When Bhaavya Goenka was a child, trucks full of textiles from her parents’ factory in Jaipur, India, were headed to nearby landfills. Ms. Goenka founded Iro Iro, a fashion label and service that recycles textile waste and uses it according to indigenous practice. She is one of a growing number of designers that represent their traditional cultures in the discussion about zero-waste fashion.
Ms. Goenka said she was trying to draw inspiration from the fact that textiles and materials existed in our collective cultures for a long time. collaborating with design houses to collect their scraps, breaking them down into smaller pieces, and working alongside artisans in villages to weave them into new fabrics is what Iro Iro’s mission includes. Ms. Goenka designs her own zero-waste collections.
Ms. Goenka said that traditional Indian garments are inherently zero-waste, even though the language used to describe them may not fit into today’s sustainable fashion terminology. She showed how each of India’s 28 states applies zero-waste pattern-cutting techniques to their climate. In Kashmir, where it is very cold, they wear long sleeves called pheran. In the south, where it is hot and tropical, people wear kurtis, which are made with more absorbent fabrics. There are no shapes that leave behind waste in Indian clothing, like the sari, choli, lehenga, kurta.
The fashion industry is responsible for as much as 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions according to the United Nations. The Australian Climate Council released a statement linking fashion’s environmental effects to fast fashion in particular after a report by the World Economic Forum named fashion and its supply chain as the world’s third largest polluter. The global apparel consumption is projected to rise to over 100 million tons a year by the year 2030.
15 percent of textiles are discarded in the cutting process alone, according to the associate professor of fashion and textiles at the University of Technology Sydney. It’s hard to keep large retailers accountable. Many companies thought of as pioneers in sustainable fast fashion, such as H&M and Uniqlo have been called out for their lack of transparency.
In 2015, Professor Rissanen and Holly McQuillan wrote a book called “Zero Waste Fashion Design,” a term they defined as “fashion design that waste no fabric, by integrating pattern cutting into the design process.” He said in the book that this practice was old as dressing the body with skins and cloth and focused on pattern cutting, but that fabric waste was not the only consideration in zero-waste design. The designer needs to be aware of how the clothes look and fit, how they are made, and what they are made with while trying to eliminate fabric waste.
Professor Rissanen wrote in an email that most cultures around the world have long traditions of working with materials respectfully. He said that fashion discourse should be as diverse as humanity.
Gallery Shili, a sustainable women’s wear brand, was founded by Duni Park in 2011. Ms. Park explained over email that kimonos are made from eight strips of cloth. When making a kimono, alterations to the fabric are kept to a minimum, and when curved shapes are needed, the fabric is delicately folded and stitched instead of cut. She wrote that there is zero waste of the original fabric if any excess length is hemmed up.
Ms. Park said hers was not a nostalgia-driven brand because she found secondhand kimonos in Japan. She is inspired by the kimonos’ zero-waste nature to create modern zero-waste looks. She said that if you break apart a kimono, it goes back to its original state. It is like a new blank canvas that you are given to draw on.
Ms. Park’s line has expanded from one collection of scarves to 11 different lines of coats, jumpsuits, shirts and shoes, despite her struggles to evaluate sales per value or production. She said she had learned how to use fabric more efficiently. Ten years ago, we would upcycle 30 kimonos into 30 scarves, but now we are creating up to 200 items with up to 90 kimonos.
Adeju Thompson, a Nigerian designer, believes that zero-waste design is about connecting with nature. He is the founder of the Lagos Space programme, a luxury label that specializes in nonbinary fashions. He said Mr. Thompson’s clothes are inspired by both his African heritage and his queer identity. The modern take on the kembe, a type of Nigerian wide-legged pants, is one of the signature items of the line. Mr. Thompson uses organic dyes from plants in the forest.
He said that dipping your hands into the water was like a kind of meditation until they turned blue. Mr. Thompson said he was worried that both the sustainable and cultural aspects of the art form were being phased out due to the rise of chemical dyes and fast fashion. He said that the design practices are very much based on our collective identity.
Zero-waste practices are synonymous with community as they are with sustainable practices. Many types of cultural attire are not form-fitting, making them easier to pass down from one generation to the next, or to be shared among people of different sizes within one community.
The hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, is one of the zero-waste garments designed by Sung Ju Beth Lee. The brand collaborated with Korean brands like Ottogi and Oriental Brewery to upcycle their banners to make modern hanboks. In Korean culture, there is a piece of clothing for newborns called baenaet jeogori, which is pieced together from secondhand items in the family. She said that the worn feel of the garments made them softer and gave elders a way to pass on loving energy to the next generation.
Ms. Goenka said that she took her mother’s saris after she died. Ms. Goenka said that she is able to wear saris because of the drape technique that adjusts for size. She said there is a lot of body acceptance and body liberation in the ancient garments.
Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, a research associate at the Manchester Fashion Institute who studies how zero-waste pattern cutting can be applied to mass production, said that it was not enough for high-end and custom-made fashion designers to practice zero-waste design techniques. Mass producers, like H&M and Marks & Spencer, need to cut down on textile waste.
He said that one of the ways to improve intellectual fabric utilization is to look at cultural items from different parts of the world and see how it can be applied in the fashion fast styles. That may not be the single solution, but it is one of the solutions.
Ms. Goenka thinks that smaller brands can make a difference. 80% of her company’s revenue comes from collaborations with designers, hotels and factories that want to cut down on waste.
She believes the next big thing is a lot of small things. A lot of smaller brands are working on similar concepts, but with different looks and feel. This is what makes the world go around, and not just seeing the same brand. How can we accept our past and use it to inform our futures?