Could We Live in a World Where Luxury Fashion Becomes Zero Waste?

Table of Contents Zero excessZero compromiseZero negativity Zero waste, it seems, isn’t fashionable enough for

Zero waste, it seems, isn’t fashionable enough for the fashion set yet.

For all of fashion weeks’ sustainability fodder and red carpet’s recycled remarks, few are talking about zero waste. In fact, no one commanding fashion’s biggest stages is saying much at all about it.

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But the youth are bringing the conversation right onto fashion’s runways, as evidenced by the protest that mildly disrupted Louis Vuitton’s Spring 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week Tuesday. An activist representing groups like Youth for Climate France, Les Amis de la Terre and Extinction Rebellion France, walked amidst the models toting a banner that read, “Overconsumption = Extinction.”

In the days following Zendaya’s double-hitter at the Venice Film Festival (she scored first with the skin-flattering nude Balmain dress, then the merlot belly-baring Alaïa set), Shelly Xu was thinking about how to make the latter a zero waste design.

The innovative designer behind zero waste start-up Shelly Xu Design would eliminate a seam here, reshape a pattern piece there, and lay them out in a puzzle-like fit that cuts out any excess. She’d reshape the back a bit and she’d end up with a similar enough design but an entirely dissimilar amount of scrapped fabric.

“Basically, for the front I want to keep the shape the same, but I did make it sharper, too, so that it can fall as a zero waste design. And then what that room created was like a strap — I think with Zendaya’s piece…the way it falls is that it hugs around the shoulders and I realized what I designed, the sleeves might not hug the shoulders as much so it’s easier for it to fall off. So I thought that remaining piece that I had that would be cut off from the front, I can use that as a back support so that the sleeves don’t fall off,” Xu said, noting that her zero waste design is still a concept and not one she’s yet created a physical sample for.

Zendaya in Alaia at the 2021 Venice Film Festival / sketches by Shelly Xu Design for a zero waste version.

Zendaya in Alaia at the 2021 Venice Film Festival / sketches by Shelly Xu Design for a zero waste version.

Regardless, it’s the way more designers should be thinking if they’re as keen to do their part to slow climate change as they are to boast about their so far still surface-level green accolades. The new creative license should forego the ability to solely design via whim and instead add to that the imperative to rethink ways to craft a garment that consider the world that garment will live in.

Zero excess

Combing through Met Gala looks to assess zero waste potential and finding it, Xu believes there’s much more luxury fashion could be doing to make statements that say more than just how many labor hours and Swarovski crystals it took to make a look.

“With what you saw with Zendaya, I actually realize a lot of designs, it’s not that hard to make them zero waste,” she said.

Taking Gigi Hadid’s white Prada dress at this year’s Met Gala as an example, she said, “designs like this, they’re geometric and you see sharp edges and simple lines, this actually works well with zero waste cuts — especially the type of cuts that Asian designs use, that are minimal, simple cuts with great material.”

Sophia Roe’s Halston gown could easily go the zero waste route, too: “Silhouettes that are not too hard to be zero waste are the ones that are really flowy and are not super skin tight…they can actually be created zero waste by using draping and just chunks of fabric.”

Lupita Nyong’o’s denim-inspired Versace dress for the Met Gala held a particular kind of promise for helping to tackle fashion’s waste problem, according to Xu.

Lupita Nyong’o in Versace at the 2021 Met Gala / Raw end denim at a factory in Bangladesh, image provided by Shelly Xu Design

Lupita Nyong’o in Versace at the 2021 Met Gala / Raw end denim at a factory in Bangladesh, image provided by Shelly Xu Design

“This look from Lupita, I was really excited to see it because it immediately actually reminded me of the [raw end] fabric we used in Bangladesh,” Xu said. Raw end fabrics come from the very end of the production run where there are long and thin strips of fabric left over, “just like the kind Lupita had on her garment,” she said. “It made me think about fabric choices in these red carpet looks because it would be so cool, for example, if those fabric strips that she’s wearing that are really beautiful and kind of makes the garment, they’re actually made out of raw end fabrics instead of fresh, new denim fabrics.”

But what about the red carpet’s new grand entrance that demands several looks in a short span of time a la Lil Nas X? Hussein Chalayan had that figured out as early as 2013 with dresses that transformed — as the wearer walks — from minis to gowns, from solids to intricate prints, with a simple tug at the neckline, Xu said.

“If you played more with one garment but various designs built within that garment, maybe you can use less fabric, first of all. Maybe you only have to dye one side of the fabric for each look rather than both sides and also it could be just as dramatic. And maybe it’s not about coming in with the grand look, maybe it’s about building on it by touching different parts of your garment and it actually changes. I think that can be really dramatic as entrances, too, and really exciting for people,” Xu said. “When you can build in those different looks in one garment, it could make the garment much more versatile and a lot more likely for people to wear it again.”

Rethinks as seemingly simple as these could see luxury fashion take a much bigger step back from its environmental impact.

“I went through all the Met Gala looks and there were very few that I was like, ‘oh man this is going to be pretty hard to make zero waste,’” Xu said. “Most of them I thought, there are a lot of really cool ways we can think about.”

Whether or not runways and red carpets tout zero waste or even think much about it, that is one approach to clothing that stands to really move the needle on curbing the industry’s excess of excess.

That is, if more in fashion are willing to reconsider an age-old business model that doesn’t hold up any longer.

Eric Liedtke is. And he left his 26-year corporate life at Adidas (most recently as brand president) behind to do it. The chief executive officer and cofounder of Unless has set out to create an entirely zero waste streetwear brand, which will see its first collection drop this month.

Zero compromise

While Liedtke is building the change he wants to see, many in the sustainable conversation are still stuck on recycled, which is just one — not even entirely beneficial — solution to the industry’s problems.

“The concept of zero waste didn’t come by accident, obviously. We have to look at the problem of fashion at a macro level and I think one of the biggest sins of fashion is the sin of waste,” he said. “When you have a model that’s based on planned obsolescence, when you have a model that’s based on quarterly or seasonal or annual product that goes out of style, then you have ‘what happens to the end of life?’ and you don’t have a lot of conversations about that.”

Poking at the recycled “fix” a bit, as more in fashion turn to pre-consumer waste (stuff from the factory floors) and recycled polyester to make clothing, Liedtke said without “real runway right now for recycled fibers” most of what’s being used is water bottles for rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) — which means fashion is cutting in on a circular model to improve its own circular model, and that could be akin to one step forward and one step back.

“Plastic bottles are almost the perfect icon of circularity,” Liedtke said. “They’re made actually to go around 25 times in bottle form. As soon as the fashion industry grabs it and puts it into a hoodie, now you’ve taken it out of a circular model and you’ve put it into a one-and-done model. So even though this hoodie, name whatever hoodie it is, had been made out of recycled polyester, you still are creating at the end of its life it goes away. And there is no away. Away is landfill or incinerated or into the ocean and all of those options end up leaking hazards into the environment, which is not sustainable for us.”

Neither is discarding the world’s expanse of plastic bottles even after their 25th use sustainable, but at least their longer life in a circular rotation is a step in a better direction.

What’s more, with demand for recycled polyester rising at such a rapid clip, the industry could get itself caught up in an outlet-like scenario, where what was once supposed to be a savior for excess inventory became just another channel for which to create more clothing. If there aren’t enough recyclable plastic bottles to meet demand, producers could end up making more bottles to recycle for fashion to get its rPET, and that wouldn’t be a position the climate could afford to be in.

“The reason why we went into zero waste is because it requires you to innovate the entire system,” he continued. “You have to find a material that will harmlessly go away at the end of its life — that’s not easy because that eliminates petrochemicals, that eliminates polyester which is 70 percent of fashion today — you have to distribute it in a way that you can get it back, you then have to get it back and you have to properly dispose of it either through recycling [for use in new product] or composting.”

It’s a lot. It’s radical. And not something most are willing or, frankly, even able to do at this stage in fashion’s life.

“When I left Adi, I left with my eyes wide open to this problem and knew that I wanted to contribute to fixing it and knew a start-up would be able to disrupt more than an incumbent could because it could be more radical and agile in its approach,” Liedtke said. “[That’s] why we’ve chosen the streetwear route — it’s not because I’m a streetwear kid, it’s because streetwear is so influential and streetwear can be used in such a powerful way. I think that’s the key: streetwear is the thing that can move mountains. It’s a very interesting space to bring this conversation into because streetwear is also about calling things out.”

What Unless is calling out is fashion’s dated and damaging ways, and the company is starting with the end in mind to turn the business model on its head.

“If you focus on the end first, then you take responsibility for the things you make and their proper disposal. But companies don’t do that today. That’s not in the reward mechanism or any of the financials that are captured. It’s just when you sell it, it’s gone and I think that the future is that companies will take responsibility for not just how they make things but how they dispose of things as well,” he said. “If you take that approach, then it immediately leads you down to a more harmless feedstock, which has got me all excited about plant-based polymers.”

Plant-based polymers, if you ask Liedtke “are where plant-based proteins were about seven years ago,” meaning that if Beyond Meat is making a strikingly similar tasting burger without a cow today, Alaïa could be making a strikingly similar version of Zendaya’s dress that could qualify for the compost bin by 2028.

“I’m going to figure out this plant-based solution because, from a convincing scale, you need to replace a petroleum feedstock with something that’s just as plentiful. If you look at that that’s not going to be lab grown solutions — and I love the stuff going on in the labs but it’s like ultimately, you’ve got to find what’s more plentiful than oil? Well, plants are. So, can we figure out how to harvest that?”

So far, the answer seems to be, yes. In its first drop, Unless will debut a drop shoulder flannel outershirt in charcoal and pink that uses 100 percent cotton for the main fabric, a cotton/Tencel blend for the lining, 100 percent cotton labels and thread, and buttons made from 100 percent corozo nut.

The consumer, Liedtke believes, should not have to compromise their consciousness for the sake of style.

“Right now, we’re asking Gen Zs or Gen Alphas behind them to compromise their taste for their values or their values for their taste and I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that’s what the plant-based proteins have done and I don’t think that’s what the electric vehicles use case has done. I think you can have both,” he said. “We want to give them that uncompromised purchasing opportunity…so to do that then we have innovate from that end and say how do we create zero waste at end of life. So you’ve got to then make selections on your materials, your dyes, your inks, your closures, your threads, your foams. You have to find things that don’t exist right now — try finding a closed foam that’s not made out of petrochemicals. Try finding a plant-based leather that’s not backed or glued with petrochemicals, those things are very hard to do. Try finding a shoelace that’s not made out of petrochemicals or polyester or synthetics. All these things have been adapted for the race to the bottom line and cost efficiency, which I understand, I’ve worked in an operational big DAX 30 company that worked on these things, I understand the need for that. But we’ve lost somewhere in there the true impact of the true cost of things, which is the cost of waste as well.”

Liedtke doesn’t have all the answers, which he readily admits. But as the Unless Collective problem solves to find them, the aim is to open source those solutions for the industry to partake.

His promise so far? “The product we bring out will live up to the promise we make,” he said. “Our first drop around outershirts and T-shirts and hoodies will be very much driven around cellulose-only product. They’re 100 percent plant based so they will go away at the end of life, whether you return them to us for composting or whether you put them in your own compost or you put them in landfill. When they’re done being worn they will go away and back into the ground to grow new plants and they’ll do that in a harmless fashion.”

It’s the kind of thing that has Caroline Brown of Closed Loop Partners excited.

The managing director of the New York-based investment firm endeavoring to dole out dollars to those innovating for the circular economy is bullish on fashion’s progress on sustainability and circularity, even if few are yet addressing zero waste.

“When you look at zero waste as, let’s say, the far end of the continuum, you may not feel that there’s as much activity, but that’s because there are so many companies that are on the journey. And there’s so much of the industry that is on the path but hasn’t arrived yet at sort of the extreme level, which is really the ideal — the goal is zero waste,” Brown said. “But it’s not just one or two things that have to change. It’s an entire way of doing business, it’s a business model change, it’s a complete value chain change, it’s a consumer behavior change. There are so many elements that need to align, and that’s going to take a certain amount of time…It’s not an industry that will be able to pivot overnight, from where it is today with the heavy environmental footprint.”

However, the progress, according to Brown, is palpable.

Zero negativity

“From where we sit, we see enormous — not just conversations — but steps being taken by incredible innovators that are building solutions for different areas of sustainability,” she said. “And also, corporate, they’re working with these early stage innovators to pilot, to help grow and test new solutions.”

What Closed Loop Partners is excited about are innovations in technologies helping designers to make better (and earlier) decisions that will affect end of life, tools for reducing design room waste, sustainable solutions in material science (which Brown says are “absolutely explosive today”), and tools for clean manufacturing and transparency.

In keeping with the part of circular models that fashion players are increasingly tapping into, Brown also said, “We love the whole area of capture of product, renew of product and re-commerce of product.”

“We have incredible opportunity for greater infrastructure, both in mechanical recycling but also in the area of sortation and the area of chemical recycling that can take complex materials like sneakers…for example that have so many mixed materials, including rubber, including metals, hardware, poly, stretch and to break them down to a very pure monomer form and make them accessible to be rebuilt and reused in new product,” she said. “This is an amazing category that when that’s solvable at scale, it’s going to solve for the issue of keeping product out of landfill.”

Bit by bit, though, the industry is getting there if you ask Brown, who focuses on fashion’s positive progress toward circularity more than what it hasn’t accomplished yet.

“I do think there’s a lot of negativity around the conversation, but if you look at the change even in mind-set, media coverage, explosion of early stage innovation and offerings for solutions within the last 24 months, it’s overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “If you’re only looking at the end goal, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. There’s a long way to go, but, so much has accelerated in the last 24 months and that’s a huge positive for the sector.”

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