Zero Waste Fashion and the Next Great War

From a wasteful fashion industry emerges the Zero Waste movement.

It is said that the next great war will not be over oil, but water. So when it takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce a single pair of jeans, it is extraordinary that cloth has become a readily disposable commodity of little value. Indicative of this is the fact that on average 15 – 20% of cloth needed to produce a garment is wasted and the useless remnants are destined for the incinerator, landfill or occasionally as mattress filler.

In 2008 China, one of the world’s largest exporters of textiles and clothing produced 31.8 billion meters of fabric in January to July alone. You could reasonably estimate that almost 5 billion meters of that fabric was wasted. This astonishing wastefulness is caused by the entrenched traditions of the fashion industry, which separate the stages of garment design and production into hierarchies where the designers often work isolated from production. It is a system that fails to acknowledge that textiles are a finished product with energy invested into their design and manufacture and which seems primarily interested in the next new thing, forgetting also about what happens to garments at the end of their fashionable lives. So what’s being done about it?

Zero Waste cutting

Over the last couple of years I have had the privilege of working with Parsons Assistant Professor Timo Rissanen to bring together the work of 12 designers from all over the world in a zero waste fashion exhibition called Yield: Making Fashion Without Making Waste. All of these designers engage in some way with what has come to be known as Zero Waste Fashion Design (ZWFD). ZWFD involves designing clothing that in some way eliminates waste from the production or consumption of clothing.

This can be achieved in a number of ways and through various approaches; some designers use the left over fabric pieces to make other garments or products; others eliminate the creation of waste altogether when designing their patterns. Many designers use second hand clothing in order to remove waste from the post consumer end of the fashion consumption cycle, while others use innovative technology to make garments in completely new ways. All are in some way are addressing the huge volumes of textile waste contributed by the fashion and textile industry and consumers every year – a massive 30kg per person per year in UK and U.S.

Piles of second hand clothes for sale

Designing Out the Waste
Anybody who has cut out and sewn up a garment will be aware of the pieces between the pattern that are not incorporated into the finished garment. Many people save such offcuts for future projects, but there will typically be pieces that are either too small or oddly shaped to be of any use. These are routinely discarded, passing through the trash, en route to the landfill. In industry, markers are designed to eliminate as much of this wastage as possible in order to save money. However, the design of the garments is dictated by aesthetics and market alone, inevitably resulting in surplus pieces that cannot be used. The company can either creatively use this left over 15% to make different products, or by designing both the positive and negative spaces of the pattern it is possible to reduce this figure to zero. ZWFD aims to tick all the boxes of aesthetics, fit, market and zero waste.

The kimono as a historic example of Zero Waste cutting

These approaches, while sometimes appearing new, are in fact as old as clothing itself. For hundreds of years, aesthetics, and to a lesser extent functionality, have been the two pillars of fashion design, and when coupled with the slightly more contemporary desire for speed and change, has lead to the proliferation of too much fashion, too many collections, too often. Historically fashion was expensive because cloth was expensive and time consuming to produce. This meant it made sense to be careful about how you used the cloth you had and how you cared for the clothing you owned. Mending was common and using cloth frugally was standard practice – there are examples of “zero waste garments” from almost every continent and culture, and we’ve been practicing it for centuries.

Admittedly designing ZWF isn’t the easiest when first starting out. This type of design is not about numbers, it’s about experimentation, playfulness and taking a risk, all while being mindful of the impact of your actions. It slows the design of fashion down and forces many parts of the fashion chain to think about waste and material use from a design and production perspective. Many of the problems that exist in the fashion industry begin with ideas of separation, both geographical and hierarchical. Whether designer/producer, producer/consumer, consumption and disposal, the greater the distance and separation between the stakeholders in the fashion chain, the greater the likelihood of discordance and a lack of appreciation of what is really going on.

Holly McQuillan’s own Zero Waste Designs

Designing ZWF needs to be done with either a close relationship between designer and pattern cutter, or by a designer who is the pattern cutter, any other arrangement will be an exercise in futility. The change enables a close relationship between market, aesthetic and fabric yield to flourish, and from this, beautiful things are possible.

A designer attempting a zero waste garment design cannot simply ask, “have I used ALL of that piece of cloth?”

Doing only this would potentially result in garments that no one would want to purchase. So with ZWFD and indeed all sustainable design, aesthetics cannot be at the expense of the environment, just as the environment cannot be at the expense of aesthetics. There must exist a harmony between both.

Writer Holly McQuillan, is the Yield exhibit’s curator, and is also a designer and lecturer in the fashion design program at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington, New Zealand.

Top image: McQuillan’s Yield Exhibit in Chicago