Almost any history of fashion is a history of waste-making. We are, however, at an opportune juncture to make a permanent break with fashion’s seeming inseparability from waste. Just as fashion design has historically been a waste-making activity – creating waste with a brief first existence as clothing – it now calls to be recognised for its powerful new role in designing out waste.
There are two broad categories of textile waste: pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste is created in the cultivation and production of fibres, and manufacture of garments., although most waste is created at the garment production stage . On average, clothes that are created by cutting and sewing fabric use approximately 85 per cent of the fabric produced to make them, meaning that 15 per cent of it is wasted. Zero-waste fashion design refers to fashion design that integrates pattern cutting in a way that no fabric is wasted in the making of a garment, such as a duffel coat by David Telfer (Figure 1). A lot of pre-consumer waste is created out of sight in countries where garments are manufactured. Just because this waste-making is out of sight does not mean it should be out of mind. Nor does it mean that we cannot do anything about it. New kinds of collaborations are called for and this really is an opportunity that arises from waste.
Figure 1. Zero-waste garments by David Telfer, 2010. Photograph by Thomas McQuillan, courtesy of David Telfer.
We all create post-consumer waste when we deem something undesirable or unnecessary. As the price of clothing has fallen and levels of garment purchases have risen, post-consumer textile waste, particularly in the form of second-hand clothing, has increased. As a result, companies such as Junky Styling for whom post-consumer textile waste is their primary material, have an abundance of material to work with. On the one hand, business models that break the reliance on ever-escalating sales of garments are needed. On the other, the entire life cycle of a garment ought to be considered at the design stage, providing opportunities for newly enriched fashion design practice. Recent examples of companies doing this include Patagonia’s Common Threads recycling scheme for polyester garments, and Eileen Fisher’s take-back scheme, Green Eileen.
Figure 2. Eileen Fisher garments donated to Green Eileen. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Fisher.
Throughout this series I will engage in conversation with Natalie Chanin, founder of Alabama Chanin, to discuss design strategies to minimise waste within fashion and textiles. Chanin’s business model is remarkable in that holistic zero-waste principles are built into its foundations. Perhaps influenced by the company’s home in Florence, Alabama, Chanin has taken inspiration from farmers, to build a “company where the results of one production process become the fuel for another.” Alabama Chanin engages in lean manufacturing: nothing is manufactured without an order from a store or an individual. Simply put, waste is barely a concern at the company, because its operations and philosophy are such that things – be they materials or human efforts – are not regarded as waste at any point.
Figure 3. Quilt by Alabama Chanin: small offcuts of jersey can be incorporated in making products like this. Photographs courtesy of Alabama Chanin.
Much attention on waste to date has focused on materials. Similarly our conversation will centre on strategies to minimise material waste, be it garments, fabric, yarn or fibre. There is, however, another type of waste that begs discussion, and this becomes ever more apparent through examining offerings from Alabama Chanin. Good ideas do not date and yet in the pursuit for newness, we in fashion tend to walk (or run?) away from great ideas purely because of an artificial expiry date. In contrast, the Finnish company Marimekko produces textile prints designed more than 50 years ago by Maija Isola, and these sit naturally alongside prints designed by the company’s current designers. Similarly at Alabama Chanin, all textile developments are kept in a fabric library and offered continuously as options to customers. A good idea does not have a half-life, nor should a good idea be wasted.
Figure 4. Indigo-dyed cape by Alabama Chanin. Photograph by Robert Rausch, courtesy of Alabama Chanin.