Fashion has many different faces! It can be a tool to achieve aesthetics, some may see it as an art, while others use it to express themselves. But I think we can agree that before all it's an industry that promotes beauty. Paradoxically, trying to attain beauty driven by toxic vanity can in fact create something ugly (and dirty too). The proof is in the numbers, textiles generate 92 million tonnes of waste every year and occupy more than 5% of the landfill space.
And it is not just waste, it's also global warming, the oceans and woods, animal and human rights, the list goes on and on. It is a lot to swallow, isn't it? So many heartbreaking stories surround the modern fashion industry. Sustainability advocates do a great job at raising awareness, but with so much going on, it is common to feel powerless to change the course of direction from where we stand.
Luckily it doesn't have to be this way. With frameworks like Zero Waste, individuals get a protocol for action and more importantly become members of a community. And yes, the main goal of the movement is reducing waste, but the positive side effects span way beyond that. In order to achieve its objective, Zero Waste has created a behavioral hierarchy that promotes slow consumption and continual use of resources. Here it is in a nutshell:
- Refuse what you don't need.
- Reduce what you do need.
- Reuse what you already have.
- Recycle or Compost what you can't Reuse.
- Dispose of only what is left.
Sustainability is about all of that. And even if zero-waste is not the full package, I should say it's pretty close.
The more I find about it, the more surprised I'm at how creative people can get when it comes to reducing general/everyday waste. But how do those same principles apply to our clothes? Let's start by defining what zero-waste means in the context of fashion.
Zero-waste is most commonly associated with the act of individuals who are taking steps to reduce their own landfill footprint - or consumer stage zero-waste. In fashion (and other industries), however, we are usually referring to the production of garments.
Zero-waste fashion aims to fully utilize textile resources
- through redesigning the cut and sew process so that no fabric is wasted during manufacturing, e.g. "zero-waste design" or "zero-waste cutting pattern"
- by reusing materials (deadstock) from collections that didn't sell and will be otherwise headed to a landfill or incinerator.
In the next subsections, we'll find out about the different types of waste and how some of the most conscious fashion labels innovate in their attempt to keep a clean planet.
Pre-consumer: Textile Waste in Manufacturing
Traditionally the textile is cut in a pattern to fit the intended garment design which leaves gaps that cannot be used. An estimated 15-20% of the fabric is wasted with this approach. On a large scale that's a substantial amount of resources invested in producing materials just to throw them away.
Zero-waste brands usually address the problem in one of two ways:
- Zero-waste design starts with a fixed size fabric on which the clothing elements are sketched to fit like a jigsaw puzzle. The intention is to reduce the leftovers, while not using textile in excess. It is a holistic technique in which the garment design and material dimensions are optimally planned.
This is an unconventional approach that requires a lot more design work to create unique cutting patterns in all product sizes. Clearly, it is not something that mass-producing fast fashion brands are considering when new styles are popping in their stores every week or so.
- Another way manufacturers minimize waste is by repurposing the off-cuts to make accessories such as scrunchies, collections featuring scraps, or even use them to repair returned clothes. In some cases, cuts can be turned back into yarn which is woven or knitted again to create new usable fabrics.
Great examples for addressing the manufacturing waste crisis are:
Mayamiko is a responsible womenswear brand that has set ambitious zero-waste goals for itself. They promise to find a use for all scraps and turn them into something new. What can't be used for clothing goes for headbands, doormats, jewelry, or sanitary pads donated to women and girls in need. The brand produces in limited quantities and employs a zero-waste pattern cutting technique to fully utilize their fabrics.
Zero Waste Daniel
Zero Waste Daniel is a zero-waste lifestyle pioneer who uses pre-consumer waste (deadstock) sourced from NYC’s garment industry. Daniel's ReRoll sewing technique creates unique fashion pieces that absorb one hundred percent of the textile goods that are brought into their make/shop. The brand also has the policy to keep all scraps until they are used and sends nothing to landfills.
Palava offers vibrant vintage-style clothing in limited quantities. This makes each fashion piece they create rather special and deadstock isn't even a thing for them. Palava minimizes pre-consumer waste by making accessories from the left-over fabric after their dresses and skirts have been cut.
Amour Vert is a sustainable fashion brand that makes classic staples in timeless designs. Its zero-waste styles are made using all pieces of the fabric and no scraps are wasted or left behind during the production process.
Pre-consumer: Deadstock Fabric Waste
Deadstock is the inventory that remained unsold for longer than it can be kept in stock. The moment garments leave the stores to be replaced by new collections, they are already considered deadstock. The same is also true for textile bolts that were overproduced or didn't find a market.
Overplanning is a standard procedure in modern clothing supply chains because higher volume also means lower price per count. It is estimated that approximately 15 - 20% of clothes have to leave the stores before they reach the consumer. Many of them are being sent to a charity in the developing world, end up in second-hand stores, are burned for energy, or disposed of in landfills. In one case Burberry burned 28.6 million worth of inventory - unsold clothes, accessories, and perfumes.
Upcycling these fabrics to produce new higher quality garments is likely one of the better things that can happen. With that, the economic value is largely retained or even increased, while generating little to no additional resources and waste.
Zero-waste brands often buy deadstock to do just that. They would use the textile as it is to design new apparel collections or convert it into yarn that can be woven or knitted to create new fabrics.
Here are a few of the most recognized names in the industry using deadstock:
Tonlé creates women's clothing, accessories, and homewares from reclaimed materials that other manufacturers consider waste. Many of their styles are available in limited quantities because of the amount of fabric they are able to source. They use a combination of high-quality deadstock, scraps, and upcycled textiles. And if that's not enough, they also cut the majority of garments by hand to utilize every inch of the material.
Mud Jeans are making quality jeans with a circular approach to materials. The main components in their jeans are eco-friendly organic and recycled cotton. They will take your old jeans back and run them through multiple shredders until they become fibers again. The recycled fibers are then blended with virgin organic cotton to bring life to the denim fabric used to create their new styles.
Dorsu is all about slow and considered basics and seasonless staples for men and women. Their collections are produced using remnant fabrics from Cambodia's garment industry.
Christy Dawn is a fashion designer of dresses and accessories inspired by vintage clothing handmade made in Los Angeles. Every piece in Christy's Dawn deadstock collection is made from the rescued and revitalized fabric that would otherwise be cast aside. Each style is available in limited quantities, with pieces often being only one or two of a kind.
Why Deadstock May Not Be As Sustainable?
The deadstock market largely exists on the shoulders of an unsustainable industry. It does mitigate some of its negative effects, but realistically it is very far from fixing it. Arguably, it is another channel for businesses to get rid of the surplus so they don't need to consider reducing production. A lot of value is lost in this process, while the total footprint (and waste) increases.
Post-consumer Textile Waste
This is clothing headed to the second-hand market. And trust me, we are talking big numbers here.
The average time we keep our clothes has decreased by 36% in the past 15 years. And 7 is the number of times we actually wear them. Meanwhile, the rate of consumption increases exponentially on a global scale.
So what are the things we do to fix the stats?
Thrifting / Buying Second-hand
Thrifting is probably the last chance to divert clothes from landfills. Many of the items in second-hand stores are brand new or minimally used because of the fast fashion market. It is also a very cost-effective way to shop with less impact on the planet.
thredUP - online consignment & thrift store
Depop - fashion marketplace app where you can discover unique vintage and preloved items
eBay - doesn't need an intro, just make sure to switch on the advanced filter to search items in "Used Condition"
Patagonia Worn Wear - used Patagonia clothing and gear
Eileen Fisher Renew - used Eileen Fisher clothing, cleaned, and is ready for its next life.
Is Thrifting Ethical?
A lot of the time it is, especially when it comes to waste. But it's not all black and white.
Some of the more popular thrift stores haven't lived to the expectations of the conscious consumer. Even though they don't run their own manufacturing, they still employ people and run facilities. In fact, worker rights and social policy issues are some of the most commonly reported in the second-hand segment.
Another thing to keep in mind is that second-hand stores also source deadstock collections from the fast fashion industry, so the issues with deadstock can apply to thrifting.
Contrary to the perception, shopping second-hand is NOT equal to zero environmental impact. By participating in the market, your footprint is proportional to the value of the goods you purchase. So for instance, if you thrift a t-shirt for $25 instead of $50 (the original price), you contribute to half of the impact created by this t-shirt.
Of course, that's not to say that thrifting is bad, it is just to give more clarity on what happens under the hood.
In conclusion, thrifting is a great way to reduce waste, but it can't be an excuse to shop in excess and there's a risk that you are supporting an unethical business.
Some ethical fashion brands go above and beyond to keep their products in the loop as long as possible. There are some great examples that implement in-house take-back programs so you can return old clothes and thus reduce your waste footprint.
Many of those companies will repair your clothes for free, restore and sell them as preloved items, or use the old fabric for new upcycled designs. If you think about it, this a great holistic approach to waste reduction. After all who knows and cares more about fabrics than the brand which manufactured them?
The best part is that you can choose on which side of the process you want to be. You can be buying ethical low-impact products and send them back or shop preloved and upcycled styles to further extend their lifetime.
Patagonia Worn Wear
Worn Wear is Patagonia's marketplace for used products. If you have an old item that's no longer being used, you can return it and they will give you credit towards your next purchase on a used or new garment. Used products in good and great condition are directly listed for sale on the platform, while old defective items are repurposed/upcycled to become part of the ReCrafted collection.
Eileen Fisher Renew
As part of Eileen Fisher's vision for a future without waste, over 1.5 million pieces have been taken back since 2009 - to be resold, donated, or remade into new designs. The Renew program allows you to extend the lifecycle of your Eileen Fisher clothes by passing them on to someone else, or vise versa. And if you are stopping by make sure to also check out the ReSewn collection featuring one-of-a-kind pieces made from damaged clothes.
Nudie Jeans Re-use
Nudie Jeans wants your jeans back. If you return them you will receive 20% off a new pair. Your pre-loved jeans will be restored and sold second-hand, which btw saves a lot of energy and water. Nudies also come with free repairs for life, with many service spots around the world.
Mud Jeans (as previously mentioned) will take your old jeans and recycle them. They are the first ever to implement a leasing model with the option to keep or swap jeans at the end of a 12 month subscription period.
Swedish Stocking is a sustainable brand that wants to clean up the hosiery industry. They will accept 3 or more pairs of synthetic pantyhose from any brand and give you 10% off your next purchase. The technology to create new stockings from old is not quite there yet, so the raw materials will be used as a filler in industrial fiberglass tanks.
Can you recycle clothing? What you need to know.
Recycling is a proven way to make circular use of materials and limit landfill waste. Yet only 15% of all textiles end up being recovered.
Any fabric will eventually deteriorate, so if you want to be proactive about it, it is important to know which textiles can be recycled prior to purchasing.
Let's start with a reminder that recycling technologies are still limited in handling composite materials. Most textiles are being recycled through a mechanical process that shreds the fabric into tiny pieces before
- pulling apart the fibers for yarn spinning (cotton, wool, and other natural fibers)
- or melting them into chips from which new fibers are extruded (polyester, nylon, etc.)
The mechanical method can't separate different materials which makes it hard/impossible to recycle blends. A batch may be spoiled even if the blend contains just 2-3% spandex (elastane) - very common.
Be mindful that sometimes even clothes claiming 100% cotton, for instance, are sewn with polyester or nylon threads that can be problematic. Other things complicating the recycling process are rigid parts (like buttons and zippers), dyes, prints, and other finishes.
A simple rule is to prefer unblended clothing with fewer finishes. Be sure to also remove any hard elements before heading to the recycling facility.
If you are not sure if there's a recycling spot near you, the Earth911 can be a useful tool to locate one.
But what if recycling is not an option?
In some cases, it may be possible to close the loop by returning the minerals to the environment.
Can You Compost Clothes?
The first thing to consider is whether the clothes are made of 100% biodegradable materials. This includes:
- natural fibers like cotton, wool, hemp, linen, etc.
- man-made cellulose - e.g. viscose, modal, lyocell, cupro
In their pure form and under favorable conditions, they will decompose relatively quickly (in less than 6 months).
Petroleum-based textiles such as polyester and nylon are a no-go. But even fabrics from natural materials that are heavily treated/finished with chemicals can pose risks to soil and water pollution. Such examples and toxic dyes containing dioxin, formaldehyde, and heavy metals like nickel, lead, copper, zinc, etc.
It is hard to find out what finishing has been applied to a fabric as the list of possible procedures and chemicals is long. But here's what you can look for...
Brands will often make it known when they are using low-impact azo-free dyes or non-toxic natural dyes. This is usually an indicator of safety and it is not only better for your health, but might be also fine for your garden.
Even better safety profile you can expect from products certified by GOTS, OEKO-TEX 100, or Bluesign. They are tested against a long list of harmful chemicals by third-party organizations.
Though beneficial, we should acknowledge that low-impact dyes and chemical certifications are designed to ensure consumer's health. They say nothing about using the fabrics in your garden.
We recommend approaching textile composting with caution. Unless completely sure, avoid composting in places where you grow vegetables for consumption. A more reasonable option is to compost in gardens growing ornamental plants.
In this guide, we touched on a lot of waste problems and solutions in the fashion industry. I know it is a lot to digest, but honestly, it shouldn't be too complicated to implement once we have a reference point for what is good and what is bad. It is more important to find clothing that you love and that will last you as long as possible. What brand you choose is irrelevant as long as it sits well with your values and is within your budget. Hopefully, you discovered some good examples here, but even if you didn't, there are a lot more out there if you are willing to search for them.
Before we close it, I just want to say that the waste subject doesn't end with this guide. We discussed what you should know when searching for good products, but said very little about the waste generated from their use. If you aren't familiar, make sure to research "microplastics" and consider filtering them.
Thanks for reading this far, and kudos to you for building a wasteless wardrobe!