Zero Waste is a design ideal that is working its way into each and every step of the design, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption stages of a product lifecycle. Because WSC.FYI mainly focuses on production and distribution of garments, this entry largely focuses on those two stages. However, for an approach to be holistic it must always consider itself in context of broader industry and culture, and that is why the authors here maintain a critical and comparitive approach to this (and other) entries.
The garment industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental pollution worldwide, generating vast amounts of waste, consuming enormous quantities of water, and releasing harmful chemicals into the environment. As the demand for fast fashion continues to grow, the need for sustainable practices in the fashion world becomes increasingly urgent.
Zero Waste Design is an innovative approach to design and manufacturing that aims to minimize or eliminate waste. By carefully designing patterns and creatively utilizing the full extent of the fabric, designers can significantly reduce the environmental impact of their creations. Some common techniques used in Zero Waste Design include tessellation, jigsaw puzzle layouts, one-piece manipulation, segmentation and reconstruction, and fabric elasticity application.
In Zero Waste Design, waste is considered a design flaw rather than an inevitable byproduct of production.
It’s also important to note that certain manufacturing processes face inherently different challenges and opportunities when considering Zero Waste Design principles. For example, knitwear design is inherently zero or low waste at the construction stage*, as the process involves creating garments by interlocking loops of yarn, which can be unraveled and reused if necessary**. This eliminates the bulk of cutting and sewing. Knitwear is also more readily adaptable to automated manufacturing, which translates directly to on-demand (and custom sized) production.
*One can assume that raw material production and distribution processes are wasteful, unless explicitly labeled as Zero Waste.
**Practically speaking knit garments are not typically unravelled, as most clothes are recycled/disposed off in bulk and not separated according to wovens/knits. However, it is a unique feature of knitwear that could be positively leveraged at the recycling stage.
Achieving zero waste through flat pattern cutting can be challenging, as it requires careful planning and precise calculations to ensure efficient material utilization. Designers must balance the need for creative expression with the goal of minimizing waste. Careful planning and efficient material utilization are essential for achieving zero waste in flat pattern cutting. By considering factors such as fabric width, grain lines, and seam allowances, designers can create patterns that minimize waste and maximize the use of available materials.
Sometimes a zero waste flat cut garment will require that multiple sizes are cut together to use all available fabric. This could put limits on minimums as well as size spreads at the manufacturing stage. Therefore, it is not a totally lossless or flexible process, though computer-aided planning could help immensely in refining and expediting the pattern layout, cutting, as well as certification stages.
It is also worthwhile emphasizing the historical precedent for Zero Waste design in clothing. For most of human history, our clothes were zero waste—fabric was too precious a commodity to waste. Worldwide, fabric was woven in more narrow panels and used in either entirety (wraps like Saris) or seamed together to create more size-neutral garments (folk tunics, Japanese Kimonos, Sirwal pants, Guatemalan huipil, etc.). Even western tailoring which has been quite body-fitting if not body-accentuating since the renaissance, produced little to no waste, by very carefully laying down curves across multiple narrow woven panels. It is only since the industrial age—so, less than 200 years within the whole of human history—where waste in garment manufacturing has been such a problem in dire need of addressing.
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