When Japan fashioned the kimono during its Heian period as early as 794, it certainly wasn’t labeled a zero-waste design.
But the kimono, which uses one bolt of fabric and very limited cuts, is an age-old example of more efficient garment making that holds great relevance for a fashion industry scrambling to dial back its outsize footprint — also known as tons and tons and tons of waste. (The U.N. is having to become inventive with ways to express how dire the situation is in its climate reports, the latest of which was “it’s now or never.”
Often zero waste gets lumped with the kind of granola-hemp-fabric-not-stylish stereotypes of sustainable fashion, but in a workshop at Fairchild Media Group’s recent Sustainability Forum, Shelly Xu was on a mission to debunk that.
The need for more efficient fabric use is apparent: According to Xu, nearly 90 percent of the emissions arising from clothing production can be traced back to the fabric, and that same fabric is also a key culprit in textiles contributing to 20 percent of the world’s wastewater. But a zero-waste mentality can cut fabric use, and thus cost, by double digits. And it can also cut back on labor hours, and thus cost.
“Zero waste is actually a window to business opportunities and creative opportunities through product,” said Xu, the brainchild behind Shelly Xu Designs and a Harvard alum who counts stints at Prada, McKinsey & Co. and Instagram on her CV. Of Shelly Xu Designs, or SXD, she said, “We’re a group of designers and also engineers together to think through how do we actually combine art and science to create designs that are efficient but also really great for our climate?”
And SXD group — for those unwilling to finance a head of zero-waste design or entirely retrain existing designers — is in the midst of building software that can take any sketch and transform it into a zero-waste pattern.
First, however, Xu wants to set some records straight.
‘Myth: Zero Waste Is Expensive’
Anything associated with sustainability is often believed to be pricier than its un-green counterpart, but zero waste. Xu said, “can actually be a business opportunity.”
With one SXD-designed zero-waste jacket, which used entirely upcycled fabric and a pattern that only needed to be cut eight times (“compared to a traditional jacket design which is easily like 50 cuts,” Xu said), the company was able to save 75 percent material cost for the jacket.
“And, when we worked with seamstresses, we saw that people actually worked about half the number of hours to create a jacket that was zero waste with us compared to a traditional jacket,” Xu said.
‘Myth: Zero Waste Limits Creativity’
For many designers, any constraint could feel like stifling creative freedom, but Xu argues that parameters of zero-waste design could actually pose a new creative challenge.
“When we just started SXD, we actually started to think, can we take some of the coolest designs like this dress that Zendaya wore [a merlot Alaïa two-piece for the Venice Film Festival in 2021] to the red carpet and actually start thinking about how do we create zero-waste versions of them so zero-waste designs can be really universal and really accessible for a lot of people,” she explained. Xu tinkered with a zero-waste pattern for the Alaïa and found there would be ways to save.
In a recent project with Desigual, taking one of its bestselling hoodies, the zero-waste switch proved a sizable win for the Spanish brand.
“The result was that we were able to save about 20 to 30 percent of the fabric for a lot of the zero-waste versions,” Xu said. “So basically, you get to have less material consumption, less cost while being able to achieve the same classic popular styles that people love from your customer base.”
‘Myth: Zero Waste Is Not Scalable’
Many people, who may still not have dug deep enough into zero-waste possibilities, often think it means using fabric scraps and patching them together, Xu said. And if that were the case, the resulting one-of-a-kind creations would hardly be scalable. However, that is not in fact the case.
“Some of the biggest problems when it comes to fabric waste is actually over-ordered materials, raw end fabrics that are not enough to create a new series of designs, a new production run, and those are actually the materials that get left over and we can actually use that to create pretty scalable products,” she said.
This is where SXD’s in-development software comes in.
“In a not-so-distant future, you can use this software and basically your designers can illustrate in app and right away they can start to take advantage of leftover fabrics from a fabric library to apply to their sketch,” Xu said. “And then right now we’re working on the algorithm from the back end that directly, in real time, turns that sketch into a zero-waste pattern, which you can see how it corresponds to your design vision. We’re also building alongside [that] a simulation of how this design would actually look on a person.”
It means shrinking the often months-long production process “to almost real time,” she added. “And as you can see, it’s highly scalable because it literally goes from a sketch, an idea and fabrics that you have, to something that is zero waste.”
‘Myth: Zero Waste Is Just About No Fabric Scraps’
Continuing to thwart myths around zero waste, Xu said it also doesn’t mean there are no fabric scraps left over at the end. What it really means, when approached intentionally, is “a holistic approach to circular economy” with potential for positive impacts across the board, she said.
In making prototypes for testing zero-waste designs, SXD was able to see reductions in carbon footprint by using leftover fabric instead of virgin, which meant no need for dyes or the water they need to do their thing either. And the concept has proved energizing for a rising cohort of conscious creators.
“Even with the first 100 zero-waste prototypes that we output from the SXD side, we saw over 2 million people actually interacting, downloading our designs, wanting to know more about what’s possible,” Xu said. “It’s also something I believe can really inspire the next generation of designer.”
‘Myth: Producing in Zero Waste Is More Difficult and Cuts Into Wages’
Social impact and fair wages can, at times, fall to the wayside when the constant focus on sustainability is tied to the environment — but the three can’t be separated.
Though some may believe the perceived difficulty of zero-waste designs will cut into wages, Xu said it’s on the contrary.
“We’ve actually seen that by having really efficient zero-waste designs, sometimes that can actually support ethical labor and enable higher wages,” she said.
In one SXD prototype, the team created a zero-waste denim jacket with garment workers in Bangladesh, using fabric at the end of rolls (“all too small for another production run,” per Xu) found at factories in the country. Beyond the jackets selling out and seeing a loyal fan base, the company was able to pay its cost savings forward.
“We were able to have really efficient designs that allowed us to actually transfer our cost savings and pay these seamstresses four times the local wage. And a lot of these seamstresses we hired, they were climate refugees in Bangladesh, people who have been displaced, who have lost their homes because of flooding, because of sea level rising,” she said. “One of our climate refugees was able to finally have her parents, who are aging, retire because her income working with us alone was actually enough to provide for the family.
“This is the kind of impact you can have where you’re actually being really mindful with the kind of design that you do from the start,” Xu said. “And having ethical labor and having sustainable products can actually go hand in hand.”