How to avoid ‘filthy fashion’ for more sustainable design

21 Mar 2019

Image: © Srdjan/

In the latest 4IRC event from Connect, speakers discuss design thinking, entrepreneurship and the concept of ‘fast and filthy fashion’. Emily McDaid reports.

The latest Fourth Industrial Revolution Challenge (4IRC) event, on product delivery, was sponsored by the Ulster University Student Union Enterprise Centre.

Future Human

The debate was held in the Unique Art Shop and hosted by Emer Maguire.

The inspiring story of Stripe was highlighted by the first speaker, Brian Shevlin of Arity.

“Eight years ago, two brothers from a small Irish village started a company, moved to America and, with just seven lines of code, they became the youngest self-made billionaires in the world.”

Shevlin used Stripe’s story to illustrate the concept that how, in the 4IR world, anyone can disrupt any sector.

He said: “Somehow the world has become a smaller place; anyone can build anything, anywhere, and make it available everywhere.”

Shevlin said that product design has changed forever “due to the combination of design thinking, lean development and agile methodologies”.

Finally, he noted, users are the heart of it all. “Us – users – we’re demanding, informed, with little patience and high expectations.”

The next speaker, Kyle Gawley, described himself as a “location-independent entrepreneur”. Gawley founded Get Invited and built it to more than £4m in sales in 2018. Nowadays, he helps coach and mentor young entrepreneurs from his base in Thailand, and he authored a book called The Lifestyle Startup.

Gawley had been a designer and developer but “got pushed out of that role and became a spreadsheet guy”. That was the downside of owning a successful start-up. Gawley said: “[I] became so stressed and sick due to the sheer amount of pressure I was under in my business.”

But really, all Gawley wanted to do was travel. He then showed the audience of series of jealousy-inducing photos of his new lifestyle, traveling across Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bali.

“This opened a whole other world of work that was so alien to what I was experiencing here,” he said.

Now, at his base from Chiang Mai, Gawley said that he builds a new start-up idea every few months. “If you come up with 10 ideas, nine of them will fail, but one will succeed.” So, his approach is to build as many as possible and test them in the market as fast as possible.

He said: “The internet has completely levelled the playing field for anyone who has a good idea, who has the energy and commitment to do it.”

The next speaker, Rebecca Walsh from Big Motive, began her career in aeronautical engineering and worked at Bombardier before going out on her own, after she trained up in human-centred design by Ideo.

“What is design?” Walsh asked. “A lot of people think of fashion, textiles. But really there’s product, digital, design as strategy, structures and places, visual communications – it’s all design.

“What I love about design is always making it about the human perspective – then you can get to the richest opportunities for change,” she said.

She made the point that actually even aeronautical engineering is human-centred, because there’s always a user/customer for the aeroplane. Also, in designing an aeroplane, you need to think about the fitters on the shop floor who will build it.

Finally, Walsh recommended the book by Patagonia’s founder: Let My People Go Surfing.

The final speaker was Janet Coulter, a senior lecturer at Ulster University, who centred on “fast and filthy fashion”.

“Fashion is frivolous,” she said. “We produce trends; as soon as everyone goes out and buys the latest colour or shape, we tell them it’s not trendy and it goes to landfill.”

The 4IR is the opportunity to change aesthetics into functionality and cyclical fashion into sustainability.

“Fashion is the second largest polluter of the environment – both polluting and exploiting,” she said. To combat this, Coulter highlighted a number of new innovations in fashion and textiles:

  • Sensors in yarn, not visible to the naked eye
  • Graphene printed on to clothing that can power batteries. Soldiers carry 10 to 20 pounds of batteries to power their kit
  • HuMo: Garments that harness the swing of your arm and generate power, and could be used to charge your phone
  • Chips Board: Two entrepreneurs who worked with McCain’s chips and took the peelings and compressed them into a chip board similar to medium-density fibreboard (MDF)
  • Green Lizard: Yarn to Yarn is the dream – a fermentation process for coloured offcuts from polyester. The process breaks it down into a virgin state, takes titanium dioxide out (which is valuable) and then that virgin material is woven back into yarn
  • Qmilk fibre: Utilises spoiled milk, with zero waste
  • Chitin from prawn shells: You can turn this into something that’s suitable for 3D printing, that prints transparent and has strength
  • 3D-printed garments: Casts that are totally shaped to your arm, and are waterproof and breathable

She concluded: “The 4IR can create sustainable manufacturing and a multidisciplinary approach to change mindsets to fast fashion.”

Panel discussion

panel of three men and three women sitting on chairs. One man in the middle is wearing a white tshirt and gesturing while speaking as the others listen to him.

From left: Emer Maguire, Janet Coulter, Kyle Gawley, Daniel McGlade, Brian Shevlin and Rebecca Walsh. Image: TechWatch

The four speakers were joined by Daniel McGlade, CEO of visual collaboration start-up Oroson, in a panel discussion.

McGlade raised that point that, in designing products, “we all want value instantaneously”.

“So, how can I deliver value as quickly as possible to my end user? It’s all about instant gratification today,” he said.

Maguire asked Coulter: “Do you feel that’s the same in fashion?” She replied: “One thing we’re talking about is co-design, multidisciplinary teams; getting a technologist, fashion designer and engineer all sitting down together. We need to change how we evaluate students; we benchmark them too often in single subjects.”

An audience member asked: “How do you do human-centric design when people don’t really know what they want?”

Walsh said: “You need to observe what people need, rather than ask them what they want. Observing them in their own environment using the product or service – that’s what human-centric design really is.”

Maguire asked: “Kyle, how did you come up with the idea for Get Invited?” Gawley said: “I think coming up with ideas is a bad idea. You need to go out and understand a market and something that you are connected to. I think a problem is, people come up with an idea and spend years trying to see if that fixes a problem. Turning that around, say here’s a problem, try to build something, then try to validate it as soon as possible. Build a Facebook page, send people to it via ads, see if people click on it.”

McGlade said: “My advice is never to let pride get in the way of progress. We spent six months – too long – doing our pivot from education to business. There were people on our team who were too invested in the education product.”

Gawley said: “Nine ideas out of 10 are going to fail and if you’re lucky one will succeed. If you can get through five ideas in a year, you’ll do so much better than two ideas that you go thoroughly after in five years.”

McGlade raised that point that Slack came about because it was originally a games company – and raised $5m to build games – but as a company it realised it wasn’t collaborating well enough, so it built an internal collaboration tool. In the end it had no games, but could sell the collaboration tool.

Maguire asked the panel to make closing comments on the future of product delivery and design.

Gawley said: “The internet is going to change how we all work. It empowers people to create their own products.”

McGlade said: “Grads are using UX-driven products in their lives, but then at work we’re deskilling them to use these heavy products. We need to make work tools look like social media tools.”

Shevlin said: “Automation is changing everything about the future of work.”

Walsh said: “How do we create a more sustainable planet? We need to start to think about going plastic-free and the waste we create.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland