Before it was a buzzword, “sustainable” used to mean something. But with the recent deluge of “sustainable” collections coming from brands that are, in the grand scheme of things, anything but sustainable, the word is now almost entirely devoid of meaning. Some big brands release the occasional "special collection," while others pack their marketing materials with vague jargon touting their "sustainable" bona fides. “It [sometimes] makes me cringe,” made-to-order fashion designer Aissata Ibrahima says of the designation.
In an effort to change the narrative, brands like Ibrahima’s eponymous line are becoming not only more transparent but more and realistic about their methods and goals, opting to reduce their processes’ and products’ environmental impact in ways that have real meaning and elicit real change.
That’s where the zero-waste movement comes in. Unlike the catch-all "sustainability" bucket, zero-waste promotes a more focused way of producing and living. As opposed to working toward the overarching goal of sustainability — which could involve anything from switching to organic cotton to forsaking the use of plastic bags, tags, and shipping materials — fashion businesses that are zero-waste have one simple yet sweeping goal: to eliminate textile waste in every facet of production.
According to Daniel Silverstein, the founder of fashion brand Zero Waste Daniel, zero-waste fashion means creating no byproduct, and therefore, sending nothing to landfill. At his studio in Brooklyn, he and his team take discarded fabric, thread, and more from brands that don’t want it, and turn the goods into something entirely new. The only things that get thrown away are small soiled cuts of fabric or strands of thread, and bits of dust and dirt. “For us, a normal kitchen garbage bag will take about 12 to 18 months to fill up,” Silverstein tells Refinery29. Everything else — any object or material that could one day be repurposed — is stored in jars and other storage containers around the studio. “What we're doing is making sure that anything we don't use stays in the loop and doesn't leave until it's a finished piece,” he says. “We collect our own waste from our own production, as well as sourcing leftover materials to bring into production.”
Zero-waste editorial platform Trash Is For Tossers’s founder Lauren Singer, who’s been championing a zero-waste lifestyle since 2012, says that the “reuse everything” mentality is ultimately the most environmentally friendly way to live and produce. “Energy and resources have already been utilized to make these products,” says Singer, who’s also the founder of Package Free, a website devoted to selling goods from waste-conscientious brands. “[By reusing goods,] we're making their overall lifespan longer and diverting them from landfill in the process, which is the best thing.”
And we’re not just talking about patching old pieces of fabric together like some kind of sartorial Frankenstein (though, thanks to brands like Bode and Chopova Lowena, patchwork is currently trending). While zero-waste production involves a shared and specific goal, designers employ a variety of ways to get there.
“In an industry like ours, where it's so easy to be wasteful without thinking twice, we should be [considering] new ways to use and re-use materials that would usually be thrown out once the season is over.”
Aissata Ibrahima, founder of Aissata Ibrahima
Ibrahima tackles zero-waste production with a made-to-order model, meaning that she only produces items that have been sold. “I chose this approach not only to reduce waste, but so I could keep track of how much fabric is being used and think of efficient ways to use materials,” Ibrahima says. “In an industry like ours, where it's so easy to be wasteful without thinking twice, we should be [considering] new ways to use and re-use materials that would usually be thrown out once the season is over.”
Designer Nathalia Castrillon combines fabric-cutting procedures that aim to result in no textile waste with upcycling for her brand Nathalia JMAG. (Not every garment Castrillon designs is zero-waste yet, she says, but they are all created with the goal of minimizing waste.) “I realized in design school that we were creating so much waste when we were cutting our patterns, and fabrics are so expensive,” she says. “Then I learned about zero-waste design and was like, Oh, I need to incorporate this into my brand once I graduate.” Castrillon took a special studies course on upcycling and zero-waste production at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, making it easier for her to incorporate the practices into her brand, which puts out trendy, affordable designs like cropped shirts and slit skirts. Now, she takes donated and thrifted pieces and makes them into something new via upcycling, while also creating her own garments using deadstock and leftover fabrics.
Technological advancements in fashion, like 3-D printing and digital sampling, are making it easier for more designers to commit to eliminating waste almost entirely. “These new practices utilize only the amount of fabric and material that are necessary to create a garment,” says Singer. By producing this way, material waste could become close to an anachronism.
It was the singularity of its mission that drew Silverstein to the zero-waste model. In choosing a more narrowly defined approach to responsible fashion, as opposed to trying to be unimpeachably sustainable (which brands like Ganni, Noah, and Ace & Tate own is nearly impossible), the designer says he can feel confident about his ability to reach and sustain his zero-waste goal.
“We can't yet fully control all of the aspects that go into being completely sustainable,” he says. For example, Zero Waste Daniel still uses non-renewable energy to power the brand’s sewing machines and other electrical equipment. “We’re on the grid, which is out of my control at the scale and size that [Zero Waste Daniel] is at right now,” Silverstein allows. Also outside of his jurisdiction is how, and from what, the fabrics that he sources are made. “Most of the materials that I'm using aren't sustainable, but they already exist, so we should use them, and use all of them,” Silverstein says.
But while this method of reworking other companies’ leftovers to create something new is great for now, it isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all solution to fashion’s environmental problems. After all, it would be a stretch to believe that every fashion brand will be willing to produce using only what’s already in the waste stream anytime soon. 3-D printing and digital sampling are helping people in the fashion industry become better global citizens. Another way to improve the system from within is to commit to a low-waste production model.
“ ‘Low-waste’ could describe things that are being made from scratch, [as opposed to the way we source, since] we rely on the waste stream as a supply of raw materials,” Silverstein says. If your brand is low-waste, according to Silverstein, that could mean that you create your own materials, ensuring that they are sourced in a way that causes as little an impact on the environment as possible. Or you are involved in their selection, with an eye towards best environmental practices. “You might be ordering organic cotton to be milled, produced, and sent through a low-water usage dye process,” Silverstein explains.
By combining low- and zero-waste models, items in the waste stream (in other words, the things we purchase and wear and all too often eventually get tired of) will be of better quality, making them last longer and be easier to recycle or upcycle than typical fashion pieces. When that becomes the norm, designers like Silverstein and Castrillon will be in even better shape to work with their principles intact. “If some brands move toward low-waste, zero-waste brands like mine will have access to a higher quality of trash,” Silverstein says.
So maybe a broader, more nuanced approach to production isn’t so bad after all. But unlike the days of “sustainable this” and “sustainable that,” low- and zero-waste models come with a low- and zero-tolerance for change that isn’t meaningful.