Scholar Series: Fashion and waste by Timo Rissanen

Womenswear look: TWINSET: Dress, Vest and Pant embedded zero-waste design. Garment medium: 95% Linen 5% Elastane TWINSET: Suit. Men’s trouser and jacket embedded zero-waste design. Garments medium: 100% cotton, recycled zippers and buttons Menswear look: TWINSET: Men. Hooded jacket and t-shirt embedded zero-waste design. Garments medium: 100% linen, recycled zippers Photographer: Thomas McQuillan

By Timo Rissanen | News
Posted Mar 13, 2013

Pre-consumer textile waste is created during manufacture of fiber, yarn or fabric. Our medium-term common goal should be to reduce and eventually eliminate, where possible, all of these. Of the three, fabric waste is the most significant to address, as it embodies the investments of fabric as well as fiber and yarn manufacture. When garments are manufactured by cutting and sewing fabric, approximately 15 percent of the fabric used is left behind on the cutting table. Recycling scrap fabric is arguably an inefficient way of harnessing the investments made during fiber, yarn and fabric manufacture, particularly in light of the further investments of labor, energy and other resources required by recycling. Furthermore, the original function of fabric – providing us with the particular properties of a given fabric in a given situation – is often not retained through recycling. Palmer’s (2001: 205) proposition of “universal recycling” calls for recycling both material and function. In conventional recycling value and quality are degraded, and much pre-consumer textile recycling, while better than sending the waste to landfill, is better described as downcycling (McDonough & Braungart 2002: 56-9). Therefore, reducing and reusing waste are always preferable to recycling, with waste elimination the ultimate goal. Holly McQuillan’s approach to zero-waste in fashion proposes creative pattern cutting as an integral aspect of the fashion design process. McQuillan’s work highlights that zero-waste fashion design is not a mere technique but a philosophy of designing and making clothes. Nor is zero-waste a limit to creativity in design; it can in fact open up unforeseen opportunities for highly creative fashion design. This frugality in design and making – but not aesthetics – that McQuillan demonstrates is as old as clothes. At some point along the way we forgot it.

Having come to the fore during the past two decades, today the fast fashion sector enables us to purchase and discard clothing in quantities not seen before, by producing ever-cheaper clothes at an ever-faster pace. The industry and media, governed by an untenable economy based on unchecked growth, encourage an unsustainable level and pace in the turnover of clothing. To call this consumption is misguided, as most clothes are not consumed metabolically (Fry 2009: 192). The period of ownership is often too short for a garment to be worn out, leading to ever-increasing mountains of post-consumer textile waste. The Artisanal line from Maison Martin Margiela amounts to more than repurposing second-hand garments, accessories and other, at times unexpected materials (a ‘fur’ jacket made from tinsel garlands, for example). These pieces serve as a powerful visual reminder of the volumes of stuff cluttering our lives; there will be no shortage of material for the line in the foreseeable future. Traces of what once was make one question the ways in which one satisfies one’s needs. Needs, such as those for participation and creation that would be more truly fulfilled through immaterial means, are nowadays often satisfied with products such as clothes. The Artisanal line by Margiela points towards fashion design that results in clothes embodying a sustained ability to meet human needs.

While traditionally fashion may be associated with an extraordinary ability to create waste, it need not be so. We need to create and drive new economic models, decoupled from perpetual growth, in order to create a waste-less future for fashion. Fashion can and should enrich our lives through joy and beauty – easily forgotten with the seriousness of much sustainability discussion – contributing towards fashion that Kate Fletcher (2008: 123-6) describes as helping us flourish. Just as there is beauty in sustaining humanity and the world within which it exists, waste-less fashion can be the source of boundless joy. Foregrounding the creation of material and immaterial beauty should pave the way forward, into a sustainable and sustained future.


Fletcher, K. 2008, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Design Journeys. Earthscan, London. Fry, T. 2009, Design Futuring. Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. UNSW Press, Sydney.
McDonough, W. & Braungart, M. 2002, Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press, New York.
Palmer, P. 2001, ‘Recycling as universal resource policy’, in C.N. Madu (ed.), Handbook of Environmentally Conscious Manufacturing, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, Dordrecht & London, pp. 205-228.
Strasser, S. 1999, Waste and Want. A Social History of Trash. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, New York.
US Environmental Protection Agency, 2010, Textiles Accessed March 4, 2013.


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