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Is COVID-19 The Reset Button We Need Towards A Sustainable Future Of Design?

Contributor: Roddy Clarke


While I am in no way belittling the seriousness of the current global pandemic we are facing, I am asking readers to maybe step back and take a different viewpoint on what is unfolding to spur us on towards a better and brighter future. 


Over the last 70 years we have perhaps become accustomed to a life of convenience. We have endlessly increased industries each decade to support our ever-fulfilling lifestyles. Did we think we had the right to continue on this incline forever? On a planet we are privileged to call home, but a finite resource none the less.


Learning from nature, we can adjust our lives, going forward with a circular mindset.


Throughout nature, self-regulation happens continually. When a plant species takes over, the ecosystem will find some way to curb its dominance. It’s only when humans interfere with the natural order that systems become disordered. So, in stepping back, learning more from nature and the rules of biomimicry, perhaps this was all destined to happen?


Looking over the past few months and the spread of the virus across continents, the lifestyle change has been a shock to many. While cities are going into lockdown, with the high street shutting its doors and the global economy taking a nosedive, one world continues as normal, almost flourishing in our predicament. It’s clear to see the natural world is taking a much-needed breather from the constant pressure we, as humans, impose upon it. As many have seen, NASA’s recent report highlights the reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions while the images of translucent Venice canals have gone viral across many platforms.


A view shows seaweed in clear waters in a Venice canal on March 18, 2020 as a result of the stoppage of motorboat traffic, following the country's lockdown within the new coronavirus crisis.


While the natural world continues in its daily evolution, we must learn from its adaptation and apply that same mentality to our own lives. From the perspective of the design industry, many brands and designers are unsure as to what lies ahead. Complexities within supply chains, and a lack of current demand, may have brought many businesses to a halt, but, simultaneously, it is giving us time to reflect, restructure and rebuild towards a future which asks us to be more conscious than ever before. With physical spaces, exhibitions and trade shows all on hold, the design industry is rapidly moving into the digital sphere. Bringing paralleled experiences through virtual mediums is allowing designers to showcase new designs to an even wider audience, often larger in number than those attending physical shows.


Shanghai Fashion Week began this week as the worlds first fully digital fashion showcase, partnering with e-commerce platform Alibaba and their marketplace Tmall. Over 150 catwalk events will now be live streamed to a global audience with many designers selling items online from current collections. With the virus disrupting the industry in this way, could it spark a permanent shift in the way we experience events such as these? Many trade-shows result in high levels of waste and an ever-increasing carbon footprint so the need for virtual experiences is vital in ensuring we can reduce the environmental impact they cause.



Simone Cipriani, Head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative at the UN's International Trade Centre.


Simone Cipriani, Head and Founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative at the UN’s International Trade Centre, agrees this disruption could alter the future going forward. Speaking of retail, he states, “Bricks and mortar will come to an end. Outside of it being used purely as a display, cultural or happening space.” The need for a reduced physical presence of such events has also previously been highlighted by Extinction Rebellion, witnessing large numbers travelling the world to congregate and view products which will inevitably become mainly visible online. “Seasonality is also being questioned,” He continues, “Does it have the same meaning, in a world of climate change and erratic weather patterns?”



UK fashion designer, Patrick McDowell, says digital collections are the future of fashion.


This movement to a digital era allows consumers to interact with the narrative behind a piece in far more depth. Learning about each item easily before they buy online can encourage customers away from fast fashions and, by doing so, allows them to invest into a smaller number of higher quality pieces. Patrick McDowell, the UK designer turning heads with his bold approach to up-cycling and positive fashion, is currently working on a new digital collection for 2020. “Globally we are living in unprecedented times.” He says, “The need to experience clothing will not go away but we as designers can rethink how this happens. Digitally designed clothes can be experienced virtually which has a significantly lower impact on the planet. The software can also provide you with a physical pattern perfectly adjusted to the shape of the customer so it opens up luxury fashion to an audience that previously couldn’t afford it while tailoring garments to those who still want to purchase the physical clothing. In my opinion it is the future of fashion.”


While these positive aspects are emerging in the fashion industry, all sectors of the design world are evolving too. However, we must be conscious of the economic downturn which may hinder such progress. “While the current situation may accelerate existing trends, such as the use of sustainable materials,” continues Cipriani, “the big question mark remains about the global supply chains. In fragile countries there could be increases in illegal and informal migration, a boom of the informal economy and a surge in terrorism and illicit trade. These factors could create further unsettlement.”


Adaptation is key to flourishing in the years ahead.


However, despite the uncertainty, the way forward is still emerging, and evolving, daily and we must remain assured that we can come through this a more robust society. Through every industry we have a community which we can call on and for consumers, the concept of buying less, buying local and buying better has never been more relevant. Adopting this mindset will set us up for a positive future ahead.


With the Sustainable Development Goals still in place for a 2030 deadline, maybe this is, although difficult to see in the midst of such uncertainty, the involuntary change we needed to get back on target in the fulfilment of them. In the words of Heraclitus, “Change is the only constant we have,” so through continual adjustment we can become better prepared for what coming years may look like, and in doing so, lay a pathway for future generations, showing them compassion, community and adaptation withstands in a time of crisis.

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