We’ve all heard how using a product for an extra few months can dramatically reduce its overall environmental footprint. But is it that simple? Suston explores the finer points of the longevity discussion.

The average garment is worn only ten times before disposal, and research by Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF, 2017) suggests that this represents a decrease of 36% over just the last 15 years. Reduced product lifetimes, in turn, increas­es consumption and disposal rates. What’s more, this trend in global clothing consumption is still predicted to rise dramatically in the coming years. More resources are needed to make new clothes, and more waste is created, resulting in a self-re­inforcing cycle that seems bent on turning new materials into waste in record time.

Within this context, it is hard to envision a successful circular model that doesn’t properly address the need for product longevity.

Dr. Mark Taylor and Dr. Mark Sumner have recently completed a detailed research project on the subject. When asked whether they agreed that longevity is crucial to circularity, Mark Taylor qualified with a question of his own:

“That depends. How do you define circularity? There’s not just one, single circular model. Regen­erative and biodegradable natural fibers, for exam­ple, can be appropriate for one circular model, while recyclable synthetics for another.”

With the very definition of circularity now up in the air, the two Marks then emphasized that while longevity discussions in the outdoor industry tend to circle around the logic of “tougher is better,” the reality is far more complex.

Nuanced view of product longevity

In fact, according to their research, a product’s physical durability can actually be a fairly poor indicator that it will also enjoy a long and useful lifespan. The product may, for example, never be purchased in the first place and be sent directly to the incinerator because it just wasn’t in fashion. Or, maybe it does get purchased but then spends decades at the back of a closet. Whatever the story, it’s commonly a very short one:

“Most products are thrown out long before their expiry dates. Longevity therefore needs to be understood as more than just a function of a product’s physical properties, depending on indi­vidual garment categories rather than universal definitions,” says Mark Sumner.

He continues to give an example of a pair of denim jeans, which most people expect to fade and even improve with multiple washes. But a formal shirt is likely to be discarded once it starts to fade or degrades from washing. As each has a unique expectation from the user in terms of its function, the same level of physical durability is not necessary for both products.

In short, social factors play a much larger role in how often a garment is actually worn. The only reason physical durability is perceived to be im­portant is because this is both intuitive and con­sidered easier to measure.

State of longevity in the Outdoor industry

Turning to the outdoor industry, it is widely per­ceived that products here are built tough – espe­cially when compared to the norm in the fast-fash­ion sector. But does this assumption hold water? Mark Taylor is not so sure.

“It’s difficult to generalize. On the one hand, outdoor brands are making durable products that can withstand tough conditions. But on the other hand, there’s been a long-held trend to bring down the weight of some products to the bare mini­mum, which can reduce the potential lifespan.”

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. While both Mark Taylor and Mark Sumner agree that designing for longevity is one answer to some sustainability challenges, they underline that it is not always going to be the right answer.

“There’s absolutely no point making something incredibly durable if that doesn’t fit its likely function for the end user,” says Mark Sumner.

Moving forward

While the longevity discussion continues, it is important to recognize that some of the most important decisions are made outside of the product design studios. Trends change, bodies change, and outdoor activities change. Of course, a well-designed product can continue to live on via secondhand, subscription or rental services. But the product that is designed to last a lifetime will continue to butt up against consumer prefer­ence in any of these scenarios.

Mark Sumner and Mark Taylor therefore cau­tion against a narrow view of product longevity that is taking root in industry and policy circles, one that does not account for social reality.

“Measures like Product Environmental Foot­prints (PEFs) and Extended Producer Responsibil­ity (EPR) will depend on hard data, and there’s already an emphasis on physical durability as a key indicator of a product’s potential longevity. This will hardly solve the textile industry’s wasteful­ness, and by over constructing products we may in fact exacerbate it,” shares Mark Taylor.

Mark Sumner agrees that we need to consider how products are actually used, and go beyond a simplistic view of either it’s durable or not:

“When it comes to longevity, there is no one size fits all. The best we can say is that ‘good’ product design takes a life cycle view, considers the consumer’s requirements, and constructs a product that is fit for purpose.”

 

Longevity Case: Fjällräven

“Emotional durability” is one social variable that has been gaining traction in the outdoor longevity discussion, and refers to the ability of a garment to evoke positive emotions in the wearer over an extended period of time.

Perhaps no other outdoor actor has championed the concept of emotional durability more than the Swedish brand Fjällräven. While Fjällräven strives to have both physical durability and functionality in place, their design includes an additional element to appeal to a long-term relationship: Timelessness.

This involves creating designs, colors, and textures that are outside of trends, are versatile, and are meaningful to the wearer. With thoughtful design, the goal is that over time such garments will become associated with memories, experiences, and feelings that are cherished by the wearer. Thanks to this relationship, they are then more likely to be worn repeatedly and maintained with care.

“For Fjällräven, achieving emotional longevity first requires a deeper understanding of the wearer’s needs and values,” explains Johanna Mollberg, R&D Product Develop-er at Fjällräven,

“In today’s world that also means a commitment to preferred materials and ethical practices.”

 

Illustration: Kicki Fjell
Jonathan Eidse
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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