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“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.” — Holly McQuillan
Earlier this month, I hopped on a Zoom call with sustainable fashion design experts Holly McQuillan, Cassandra Belanger and Mylène L’Orguilloux, the co-founders of Zero Waste Design Online (ZWDO) alongside Danielle Elsener. ZWDO 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.
For the untrained eye, zero waste fashion may seem simplistic - just design the garment and arrange the pattern pieces in a way that minimises fabric waste, right? But whole-garment knitting and weaving, 3D modelling, digital sampling and more invaluable techniques can also help reduce the massive 10-25% + of fabric that is wasted in the average garment production process. What’s more, through this conversation with ZWDO, it became clear that true zero-waste design is about systems, not just products.
Systems, however, are constructed entities. Behind every system is a series of decisions made by people. Remember that system change doesn’t happen unless people change too, and that’s exactly what Holly, Cassandra and Mylène explained by illustrating the fashion system as a series of flawed decisions. The fashion industry at its core still operates in much the same way as it has for the past century. Designers, fabric producers, pattern cutters, seamstresses, retailers, customers all operate in siloes, not just separated by oceans and continents but by wildly different objectives.
Traditional hierarchical structures, complex global supply chains, outdated leglisation and a lack of constructive communication mean that waste is seen as an afterthought; something for production managers to deal with. But sustainability begins with the designer - approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are set in stone at the design stage. Without financial incentive, fashion brands are not accountable for the true cost of their waste wither, with that 10-25% + surplus fabric simply built into the garment price, paid for by consumers. With zero-waste systems thinking, we start to step back and see the interventions into the system at large, like localised micro-manufacturing, that could go so much further than sustainable brands operating in isolation.
Here’s the thing: zero-waste design methods and other commitments to sustainability often stand to increase production efficiency and ultimately increase profits. Growth logic can only take us so far. Ultimately, the most zero-waste garment is the one that doesn’t exist. The best thing a brand can do to reduce waste is to produce less. ‘Less’ extends to garments, fabrics, yarns and fibres - every stage of the chain is bursting to excess. A ‘zero-waste’ fashion industry would force us to contend with that inconvenient truth - it’s not just about the fabric offcuts or the potential for deadstock and post-consumer waste. It’s about halting the system of overproduction that got us here in the first place.
“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.” — Holly McQuillan
Lots of ethical fashion headlines to catch up on this month!
About Time exhibition at The Met suggests sustainability in fashion’s future (god how I wish I was in New York to see this!)
How fast fashion exploits social issues for sales (Alice and I are quoted in this article about wokewashing)
The twilight of the ethical consumer, a thought-provoking essay from Elizabeth Cline.
New episodes to fill your ears with conscious conversation
Sustainable fashion brand Sabinna has just launched a new monthly podcast called Consciousness Beyond the Product.
“How is it that there are more clothing lines for dogs than for disabled people?” Keah Brown on adaptive fashion for Wardrobe Crisis is a must-listen.
The first episode of series 2 of Common Threads comes out *tomorrow*. Really excited to give you a sneak peek of our first guest of the series - Lauren Bravo! Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to listen 🎧
Common Threads co-host Alice is a guest on this week’s The Braw and The Brave podcast, chatting about all things ethical fashion.
What can fashion learn from food?
“Everything we wear comes from the ground. Much of it is grown: cotton, linen, viscose, wool, leather and cashmere. But fashion is also drilled for: nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester every year. Each morning when we get dressed, with fabric against our skin, we are reconnecting with Earth's finite resources. But this is seldom acknowledged. Why is it that we know so much about the food we put into our bodies, but so little about the clothes we put onto our bodies?”
My latest article for Sustainability Action Network explores the lessons that food can teach the fashion industry, from labelling regulation to supply chain transparency and vitally, a connection to the raw materials. Read it here.
Sustainable fashion *action* of the month
This month I have not one but five actions you can take today to help support garment workers in crisis, who are still owed a vast debt from cancelled orders with millions being laid off, unable to afford food and at high risk of contracting Covid-19. It's more important than ever to utilise your power not just as a consumer, but as a global citizen and make empathy cool again.
Sign the #PayUpFashion petition. It instantly demands a commitment of 7 key actions from fashion’s worst offenders.
Ask brands #WhoMadeMyClothes via social media and/or email and demand full supplier transparency. Head to Fashion Revolution to find what you need to make noise. Also, volunteer with your local team (join us in Scotland!) or become a student ambassador.
Tell your policymakers that you want legalisation to hold the fashion industry accountable for its exploitation of garment workers. Write to you MP (template here), and submit evidence for the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion follow-up.
Support brands (financially or through social media) that *genuinely* support the communities impacted their supply chain, like Birdsong. Read between the greenwashing lines from billionaire-owned empires - hit up Common Threads episode 6 to find out how.
Thanks for reading!
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See you next month,