Zero-Waste Fashion: Trends in Creating Waste-Free Clothes

The need for a shift from effective waste management to zero waste creation is a resounding message in books like The Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli and Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braugart and William McDonough. Fashion is the second most polluting industry after the oil industry. In material landfill waste alone (disregarding chemical pollution and water wastage), North America sends about 10.5 million tons of fabric waste to the landfill annually, and the UK 1 million tonnes. Fabric waste in landfills take hundreds of years to biodegrade and emits toxins into the environment in the process.

While much of material waste comes from consumers, the pre-consumer production chain is a significant contributor. On average, 15% of fabric is discarded on factory floors during cutting, assembly and quality-checking stages. This may sound negligible, but with nearly 400 billion square meters of fabric being produced per year, the amount of pre-consumer waste alone is enough to cover all of Ireland.

The zero-waste principle urges business models to emulate nature. In Gunter Pauli’s words, nature does not produce waste but maintains a balance between its elements. Many fashion designers and manufacturers around the world are implementing zero-waste production solutions. The key objective for them is to move away from the traditional take-make-dispose model of production to one where, theoretically, waste doesn’t exist in the value chain.

Mark Liu applies modern science and mathematics to zero-waste pattern-making. Source: ecouterre

The average urban shopper today is conditioned to expect racks of identical clothes in multiple colours across a range of sizes. Mass production spews out identical garments at low costs by cutting and sewing predefined patterns. As a result, plenty of off-cuts are left behind after patterns are cut because little consideration is given to using a piece of fabric well. Even the mildest deviances in colours and designs may be discarded because they will not yield identical products.

Fashion designers and educators Timo Rissanen, Julian Roberts and Holly McQuillan based in three corners of the world have been exploring, developing and teaching zero-waste fashion designing methods. From creating pattern pieces that interlock with each other like a jigsaw to subtraction cutting and hollow construction, alternative methods are being adopted with the primary intention of avoiding waste by design. Rissanen believes that waste should be as much a consideration for designers as appearance, fit and cost. UK-based Mark Liu has repeatedly displayed zero-waste fashion at the London Fashion Week and has proven that style and zero-waste design can coexist.

Zero waste fashion manufacture

3D printing of clothes at large scales is an imminent possibility and another zero-waste avenue. Source: Bloomberg

Manufacturers have long used computer software to optimise fabric usage and reduce waste, mainly for economical purposes. Indian fashion designer Siddhartha Upadhyaya puts computers at work for a smart tailoring technique called Direct Pattern on Loom (DPOL). In place of weaving rectangles of fabric that are then cut, DPOL computers weave fabric from the loom to the required pattern shape, thereby eliminating waste creation. His brand, August, not only reduces fabric waste by 15%, but also saves on energy, labour, time and chemical usage.

Seamless knitting is an older method where the yarn is directly knit into finished garments. It avoids the need to cut fabric and thus reduces waste generation. This technique is most used for sportswear, knitwear, undergarments and safety gear. Nike’s Flyknit technology and Adidas’ Adizero Primeknit, both based on seamless knitting, have engineered popular shoes and apparel that have come to be known for their comfort. Seamless knit garments are sold at many leading brands like Lacoste, Gap, Old Navy, Prada, D&G and Burberry.

Upcycling industrial discards

Garments created from reclaimed industrial fabric material. Source: From Somewhere

The popularity and awareness that recycling enjoys tends to outshine the simplicity of upcycling – the far more economical and quicker way of repurposing readily available, perfectly useable but discarded material. Orsola de Castro, who pioneered the reclaiming of unwanted surplus from the textile industry through UK-based brand From Somewhere, says upcycling stands for reduction of landfill mass and slowing down of unnecessary virgin production. She believes that waste is a real opportunity, not just a by-product of mass consumption.

Garment brands worldwide are discovering beauty in industrial leftovers. TRMTAB transforms leather scraps from factories around the world into limited edition, refined leather accessories. Looptworks is a social enterprise and B-corp that rescues high-quality excess materials and turns them into premium bags and accessories. Seamly produces garments using surplus fabric from other factories and designers. The perfect matching handbag, wallet, scarf, tie or even jewellery for a garment could lie in its own offcuts.

What this means to the consumer

The results of zero-waste techniques are often unique garments that mould themselves to the nature and dimensions of the initial fabric. Also, some garments create far less waste during production than others. Traditional garments like Indian sarees, Japanese kimonos and African kangas and kitenges, to name a few, can be manufactured with minimal cutting and nearly no wastage. Embracing traditional wear, ignoring the lookalike shelves and taking the time to pick out unique, handcrafted clothing for one’s wardrobe are only some ways that consumers can support zero-waste fashion production. 

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