Why Every Fashion Brand Should Start Thinking About Zero-Waste Design

Image: Zero Waste Design Online co-founder Cassandra Belanger’s work exploring issues such as zero waste, transparency, feminism, sizism, body image and colour therapy, Credit: ZWDO

While fashion’s waste problem was once the bane of production managers, Zero Waste Design Online believe that zero-waste principles should start with the designer. Ruth MacGilp speaks to the collective’s four female founders about why this new frontier of design thinking could help kickstart systemic change across the industry.

Zero Waste Design Online is a new community of designers, academics, home sewers and industry experts that aims to pool collective knowledge on zero waste design processes and transform garment construction through educational resources and collaborative workshops.

In this interview, I was joined by the community’s founders: Mylène L’Orguilloux, a French industrial designer, minimal waste design consultant and CAD specialist, Cassandra Belanger, Glasgow School of Art graduate and founder of The Stitchery, and Holly McQuillan, zero waste design researcher at the Swedish School of Textiles and co-author of Zero Waste Fashion Design with Timo Rissanen.

Alongside their colleague Danielle Elsener, fashion designer and founder of zero waste design system DECODE, they were brought together during lockdown with a shared passion for connecting practitioners across the world. Covid-19 provided the spark to set their online platform alight after hosting a virtual zero waste workshop during Fashion Revolution Week.

Shifting the conversation beyond zero waste design methods like whole garment knitting, 3D printing and digital sampling, towards more systemic change like localised manufacturing and collaborative supply chains, it becomes clear that zero waste fashion is so much more than just cleverly arranging pattern pieces. Here, we explore what the industry really needs to transition towards a fashion system without waste, and how brands can make a difference to reduce their impact.

Image: ZWDO believe that zero-waste principles should be incorporated from a garment's conception, starting with the design, Credit: ZWDO

At its core, what does zero waste fashion mean to you?

Holly: Zero waste in the context of fashion is anything that seeks to eliminate waste from the production of clothing. Broadly, you could think about what you could do with yarn waste, the waste from cutting out patterns, the waste from overproduction, the post-consumer waste, and how you incorporate all those things into a circular model.

For us specifically, most of our work has been about eliminating waste in the design of garments and the associated patterns so that we don’t have any waste when you cut them out. This is usually about 10-25% [of the fabric]. That waste is usually treated as a management problem, dealt with at the production stage. It might be collected, something like 10% might be recycled, and the rest is thrown away or incinerated.

Is that 10-25% fabric waste an industry standard?

Mylène: Every pattern will be very different. It really depends on the brand. I used to work for luxury brands and the amount of waste would sometimes reach 40%, especially when you work with print fabrics like checked fabric, because you have to match up prints. In my experience the average is probably about 20% across the industry.

Holly: It’s usually considered as something that production managers deal with, it’s not usually something that is a responsibility of design. It’s considered either inevitable, or something that someone else will deal with later. What zero waste design tries to do is highlight that it’s actually a problem for design, and it has direct implications between the design process and the production process. So in terms of a small brand wanting to do this, they need to think about how those two spheres of their business interact, because it’s really important that they are involved in both if they are trying to reduce or eliminate waste.

Is it a big problem then that these areas are split into departments and there’s not enough collaboration between them?

Holly: It’s probably the biggest problem. The bigger the company, the more siloed it is, and the more separation there is. A really big company might have designers who just sketch or make flat drawings and specifications, then they might get the pattern made in a completely different country, and then produced in a whole other country. It’s hard to implement holistic change in a system that is so disparate and separated.

It’s also hierarchical. There’s this real sense of ownership of design by designers. Depending on the brand and the relationship with the people they work with, it can be a huge roadblock. But at the same time, if there is a really great relationship between the designers and the pattern cutters and the sample machinists and production, then it’s a really great opportunity to make a big difference.

Image: Holly McQuillan’s shape-shifting transferral t-shirt, Credit: ZWDO
Image: Flat to form zero waste raglan t-shirt designed by Holly McQuillan and made by The Stitchery Studio, Credit: ZWDO

What needs to change in the fashion system in order to enable zero waste practices to be more effective?

Holly: A lot of the issues are not about design practice in isolation. Design is part of a system. It sounds self-evident, but in most cases in industry, design is considered one little moment in a big long machine.

Zero waste requires that you have an understanding of the fabric at a far more complex and deeper level than a conventional designer in industry normally has. For a start you have to broaden your scope as a designer. You aren’t just sketching a design that gets cut and made by somebody else. You have to be in this dialogue back-and-forth with the pattern maker and sample machinist. You’re broadening your sphere of the people you interact with.

Those boundaries between the different parts of the system need to break down completely. That’s not to say pattern cutters no longer have a job or that there’s not such a thing as a designer anymore, it’s just that everybody needs to be aware of the jobs that are immediately related to theirs in a much richer way. You actually need to have a conversation, talk to each other, be in the same room.

I’ve been working with a technical design team, with me here in Sweden and they were in the US, but we needed to get together so we did that at one of the factories. Not in a design studio, but actually where the things are produced. It was the first time they’d ever done that – a huge multinational company. Their designers had never actually worked alongside the people who produced the clothes, they just sent designs off and got them back a few months later. A whole heap of the problems we solved seemed to have nothing to do with design, but because I was there with a lens of zero waste thinking, I asked questions that maybe hadn’t been considered before. It not only changed how that particular garment was produced, but the entire way the system was operating.

Image: Holly McQuillan’s work in the field of zero waste fashion design articulates sustainable fashion systems and practice, Credit: ZWDO

With globalisation making all these parts so far away from each other and it being difficult to be in the same room even before Coronavirus, do you feel that localised production could help solve this?

Holly: Massively globalised distribution and all the silos in the industry are an obstacle to meaningful change. We can do two things: work within the existing system and try to tweak things, but you’re only going to get small change with that kind of action. Or we can localise all production, but we need to work out how to do that. In most economies it’s really difficult because it costs so much to produce clothes. And there’s this perception that clothes cost a certain amount, so it’s tied in with consumer behaviour and consumer expectations too. Also, there’s just not the capacity in terms of production in most countries. So I think we need to reduce production of most garments, we need to localise the production of garments to where the users are based, and we need to develop systems to enable us to do that. We need to relocalise the vast majority of our industry.

How can brands, whether they’re small independent designers or powerful influential brands, help make tweaks to their supply chain with zero waste thinking, or help further this system change by relocalising their production?

Holly: Most of the examples of successful zero waste implementation in the industry are by small to medium sized brands. The reason for that is that these silos and boundaries tend to be less evident, there tends to be more communication between employees and contractors, or it’s just one person who is both pattern cutter and designer.

Things that existing brands can do if they want to start thinking about zero waste is to look at their existing line and identify what’s the most wasteful in terms of pattern cutting. What is the worst performer? Things that have a high yield, use a lot of material and waste a lot of it. That’s where to start, the low hanging fruit, then you get used to the process and go from there.

In terms of big brands it’s a bit more complicated. They need to do that work at the higher level, looking at how different parts of the brand interact with each other. Work out what are the limitations in terms of manufacturing, and even things like importing rules. That was the weirdest thing I came up against in terms of implementing zero waste with an American company – because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), there was a complete legal separation. The company didn’t own their waste, so it meant that they had no financial skin in the waste game, it meant nothing, apart from what they felt morally responsible for. They don’t own the waste – it belongs to the factory, and the cost of it is built into the garment. So when you buy a garment, you’re also paying for that 10, 20 or 30% waste.

Image: Open-source zero-waste design circle dress pattern by Mylène L’Orguilloux, Credit: ZWDO
Image: Zero-waste menswear designer Danielle Elsener won Virgil Abloh’s new Active Movement sustainability grant earlier this year, Credit: ZWDO

It all comes down to accountability doesn’t it? A corporation does not have a moral compass, so we can’t guarantee they’ll do the right thing unless there is financial accountability.

Holly: There is no real financial imperative for them to reduce waste, because it’s built into the cost structure. So they need to have other motivations.

Cassandra: And legislation too.

Would you say that overproduction is the crux of the waste problem? Even as brands make tweaks in design and pattern cutting, if they are still producing the same amount, there will still be post-consumer waste. Is that the elephant in the room here?

Mylène: This is something I’ve been experiencing, and I get really sad about it! It’s cool to design eco products, and if you manage to reduce some kilos of carbon emissions that’s great, but if you continue to increase sales and you’re in a growth state, the final impact will be much bigger. The most zero waste approach would be to reduce the quantity.

Holly: If the company reduces the amount of waste and reduces the overall yield, that means they order less fabric. A fabric supplier doesn’t want you to order less fabric, it’s bad for business. And so they don’t want to collaborate with you.

Essentially, we overproduce at every single stage. We don’t only overproduce garments. We overproduce fabrics, we overproduce yarn, so at every point we are overproducing, and people are over consuming, so it just compounds everything. That’s how the fashion and textile industry was designed to be, and it was designed at a time when we thought it didn’t matter. When we thought we had limitless resources and the earth had limitless capacity to absorb all the stuff we were throwing away. There’s a huge mismatch between the way we do business and our lived reality. It’s not fit for purpose at all, and needs a pretty radical overhaul.

Finally, are there any real positives that have come out of your workshops so far that give you hope for the future industry?

Holly: The positive for me is how much people enjoy learning about it. They’re really thinking about what they buy, how they see the industry and building their own skills. That’s why I’ve been an educator for so long, it’s such a creative process. It’s almost like Sudoku, but in garment form.

Mylène: Yes, it’s been really cool to see new people and new projects around this topic. Even if it’s not perfect or they are just experimenting, it’s just really encouraging.

Cassandra: It’s been even better than we expected. I didn’t expect the workshops to do so well straight away. Even on our Instagram page, we’ve been quite surprised about how we’ve been able to build a community so quickly over there. We have industry, home sewers, students, lecturers, we bring all those different specialities together and we’re covering all the bases. That’s the power of a collective.