needs

Conventional growth-focused economic wisdom promotes human craving for novelty and things as both natural and desirable. Yet humans’ desire for cyclical variety is easily manipulated by commerce. The cultural message of growth pervades our daily lives, clouding our perceptions, so that cutting through the sheer volume of commercial clutter to distinguish between real needs and manufactured wants is far from easy. But Manfred Max-Neef provides a view of human needs and motivations that helps us reflect deeply on the industry, design practice and ourselves.

Max-Neef’s taxonomy of human needs (see fig. 10) was developed from his work with small communities in South America, to help identify their ‘wealths’ and ‘poverties’ and then to work on how these may be best maximized and minimized respectively. He identified nine fundamental human needs and myriad ‘satisfiers’ (which fall into four existential states: being, having, doing and interacting). Max-Neef notes that one satisfier may address several needs at once and benefit the whole, while ‘destroyers’ may seem to satisfy a need but in fact inhibit several others and bring poverty to the whole.

FIG. 10 Manfred Max-Neef’s taxonomy identifies fundamental human needs and satisfiers to capture real needs specific to place and community.

What is most remarkable about Max-Neef’s work is its universal applicability: similar needs are clearly present in both poor and rich nations and at any stage in their development. What differs from country to country is not the needs themselves, but how those needs are met by the society and culture.

Fashion clothing and fundamental human needs

Clothing has the potential to meet a number of needs. It can satisfy basic physical requirement for warmth and protection and when linked with fashion it has the potential to satisfy our desires for personal expression and belonging, as is the case when a teenager reworks a garment in a unique way or spontaneously layers an under-piece over a T-shirt. But fashion’s potency as both a personal and a social satisfier makes it a magnet for manipulation. When participation in fashion is directed by a commercially imposed trend specifically designed to exploit desires and increase sales, fashion becomes an external goal to chase that can drive insecurity, self-doubt and shame. The ultimate goal when designing for needs is to leave no such poverties anywhere in the system. Using Max-Neef’s taxonomy as a lens through which to view the following three fashion examples helps clarify its relevance in our discipline.

Example 1

A fashion garment made with recycled materials satisfies the basic need for a healthy environment by reducing the depletion of raw materials and load on landfills. But delivered to the wearer as a finished and static piece, the relationship between the garment and wearer is manifest simply in an act of consumption. An item developed to be co-designed by the wearer, on the other hand, offers a host of immaterial benefits, including the opportunity for participation, inventiveness, creative expression and unique interpretation, as well as the opportunity to develop new skills – all of which contribute greatly to the deep personal growth of the wearer.

Example 2

Organic cotton satisfies the need for a healthy environment in regions where chemicals are used in cotton cultivation, and the reduced toxicity certainly improves physical conditions for the farmer and his family. Organic farming also develops creative skills in the field, as farmers are trained to work with biological controls particular and relevant to their bioregion. But ‘organic’ does not in itself satisfy the need to live above sustenance levels unless a fair price over the cotton commodity index is secured; and farmer educational support systems become compromised if they cannot be maintained due to the lack of funding. Combining fair trade principles with organic helps ensure a greater ability to provide food and shelter on a long-term basis.

Example 3

Similarly, genetically modified (GM) cotton is seen to be ‘sustainable’ because it reduces chemical use and raises farmers’ incomes, and therefore provides physical improvements. But it does this by promoting vertical relationships: knowledge about GM technology remains sequestered in private commercial laboratories and copyrights forbid farmers to keep and propagate the seed. So personal creativity, inventiveness and local knowledge specific to the ecology of the place the farmer belongs to are inhibited. Farmers become dependent upon an outside technology and therefore vulnerable to fluctuations in price or availability. In fact, Max-Neef’s taxonomy reveals GM as a ‘destroyer’, for GM companies have also purchased conventional seed suppliers, further restricting the development of alternative forms of agricultural knowledge, and marginalizing debate, dissent and autonomy.

Applied this way, Max-Neefs’ taxonomy of needs can be a powerful tool for designers to identify and clarify the fundamental social ‘logic’ in an existing product or emergent idea. This is particularly useful in design since the area of ‘social responsibility’ remains confusing to many, and unlike processes and materials, which can be measured and analysed through LCAs (life-cycle assessments), social attributes seem particular to geography and culture and unwieldy to capture in any meaningful way. Though Terms of Engagement do exist within the most progressive companies, they are narrowly shaped by the existing systems of production and therefore lack the capacity to capture the fundamental, emotional, cultural and human needs that Max-Neef’s people-centred methodology provides. This methodology starts to reshape our minds to an altogether more elemental and comprehensive set of values, as the earlier examples illustrate.

Designing to satisfy specific needs

Artefacts that are designed specifically to fulfil basic human needs are under-represented in fashion and sustainability. This is perhaps because the values are so far removed from what commercial design currently demands that it is difficult to imagine what form they could take, at least initially. Nonetheless, a few items have started to emerge. ‘Super satisfiers’, a concept developed by Fletcher and Earley in the 5 Ways Project54, for example, used Max-Neef’s taxonomy on needs to prompt innovative designs for clothing. The resulting ‘Touch Me’ dress evolved from a participant’s need for affection and was designed with open slits where friends and family were invited to touch her in the small of her back and on her shoulders to demonstrate their affection. More recently, Elisheva Cohen-Fried’s capelet was developed from a line of enquiry about basic well-being and simple notions of happiness. Acting on the pattern of responses that emerged from her interviewees, Fried created a garment imbued with a strong sense of connection to family; it invites co-creation and shared invention by providing a means for mother and child to manipulate the design together, snipping away shapes in the capelet’s top layer to reveal the bright colour underneath, using the simplest of craft tools – a child’s paper scissors.55

Artefacts such as these are deeply poignant. They have what Alastair Fuad-Luke calls a ‘strange beauty’56 and they start to expand our notions of what sustainability in fashion can be. Max-Neef’s taxonomy of human needs helps put language to the poverties that we instinctively feel in a factory-made T-shirt delivered to a retail mall for US $5. But more to the point, when designers utilize such rigorous methodologies as a foundation from which to act with integrity, they create bridges to the social disciplines that build and hold ‘domains of knowledge and understanding’57 and enable ways to act on these ‘slow knowledge’ principles, thereby making a serious contribution to deep social change. But perhaps the most gratifying of all benefits that Max-Neef’s taxonomy brings to fashion design is a peaceful ‘place’ where we are able to quieten the cacophony of noise from the market, loosen its pull on our psyche, and focus our attention on designing for what truly matters.

Capelet by Elisheva Cohen-Fried, designed to enable parent and child to create together.

Having (how much is enough?)

‘You never know what is enough, unless you know what is more than enough.’

Wendell Berry58

In our culture, the dominant paradigm suggests that ‘more is better’ and that anything other than material growth means having ‘less than’ before. Yet we have no sense of how large our businesses can be, nor how much people can consume relative to the environment’s ability to support these activities. Unlimited economic growth in nations where the problems of basic survival are largely solved is increasingly seen as counterproductive, not only because it makes natural resources increasingly unavailable to a growing human population and undermines the overall health of the ecosystem on which we all depend, but because (and perhaps even more alarmingly) it also undermines social resilience, which is regarded as critical for dealing with impending natural disasters.

There is now a growing body of evidence indicating that though people in ‘developed nations’ may be getting richer, they are generally not getting happier. For example, people have less and less of their own time as they are drawn further on to the work treadmill to support consumer lifestyles. Family and community relationships are becoming strained as a result, with 53 per cent of Americans now saying that having less stress and spending more time with family and friends would make them much more satisfied with their lives.59 Increased economic wealth is also linked to health issues such as diabetes, obesity and coronary disease; indeed in 2006, clinically defined obesity in the US climbed to 64 per cent of the population.60 And the ‘more is better’ mindset is even having a perverse social effect on middle-class school children. Studies show that students living in the most affluent communities in the US are under constant pressure to perform ‘better and better’ and are succumbing to a range of disorders, including an alarming surge in teen suicides.61 Just as nutrients in the soil become depleted by industrial agriculture’s sole focus on higher yields, so human emotional and psychological stocks are depleted by the dominant cultural pursuit of growth for growth’s sake. There is only so far that people (and planet) can be pushed. As Herman Daly notes, we are now ‘accumulating illth rather than wealth’.62

The fashion industry is dependent on consumption

Fashion design as it is currently practised is not structured to improve upon these social deficiencies, since it is itself embedded in the market and measures its success in terms of growth. The notion of always needing more assumes a public that always wants more, and requires businesses to maintain the necessary level of ‘wanting’ or consumption to support commercial activity. In fashion, women are viewed as the primary engines for this necessary economic growth; womenswear represents 65 per cent of the global fashion industry, and a whopping 75 per cent of the fashion industry’s advertising dollars target women specifically.63

Alex Martin’s ‘one-woman show against fashion’: a Little Brown Dress that she wore every day for a year.

Women push back

While the fashion industry starts to grapple internally with the conundrum of its dependency on business models based on material consumption, many on the outside are beginning to question the dominant cultural demand on women to be consumers above all else. One such example is the Great American Apparel Diet, which offers a stance against consumption and is wryly modelled after support programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous. The project provides a place for women to exchange stories after agreeing to abstain from buying clothes for a whole year. Their discourse is also featured on the project web site and offers valuable insight into the zeitgeist of the general public across a range of traditional demographics. Separately, artist Alex Martin challenged herself to reject what she calls ‘the bill of goods that has been sold… about what makes (women) good, attractive and interesting’. Noting the immense time, effort and financial resources that are invested in clothing, and troubled by sweatshops and other hidden impacts of clothing production, Martin developed her ‘one-woman show against fashion’ as a counter-message. Her response was a ‘Little Brown Dress’ that she wore every day for a year. Besides making a statement about consumption, by limiting herself to wearing a single article of clothing for a whole year, Martin was obliged to create visual interest as a means of satisfying her own need for variety. Through photo documentation and a regular blog, she displayed how she personally styled the outfits and notes the self-confidence that this voluntary restraint liberated. ‘I’m even more engaged and interested in this whole line of thinking than I was when I started the project… I am not even considering a return to a normal wardrobe at this point’.64

The Little Brown Dress project has long been concluded, but Alex Martin continues to explore notions of self-expression, fashion and style by wearing only garments, shoes, bags, jewellery and accessories she has built herself, with new pieces made using only recycled materials. She now relishes being ‘completely outside the stream of consumer goods’ and advertising, and describes herself as an ‘artist, choreographer, performer, mother, neighbour, gardener, voter, event planner, and sewing machine operator’.

Doing (enabling action)

‘Humans are complex beings with values, attitudes, identities and emotions and while these are not always internally consistent, we will act when all these facets are appealed to.’

WWF, Scotland

Objects are a physical manifestation of how we humans interpret and shape our world to reflect who we are as individuals. Though our possessions reflect the idiosyncrasies of each person, they also reflect the wider values of society – an accepted pattern or way of living – and thereby nurture our need for belonging. Objects, and fashion items in particular, also provide us with a visual language – through a series of signs and codes – that we use to communicate social status, identity, aspirations, and the way we feel about one other. All in all, clothes and objects provide a crucial ‘carrier’ service, helping to bond the relationships between ourselves and others and with society as a whole. The continued relevance of things to people through change or novelty is essential in this context, for all of these relationships are in constant flux as our own perspectives and the values of society co-evolve.

Fashion at its creative best is one of the most powerful and direct expressions of personal aspirations, individuality and belonging. But the fashion industry also contributes to environmental and social degradation through pervasive advertising and short-term trends manipulating and exploiting people’s innate needs for integration and differentiation, in order to drive faster retail cycles and ever-increasing growth in commercial production. The realization that climate change is linked to the consumer lifestyle of the (over-) developed nations has prompted a critical examination of modern industrial life and of consumption itself. Over the past few decades, countless environmental campaigns have provided compelling data; magazines such as Adbusters and movies such as Annie Leonard’s Story Of Stuff, have ‘joined the dots’ between consumption and environmental consequences, to present a hard-hitting critique of capitalism and the industrial growth economy. Fashion in particular is often placed front and centre to illustrate how frivolous and trite our wants for variety are in an era where 20 per cent of the world’s population consumes 80 per cent of the Earth’s natural resources.

Material goods and changing consumer behaviour

Making these connections known is clearly necessary – for people need to understand what the problems are before they can act to mitigate them – but growing evidence indicates that though environmental campaigns and strategies have successfully raised the public’s awareness about ecological issues, they have largely failed to change behaviour.65 Mainstream consumers are intellectually informed, but not emotionally engaged in the discourse on the consumer economy, nor are they translating these messages into lifestyle changes. Perhaps one of the reasons for this malaise is that a focus on halting material consumption not only challenges corporations and the premise on which ‘Western progress’ was founded, but also questions the social and cultural relevance of things to people – the very foundation of meaning and sense of self that people have created through goods. As such, failure to acknowledge the dynamic exchange of meaning between people, the things they buy and consumer culture in general, leaves these deep motivations unconsidered and therefore unaddressed. At worst, it trivializes them.

Marchand and Walker’s (2008) research into what motivates people to downshift to simpler, non-consumerist lifestyles provides some insights into people’s behaviours around sustainability. They note that ‘(presenting) the problems in the world simply as a set of abstract concepts that are “out there” and “somewhere else” – (means) we understand them intellectually not intuitively, factually but not viscerally; and this is why we can so easily set them aside’.66 This might suggest that sustainability messages should be more tailored and relevant to people’s day-to-day activities, for simply amplifying an abstract message with a sense of urgency merely makes people feel coerced and leads to even greater resistance to change.

In light of these findings, it is clear that the majority of approaches to sustainability in fashion fall short of what might motivate shifts in behaviour. Most ‘eco’ garments are fashioned in the same way as conventional ones (indeed, most companies go to great lengths to ensure that sustainability actions are invisible), rendering any subsequent ‘eco’ messaging distant and abstruse. Yet designers have an innate ability to tap into human emotions; this can be put to good use to develop ways for the mainstream public to ‘fit in’ and ‘relate’ to sustainability in their everyday lives, without feeling coerced or impinged upon; and similarly, for sustainability to ‘fit in’ and ‘relate’ to a mainstream mindset, by redirecting our attention from what people buy to how people behave and redirecting consumers’ attention from having to doing.67

The example of travelling by bicycle

As easy as commuting to work by bicycle may seem, many people still commute by car. Hurdles to making the switch include concerns about cycling safety on congested urban streets, unpredictable weather conditions, or simply the hassle of changing clothes at the office. Here, a lack of convenience hinders a behavioural change – to the detriment of sustainability. Yet, any one of these hurdles could be used as a driver for creative intervention, and this is familiar and direct territory for designers.

Focused on enabling riders to transition easily from commuter cycling into a business setting, Alite has developed jeans with ergonomic considerations. A side seam forces articulation at the kneecap, and is twinned with a seam at the back knee to eliminate excess fabric when the leg is bent in a cycling position. Further comfort details include a low-cut front rise, which prevents the waistband cutting into the belly, and a forward-tipped back-rise, which avoids ‘plumber’s butt’! The slim leg steers clear of the chain and the choice of a greaseproof fabric provides an additional barrier to oil stains. By contrast, the Internet company Betabrand designed a trouser with increased safety features for riding on busy city streets. Rolled-up trouser legs and reversed-out back-pocket bags feature reflective Illuminite Teflon fabric, which makes the rider more visible on the road. The fabric stiffness minimizes creases in the trouser leg and keeps cuffs rolled up, while additional taping details using 3M Scotchlite™ reflective tape increase visibility even further. The pants are a roomy fit to accommodate cycling movement, with front pockets and waistband liner made from a soft seersucker that yields to the body when crouched over the handlebars.

Both of these design strategies reject the Lycra® cycling-geek look and broaden the appeal of commuter cycling, yet the final look of each garment is quite different from the other. What is most notable about both is their decided absence of any ‘traditional’ sustainability attributes – no mention of organic or recycled fabric here – for it is the product itself, not the textile, that becomes the link that empowers individuals and enables behavioural change. When the emphasis shifts from having to doing, space is created for the wearer’s own value system to provide the motivation for action. This foretells a radically different approach to communicating about sustainability and clothing.

Commuter cycling trousers by Betabrand with reflector pockets and trouser turn-ups.

Being (clothing as nurturer)

‘The artist appeals to that part of our being … which is a gift and not an acquisition – and therefore, more permanently enduring.’

Joseph Conrad

The nuances of a consumer’s needs and how they relate to patterns of consumption and sustainability are largely invisible to professional designers. Information that goes beyond the simple recording of a purchase and the sell-through data of a product’s retail performance is not generated or tracked by companies. Nor can it necessarily be tracked. For in contrast to the impacts in the supply chain, which can be measured, analysed and assessed, the reasons for buying, keeping and wearing garments are elusive and intensely personal to each individual. A garment may represent a symbol of social status to one person, or to another a period of personal growth. No two people perceive or respond to a single garment the same way.68 Moreover, the global nature of our industry makes the gathering of this personal information unwieldy and its formation into appropriate design strategy for mainstream business practically impossible – the fundamental desires of the individual are irrelevant information for an industry whose whole purpose is to deliver garments en masse.

Yet each of us owns at least one garment that has remained in our possession for several years. And somehow these garments trigger deep emotional responses in us, which we savour over and again whenever we look at, touch, smell or wear them. Designing to allow for these emotional connections to be present in or evolve into an article of clothing starts to open up new and yet familiar capacities for design; new because they feel so alien to our usual commercial practice, and familiar because they touch on basic human sensibilities that we hold dear nonetheless. Artefacts designed this way follow completely different routes into being and engage the designer on a multitude of levels in addition to the physical and intellectual cleverness of conventional design.

A yellow vintage dress has been in Lynda Grose’s possession for many years, worn often for special occasions. When it became stained by strawberry juice at a friend’s wedding, rather than disposing of the ‘damaged’ dress, Lynda enlisted fellow designer Nathalie Chanin to embroider over the stains with the names of the newly espoused couple and the date of their marriage. As a result, a series of enduring qualities was brought to life. The embroidery created an emotional link between the wearer and the newly married couple, evoking the memory of the event with each wearing of the dress. And it simultaneously strengthened the bond with the friend who executed the embroidery with such care. These qualities, in the words of Lewis Hyde, ‘move the heart, revive the soul, and delight the senses’.69

But this small act of sustainability brings another endearing quality to life, for through the embroidery, the dress is not only ‘repaired’, but also transformed from being static to active. It captures a narrative from the past, makes it visible in the present, and opens up the potential for additional stains to be treated in the same way – neither prescribed nor intended, but simply evoked.