Unsupported browser

You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Sign up for an Award

Participate with your entry in one of our professional or student awards.

Sign up for an award

Sign up for a Profile

Create your own profile and publish it in the iF WORLD DESIGN GUIDE.

Sign up for a profile

Learn more:

iF SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE

Present your project for free and win your share of EUR 50,000 in prize money.

Publish your project
Elisabet Elfa of Patagonia on sustainable fashion design

The Establishment of Sustainable Design: Interview with Patagonia's Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir - Part One

Sustainability is a buzzword, finding its way into all aspects of modern life. Many manufacturers put sustainability into their brand identity, while more and more companies begin to develop eco-friendly or reusable products. In major parts of society, there is a shift in perspective towards a more conscious lifestyle, far away from over-consumption. People tend to love sustainable products more - iF juror and designer at outdoor outfitter Patagonia Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir knows exactly why.

As social commitment is a matter of heart at iF, with the SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE and the iF DESIGN TALENT AWARD, we wanted to know more.

In the interview below, the young designer gives insight into her design philosophy and work and explains how designers put sustainability first in their creative processes.

This interview is part one of two.

iF: What meaning does the word ‘sustainability’ have for you personally?

Sustainability implies that an activity or system is truly circular, and that we take no more from nature than it can renew. To my knowledge we have not reached sustainability in any human economic activity yet, but the possibility to get there has never been better. For me, sustainability is a broad word that includes many things I prefer to break down. Words I use most frequently and that I feel people connect with better are: integrity; balance; responsibility and respect.

  • Integrity

The quality of having strong morals and principals. Doing the right thing and not changing your sails on the count of the wind. We know that exploiting people for a company’s economical gain is not ethical. It is the same with our planet; exploiting it for economical gain is a long-term loosing strategy for all of us.

  • Balance

A state of stability. We need to balance earth’s biocapacity with our ecological footprint. Since 1970, when Earth Overshoot Day was on the 29th December, we have been collecting a debt that seems to have a high interest rate. As a result of our growing thirst for consumption and the expanding global population, in 2019 Earth Overshoot Day was the 29th of July.

  • Responsibility

Responding to an action with integrity. As humans we’re responsible for our actions and the resulting reactions. We can’t continue to threaten the livelihoods of future generations for pure economical gain of a few individuals here and now. I believe that in the future we will not only have human rights, we will have ‘planet rights’.

  • Respect

Treating and thinking highly of our planet and its capacity to sustain life in all its forms. Nature has solved all problems in a way that sustains the system that is life on earth. We humans have much to learn before we reach that capability. We need to respect our planet and all its inhabitants and organisms. We also need to respect how our lifestyle and choices impact the stability of our climate for all future generations.

Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir, Patagonia, Ventura, CA, United States

Elísabet Elfa Arnasdottir, Patagonia, Ventura, CA, United States

Elísabet Elfa is a designer at Patagonia. Her design aspirations go beyond creating a perfect product to encompass its minimal or even positive impact in terms of sustainability. Elísabet completed her studies in 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in Sustainable Fashion Design at the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology and spent the first six years of her career as a member of the Fjällräven design team. Her products have won numerous international awards, for example as the overall winner and recipient of the sustainability award at the Scandinavian Outdoor Awards, the ISPO Award for Outer Down Layer and Best Backpacking Equipment of the Year by Backpacker Magazine. Alongside her other work, Elísabet was involved in the design and development module of the so-called Higg Index, a web-based tool for teaching and evaluating products with regard to various environmental factors.

More

iF: You studied sustainable fashion design and started a career in companies that are, kind of, epitomes of sustainable fashion design. How did your experiences differ in the work as a designer for these companies as opposed to your studies? Any surprises?

I’ll share with you three things I’ve come away with in my years in the industry.

#1 Inspire to change
When I was at school, I believed that people – world leaders, politicians, business owners and end users – would do the right thing if only they were presented with the science of what impact humans are having on our home planet. After entering the workforce, I have learned that decisions are driven by different incentives that are often quite personal. I’ve also learned that meeting individuals where they are and trying to present ideas from their perspectives yields better results than lecturing. It’s hard for an individual that feels judged to be open minded and take in new ideas and or change their behavior.

#2 Doing good needs to turn a profit
I think the hardest lesson I’ve learnt is that it’s not possible to do good just because it is the right thing to do; it needs to yield results and support the bottom line of the company – it needs to be profitable. This may be obvious to many, but my sense of justice and doing the right thing has sometimes blinded me. It is with experience and my ever-growing interest in the business side of companies that I see where the possibilities for change and improvement lie.

#3 A brand’s most important asset is its philosophy
I’ve noticed in the past decade that people increasingly buy into a brand’s philosophy before they buy into its products. We have never had more products and brands to choose between; and their product selections are often very similar. Yet we have to make a choice of which one to get. What toothpaste? What pasta sauce? Or should I make my own with organic or regenerative tomatoes? This, combined with wanting to make the most responsible choice for oneself and the environment, often ends up in decision fatigue and paralyzes the individual as the research needed to do before purchasing is ever growing. It is in this landscape I’ve seen a strong brand philosophy or message be the most effective way to reach people. If I know a brand message and believe in their philosophy, I can buy whichever product they make without extensive research

iF: How can we imagine your design/work process? How much does it probably differ from common fashion designers?

In my opinion fashion and the outdoor industry are driven by different objectives. Yes, they both providing clothing to shield our bodies from the elements in a way that appeals to our sense of style. But differences lie in how each industry weighs in vanity versus functionality.

Sustainable Fashion Design, explained by Patagonia's Elisabet Elfa

Fashion appeals more greatly to vanity, often with bold silhouettes, style lines and colors that quickly become obsolete. The need to stay ‘on-trend’ requires a higher rate of consumption. The outdoor industry on the other hand, appeals more to functionality and comfort while you peruse an activity. The main aim is to keep you dry, warm, comfortable and without restriction of movement while you enjoy the outdoors. There are trends within the outdoor industry as well, the key difference in my opinion is the speed at which things change and the acceptance by wearers to not deem garments obsolete purely on grounds of style and color. If you are a rad skier in a busted-up jacket or in last season’s colors, you’re still a rad skier. The same doesn’t apply for a fashionista. In the climbing community it is sometimes said “don’t trust people with shiny gear”, with the idea being that if their gear is new, they’re more likely to be a novice. A garment that shows visible wear or that might even be repaired a few times has history and memories, increasing it emotional value and lengthening the life of the garment. The best things any owner of clothing can do to lessen its impact on the climate and earth’s resources is to keep it for a long time, maintain it and repair it when needed.

The best things any owner of clothing can do to lessen its impact on the climate and earth’s resources is to keep it for a long time, maintain it and repair it when needed.

In the past decade or so, the fashion industry has slowly been waking up to the fabric developments the outdoor industry has worked hard to develop. It now realizes there is no need to be wet, cold or generally uncomfortable. Many of the new up-and-coming brands are a new sort of hybrid between the outdoor and fashion industries. The marketplace is become more exciting as a result, and is growing rapidly with an immense opportunity for wrapping sustainability, functionally and style in one.

iF: Sustainability is no short-lived trend anymore. The consciousness according to these lifestyles is growing, especially among younger consumers. Still, sustainable products seem to not reach the mainstream market overall. Do you agree? What are the reasons?

The younger generations today have realized the urgency of changing our ways, as they will be alive to potentially experience the massive implications of global warming scientists are predicting. They understand we have to act now. And if you don’t believe me look at the Fridays for Future movement and take in Greta Thunbergs words:

“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us. I say we will never forgive you.”

Any company or industry that wants to stay in business needs to pivot their model toward a more responsible and resilient one. I was excited to see that Harley Davidson is launching an electric motor bike in 2020, as they realize that the younger demographic will demand a fossil fuel-free world. If a company like Harley Davidson, that has created their business around gas guzzling motorcycles, can pivot to a more sustainable practice there is hope for all companies.

I don’t believe it should solely be up to consumers to push for change with their purchasing power. With the help of governments and regulations we can create positive feedback loops in our economy that push for the change of the industry and can create exponential change. I encourage everyone to look up the Climate Interactive, Tools For A Thriving Future by John Sterman, PhD

It is also important to realize that if you’re not paying ‘full’ price for items someone else is: the farmers, the garment workers or the environment. When you buy a low-priced t-shirt it’s likely someone else in the value chain or the environment picked up the bill. It has never been more important to start valuing more than just price. The best product from an environmental standpoint is the one you use for the longest time. 

Sustainable Design in the iF DESIGN AWARD 2020 Selection

The Eco® FW19 Recycled Collection glasses come with a magnetic sun clip-on which, with a simple snap, turns them into sunglasses. The magnet is seamlessly integrated into the rim-lock of the slim metal frame and is completely hidden from view, making the transformation even more remarkable. All Eco® glasses are made from recycled metal and bio-plastic derived from castor oil. Moreover, to offset the carbon cost of production a tree is planted for every frame purchased.
iF gold award: Eco FW19 Recycled Collection, Discipline Product

The Eco® FW19 Recycled Collection glasses come with a magnetic sun clip-on which, with a simple snap, turns them into sunglasses. The magnet is seamlessly integrated into the rim-lock of the slim metal frame and is completely hidden from view, making the transformation even more remarkable. All Eco® glasses are made from recycled metal and bio-plastic derived from castor oil. Moreover, to offset the carbon cost of production a tree is planted for every frame purchased.

New clothing brand, ALEPH APPAREL commissioned ADDLESS to create its packaging structure and graphic identity. The result presents the consumer with two sustainable options: to recycle or to upcycle the box to a hanger! 100% glue-less and printed on fully recyclable and biodegradable FSC sustainably managed forest paper.
ALEPH APPAREL upcyclepack, Discipline Packaging

New clothing brand, ALEPH APPAREL commissioned ADDLESS to create its packaging structure and graphic identity. The result presents the consumer with two sustainable options: to recycle or to upcycle the box to a hanger! 100% glue-less and printed on fully recyclable and biodegradable FSC sustainably managed forest paper.

The stylish bottle is 100% watertight and features a handy carrying strap, so it’s easy to take with you. It is made of BPA-free plastic, so it contains no bisphenol, phthalates or heavy metals. The bottle is dishwasher-safe, but the lid must be washed by hand.
Backpack drinking bottle, Eva Solo

The stylish bottle is 100% watertight and features a handy carrying strap, so it’s easy to take with you. It is made of BPA-free plastic, so it contains no bisphenol, phthalates or heavy metals. The bottle is dishwasher-safe, but the lid must be washed by hand.

  • 01/03

iF: Patagonia’s whole philosophy is based on sustainability, sustainable design. They managed to become a popular lifestyle brand, that even popstars and influencers wear. What did Patagonia especially do right? Is it the design or the philosophy?

What I think has been an extraordinary success factor for Patagonia and its journey towards sustainability is the founder, Yvon Chouinard, and his strong belief in doing the right thing.

Before Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard started Chouinard Equipment. After seeing the degradation and disfiguration their biggest and best-selling product, pitons, caused on the rocks and walls they loved to climb they phased out pitons and started to sell equipment for clean climbing and to promote and educate climbers on why their way was better. I believe Yvon and Chouinard Equipment didn’t do it for the profits. The profits and success came as a result of doing the right thing. This mind set and high integrity has shaped Patagonia’s history and they have set out to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis through showing that doing the right thing is profitable; it’s karma to some degree. Even now in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, Patagonia is not backing out of their commitment to the environment and grassroots organizations. With 'One Percent for the Planet' they tax themselves in a good year, and in a rough one.

I believe that today people buy Patagonia products primarily because of what the company stands for and secondly for the products they make. Don’t get me wrong, their products are fantastic, their philosophy and integrity just goes beyond them.

Patagonia recently changed its mission statement from “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” to “In Business to Save our Home Planet”. For me, this shows that they understand the urgency of the environmental crisis. When I met Yvon, he looked me in the eye and said, “you are here to save our home planet”. I was terrified, excited and proud to have been chosen to be a part of a team that is striving to do the best it can every day.

Read more on Elisabets idea on sustainability and how designers cope with this trend in their work in Part 2! Coming soon, stay tuned!

Have a great sustainable design as well?