How zero-waste fashion is slowly saving the world
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How zero-waste fashion is slowly saving the world

Stories/247 , Issues/Sustainability
15th Feb 2018
How zero-waste fashion is slowly saving the world
Here's why you need to get into slow fashion, fast.

Ever think about where your clothes end up once they’ve reached the end of their life cycle?

Pictured: A zero-waste outfit. Source: Holly McQuillan.
Pictured: A zero-waste outfit. Source: Holly McQuillan.

From the ubiquitous H&M's to the glossy Zara's dominating metropolitan shopping hubs, there’s no doubt the popularity - and universality - of fast fashion is growing exponentially in Australia, where the fashion industry is worth $28.5 billion.

Fast fashion: the trendy and affordable garments mimicking the latest looks on the catwalk, manufactured at astonishingly low-cost labour and appearing in the storefronts of clothing giants faster than you can say ‘unsustainable’. Where there were once two fashion seasons gracing the catwalks per year are now 50-100 microseasons per year.

Between 2010 to 2015, the presence of fast fashion retailers grew by 9.7% - and it won’t stop there. The rise of fast fashion should be seen in conjunction to the millions of garments that make their way to landfills annually - a prime example of the perils of contemporary society’s ‘I want it new & I want it now!’ consumption culture.

Every year in Australia, over 500,000 tonnes of textiles and leather are sent to landfills. Australians are the largest consumers of new clothing - second only to US consumers, who in 2014 contributed such a significant amount of textile waste that it could be equivalent to around 1.8 million male elephants.

None of this is happening in isolation. On a global scale, fashion is a $3 trillion global industry that contributes to 10% of carbon emissions as the second largest industrial polluter (the first being oil). Annually, 150 billion new pieces of clothing are produced, of which we consume 80 billion, flaunting our new trendy garments less than five times and often throwing them away after a month or so. And what of the exploited workers in third-world countries who, despite their appalling work conditions, must keep working against the clock in order to produce the latest trendy garments?

This toxic culture of consumption is especially concerning when recent studies suggest the likelihood of temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (if we’re lucky) by the end of this century, despite the Paris Agreement’s resolve to cap off the rising temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

What’s the big deal?

2 degrees Celsius. It may initially sound inconsequential, but a 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature would essentially represent a new era of intensified heat waves, drought and acidic oceans, which would be fatal.

Now, how does this relate to the fashion industry? The truth is, fast fashion and climate change are tied up in a toxic romance that could have disastrous consequences.

Pictured: The Hardwick clothes manufacturing facility in the US. Source: Jones Management.
Pictured: The Hardwick clothes manufacturing facility in the US. Source: Jones Management.

Most of us are guilty of being seduced by the affordability and style of fast fashion garments. What we don’t realise is each trendy garment we consume and discard soon after produces over 400% more carbon emissions annually than garments that we wear 50 times and keep for a full year.

Even worse, the fashion industry is responsible for emitting a significant amount of greenhouse gases, whilst exhausting non-renewable resources and releasing harmful chemicals into the environment. That new pair of blue jeans you bought on a whim? It took more than 6800 litres of water to grow the cotton it was made out of - and that’s discounting the dyeing process, which would also require toxic chemicals.

Take polyester: the most commonly used fibre. We’re all familiar with it. Every year, around 70 million barrels of oil are used to make it. Even worse, the material takes more than two centuries to break down.

Pictured: The devastating environmental impact of the fashion industry. Source: Alan Levine, under Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Pictured: The devastating environmental impact of the fashion industry. Source: Alan Levine, under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Polyester is one of many plastic-based textiles that our synthetic garments are made from. The plastic microfibres in those garments leak into our water supply and make up 85% of the human-made pollution found on our shores. This pollution destabilises the food chain and eventually ends up on our plate.

The reality of fashion may sound bleak, but there is what we call a ‘slow fashion’ revolution taking place.

Hope comes in zero’s

Like the slow food movement, slow fashion - the antithesis to fast fashion - is about taking greater care to ensure the quality and carbon footprint of garments. This is centred on the choices that everyday individuals and designers alike get to make by living sustainably.

Alisa Yao, a product designer, goes by the Reddit pseudonym YattyYatta. Her Etsy store showcases “eco-conscious products for your zero-waste journey”: products like beeswax lunch bags in trendy prints and reusable food wraps; repurposed goods like leather wristlet keychains.

Another designer, Alice Sutton, says: “I want [my garments] to have a long life, not for the one season but for the years to come.”

Pictured: Alice Sutton.
Pictured: Alice Sutton.

Sutton is the founder of EDITION, an eco-friendly fashion label that won the Australian Fashion Debut award for Women’s Apparel in 2013. EDITION incorporates sustainable design and zero-waste pattern making. Sutton calls it ‘Selvedge to Selvedge’, meaning that she creates her garments as she goes - a focus on the process itself rather than definitive drawings.

“I always try and assess to see how I can be more sustainable in each part of the process.

“I think it’s really important to have small runs of garments and [to make] more considered pieces... All the small things: Making sure when you’re in the studio, you’re not wasting thread, wasting cardboard, tags, leftover fabric... It’s not just constantly looking for the new.”

Pictured: Accessing sustainability at each stage of the zero-waste process – as early as design. Source: Alice Sutton.
Pictured: Accessing sustainability at each stage of the zero-waste process – as early as design. Source: Alice Sutton.

“I don’t know if it would be possible to be completely zero-waste for all garments. There’s always going to be some parts of the process where you can’t do exactly what you want to at the time… but in terms of your workers and where you’re sourcing fabrics from, it’s definitely possible to be more sustainable.”


Yao and Sutton are two of the many young designers helping to reshape the narrative of the fashion (and product design) industry. They are part of the blossoming zero-waste movement, which aims to “eliminate waste from the life cycle of a [product]… to reduce the impact of the industry on both the environment and people,” according to zero-waste fashion designer and Massey University academic, Holly McQuillan.

“For me personally, it’s usually relating to the design, pattern cutting and production of garments, and sometimes the upcycling of second-hand garments," she says.

McQuillan’s open source zero-waste project Make Use provides consumers with a “user-centred toolset” that aims to “[change] the way we make and use clothing”.

Make Use attempts to raise the question 'how can we have fashion differently?' while giving one possible answer to that question. What if consumers were more involved in the making and ongoing use of their garments instead of being passive consumers? What might that look like?” she said.

Pictured: The zero-waste design process. Source: Holly McQuillan.
Pictured: The zero-waste design process. Source: Holly McQuillan.

McQuillan says zero-waste design and production like those proposed by Make Use is but one rung on the ladder to sustainability in the fashion industry, because “the global fashion system is so complex that there is not any one solution to the problems we face.”

“The fashion industry operates at such a massive scale, and in a relatively rigid way because of this. The production timelines are very tight, processes and sequences are very specific and dependant on each other,” she says.

Zero-waste processes would step away from this mass scale rigidity. McQuillan calls them “necessarily disruptive”.

Pictured: A zero-waste jacket. Source: Holly McQuillan.
Pictured: A zero-waste jacket. Source: Holly McQuillan.

“They need to be disruptive because the system is a machine going in one direction. What we need is for it to be nimble and responsive not just to economic drivers and consumer desire like it is currently, but to the environmental and social impacts it causes.”

How can you help?

There are so many simple changes we can make to our current consumption habits to effect positive change. But we need to change the way we think about fashion first.

Changing the way we think about fashion. Source: Holly McQuillan.
Changing the way we think about fashion. Source: Holly McQuillan.

According to Sutton: “People need to stop buying fast fashion. It’s the mindset now to constantly want new things, which must change.

“Look at your buying habits. What you are buying and where you are buying from. Get things locally; op-shop and mend and swap clothes with friends. Fashion can never be wholly sustainable, but we all have to wear clothes, so it’s important to consider where you’re buying from and where your money’s going to.”

McQuillan says: “Buy secondhand, spend more but on less garments, if you can, repair, learn to sew, become politically engaged, ask questions, be disruptive, have fun, read, talk to people, learn about where your food and clothes come from, know you have power. Never give up.”

This article was originally published here. 

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