When Japan fashioned the kimono during its Heian period as early as 794, it certainly did not qualify as zero waste design.
But the kimono, which uses a single piece of fabric and very limited cuts, is an age-old example of more efficient clothing manufacturing that holds great significance for a fashion industry struggling to reduce its outsized footprint – also known as the name of tons and tons and tons. of waste. (The UN needs to get inventive with ways to express how bad the situation is in its climate reports, the last of which was “it’s now or never.”
No more WWD
Often, zero waste is lumped together with the granola-hemp-fabric-not-sleek kind of stereotypes of sustainable fashion, but in a workshop of the recent Fairchild Media Group. Sustainability Forum, Shelly Xu was on a mission to demystify this.
The need for more efficient use of fabrics is obvious: according to Xu, nearly 90% of emissions resulting from the production of garments can be attributed to fabric, and this same fabric is also a major contributor to textiles contributing 20% of global wastewater. But a zero-waste mentality can cut fabric usage, and therefore cost, into double digits. And it can also reduce working hours, and therefore costs.
“Zero waste is actually a window into business opportunities and creative opportunities through the product,” said Xu, the brainchild of Shelly Xu Designs and a Harvard alum who has stints at Prada, McKinsey & Co. and Instagram on his CV. About Shelly Xu Designs, or SXD, she said, “We’re a group of designers and engineers coming together to think about how we really combine art and science to create designs that are effective but also really good. for our climate? »
And the SXD Group – for those who don’t want to fund a zero waste design lead or retrain existing designers entirely – is building software that can take any sketch and turn it into a zero waste model. .
First, however, Xu wants to set the record straight.
“Myth: zero waste is expensive”
Everything associated with sustainability is often considered more expensive than its non-green, but zero-waste counterpart. Xu said, “may actually be a business opportunity.”
With a zero-waste jacket designed by SXD, which used 100% recycled fabric and a pattern that only needed to be cut eight times (“compared to a traditional jacket design which easily equals 50 cuts,” said Xu), the company was able to save 75% on the material cost of the jacket.
“And, when we worked with seamstresses, we saw that people actually worked about half the number of hours to create a jacket that was zero waste with us compared to a traditional jacket,” Xu said.
“Myth: zero waste limits creativity”
For many designers, any constraint might seem to stifle creative freedom, but Xu argues that the parameters of zero-waste design might actually pose a new creative challenge.
“When we just launched SXD, we actually started thinking, can we take some of the coolest designs like that dress Zendaya wore [a merlot Alaïa two-piece for the Venice Film Festival in 2021] on the red carpet and start thinking about how we can create zero waste versions of it so that zero waste designs can be really universal and really accessible to a lot of people,” she explained. Xu tinkered with a zero-waste model for Alaïa and discovered that there would be ways to save money.
In a recent project with Desigual, taking on one of its best-selling hoodies, going zero waste proved a huge win for the Spanish brand.
“The result was that we were able to save around 20-30% of the fabric for many zero-waste versions,” Xu said. “So basically you get less material consumption, less cost while still being able to get the same classic popular styles that people love from your customer base.”
“Myth: zero waste is not scalable”
Many people, who may not have dug deep enough into the possibilities of zero waste, often think it means using scraps of fabric and patching them together, Xu said. And if that were the case, the resulting unique creations would be difficult to scale. However, this is actually not the case.
“Some of the biggest problems with fabric waste are actually the over-ordered materials, the raw fabrics that aren’t enough to create a new pattern run, a new production run, and it’s actually the materials that are left over and we can actually use it to create quite scalable products,” she said.
That’s where SXD’s developing software comes in.
“In the not so distant future you can use this software and basically your designers can illustrate in the app and right away they can start taking leftover fabrics from a fabric library to apply to their sketch,” Xu said. “And then right now we’re working on the back-end algorithm that directly, in real time, transforms that sketch into a zero-waste model, which you can see how it matches your design vision. We’re also building to sides [that] a simulation of how this design would actually look like in a person.
This means reducing the often months-long production process “to near real time”, she added. “And as you can see, it’s highly scalable because it literally goes from a sketch, an idea, and fabrics you have, to something that’s zero waste.”
“Myth: zero waste means almost no fabric scraps”
Continuing to counter the myths around zero waste, Xu said that also doesn’t mean there’s no leftover fabric scraps at the end. What this really means, when approached intentionally, is “a holistic approach to the circular economy” with the potential for positive impacts at all levels, she said.
By making prototypes to test zero-waste designs, SXD was able to see reductions in carbon footprint by using leftover fabric instead of virgin fabric, which meant there was no need for dyes or dyestuffs. neither did the water they needed to do their job. And the concept has proven energizing for a growing cohort of conscious creators.
“Even with the first 100 zero-waste prototypes we’ve produced on the SXD side, we’ve seen over 2 million people interacting, downloading our designs, wanting to learn more about what’s possible,” Xu said. “It’s also something that I think can really inspire the next generation of designers.”
“Myth: Producing with zero waste is more difficult and reduces wages”
Social impact and fair wages can sometimes be pushed aside when the constant focus on sustainability is tied to the environment, but the three cannot be separated.
While some may believe the perceived difficulty of zero-waste designs will drive down wages, Xu said the opposite is the case.
“We’ve actually found that having really effective zero-waste designs can sometimes support ethical work and enable higher wages,” she said.
In an SXD prototype, the team created a zero-waste denim jacket with garment workers in Bangladesh, using fabric at the end of rolls (“too small for another production”, per Xu) found in factories in the country. Beyond the jackets sold and the presence of a loyal fan base, the company was able to pay for its cost savings.
“We were able to have really efficient designs that allowed us to pass on our cost savings and pay these seamstresses four times the local wage. And a lot of these seamstresses that we hired, they were climate refugees in Bangladesh, people who were displaced, who lost their homes because of the floods, because of the rising sea levels,” said she declared. “One of our climate refugees was finally able to retire her aging parents because her income from working alone with us was actually enough to support the family.
“That’s the kind of impact you can have where you really pay attention to the type of design you’re doing from the start,” Xu said. “And having a work ethic and having sustainable products can actually go hand in hand.”