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How to Design with Sustainability in Mind: 3 Case Studies

By: Alex Berryman

As brands adopt more sustainable practices, it's common to keep making the same products as before but instead, substitute making them with sustainable materials.

This not necessarily the wrong way to think about product development, but it does leave room for a "square peg, round hole" situation, where a brand will try to force a material to do something it is not meant to do. Some materials do not fit a certain product type, not all sustainable materials are created equal.

What if, instead of picking the product first, you flip the process on its head, and start by choosing a great material, then design the product? \

Many brands do just that! By leveraging the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses of materials in the design of the product, they create a higher-quality product that is made to be sustainable!

In this blog, we share some examples of brands we have worked with that designed with their materials selected first.

Digging the "Dhaka"

Noonday Collection champions artisanal designs through beautiful jewelry and accessories. They approached Purnaa wanting to explore the rich history and culture of Nepal's textiles. They chose to use Nepali dhaka fabric, a brightly patterned, woven material that is traditionally made into "topis" - Nepali hats - worn by community elders.

While dhaka is a beautiful fabric, it's a bit eccentric - it's a bit thick, floppy, and has loose strings on the back which could catch or snag. Its intricate weave requires a lot of setup time, and therefore involves larger MOQs, meaning the customer had to order quite a lot of material. Once the material and supplier was identified, Noonday's design team decided to make a large bag, with dhaka fabric as the main external material, and cotton, block printed material as the lining.

The dhaka worked perfectly! Because of its unstructured form, the bag could be packed into another bag - great for those trips when you know you’ll buy lots of souvenirs (back when we all could travel)! The loud print and pattern fit the artisanal yet sleek design, supported local artisans, creating a really functional and beautiful product for their customers.

Bamboo or Bust

Shema Apparel is an athleisure company with an unshakable commitment to using bamboo fabric in their product line, and for good reason. Bamboo is sustainable and functional, needing very little fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation, and not requiring replanting between harvests. It can be processed into fabric without harmful chemicals being used. Also, the final material is antimicrobial, can help to regulate body temperature, is softer than cotton, and less bulky, thus resulting in a beautiful draping effect.

The drawbacks are that it can be delicate to work with and expensive, especially Shema's particular fabric that had a four-way stretch. But Shema was committed to a very unique feel for their hoodies and the result is beautiful. Because of the draping and stretch of the bamboo, the brand created a more fitted rendition of a traditional hoody. The product is beautiful, functional, and quickly became the favorite of the brand's product offering.

Cozying Up to Organic Cotton

An established toy company came to Purnaa, asking us to make a cloth doll toy for their growing business. They offer a wide variety of products, but their main offering is cloth dolls made of organic cotton fleece. (For confidentiality agreements we won't mention their name here.)

They were committed to the organic cotton fleece for many reasons, but the pivotal one was avoiding toxic chemicals. Not only did this choice earn them points with their customers and the planet, but it also ensured they automatically adhered to CPSC regulations on children's toys - many organic materials do not use the chemicals that would otherwise be flagged.

Additionally, this material was incredibly strong and soft, creating a toy that can withstand the wear and tear of childhood. This brand has become known for its soft and high-quality products, gathering a loyal following of customers that feel they are receiving a quality and safe product that aligns with their values.

When you think about materials not as a means to an end, but as the essence of your business and product, then you can develop really special and unique products. We were so honored to work with each of these businesses to manufacture their items, which went on to be valued by their customers.

At Purnaa, we understand the strengths and limitations of the material and work with brands to create innovative and quality products through thoughtful design. To check out more companies we have worked with, see our Company Profile, and to start manufacturing with us, submit your design (or material preferences) here.


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