An Ode to Earth Month: What in the World is Zero Waste?
With Earth month underway there’s bound to be plenty of talk about sustainability and just how in the world we are going to save our world! The fashion industry has and will probably forever be scrutinized for not caring enough about the planet. Sure, we could all just buy used clothing for the rest of our lives that we wash in rainwater and then hang dry. But if you’re like me and you care about quality designed clothes and enjoy a good dose of retail therapy, then that’s probably not a realistic goal.
This leaves us with the question of how to feel good about our purchases without compromising beautiful design?
One answer lies in the enveloping conscious fashion movement. Although we’re living in a world still largely dominated by fast-fashion, we’ve started to see a push back in the past decade. It’s almost become a trend in itself to build a brand based on the platform of being ethical. Companies like Reformation and Everlane have risen to the forefront of the ethical fashion movement by focusing on lowering their carbon footprint and promising “radical transparency”. While initiatives to create more sustainable clothing without compromising design are applause worthy, it’s hard to know if these efforts are doing more good for the earth or for the company.
Despite trying to be a conscious consumer, I still get confused and often conflate words surrounding sustainability. Just because a brand is “eco-friendly” doesn’t mean they are “organic”. Likewise, a company that practices “slow-fashion” doesn’t mean they are “zero waste”. While all efforts to create more ethical clothing are noble efforts, distinguishing between the efforts and clarifying terms is important work.
Although I've worked in retail for almost a decade, I always just assumed that all of the precious fabric used in creating a garment, actually goes into that garment. Clearly, I wasn't seeing the whole picture.
The reality of the matter is from cut to finish, around 15 percent of the fabric used to produce clothing ends up on the sewing room floor as waste. Although it makes sense for the fabric scraps or garments to be recycled, it’s often cheaper and easier to just throw them away. Some companies even go so far as to shred sample garments to avoid risking prototypes from being stolen or copied. The unfortunate truth is that there is a disgusting amount of waste in the fashion industry and it's not just in the physical scraps either—it's the energy and the mass amounts of water used in the production process.
In response to wasteful industry habits, a handful of brands have taken the route of zero waste. MOO-YOUNG is one of those brands attempting to cut down on sewing room scraps.
In my time working with Francine Moo-Young—owner/artist behind MOO-YOUNG and someone who has worked in the industry for over a decade— I have become a lot more privy to the dialogue around zero waste.
As always, there is still more learning to be done! Read my questions about zero waste and Moo-Young's answers below.
What is zero waste?
To me zero waste is about using every bit of material and being conscious about resources used. I try to be conscious about more than just the garment scraps when it comes to waste—it's also about the water and the energy that goes into creating a garment. Essentially, it's about making the most out of what you have.
In what ways does MOO-YOUNG aim to practice zero-waste?
In a way, my entire life revolves around not wasting and that mode of thinking naturally flows into the MOO-YOUNG brand. For example, if a piece of leather is branded or has a hole in it I don’t cut around it. Most companies I know try to cover up these “imperfections” while I aim to use them as the focal point of my piece. I believe the beauty of each garment comes from the irregularity of the leather it’s made from. Everything these days has to be so sterile and perfect and I think that mindset contributes to the waste problem in the fashion industry. Additionally, I save all of my leather scraps, even the smallest pieces. If I can't use them, I ask around and usually find another maker or artists that can.
What are some organizations that you donate leather scraps to?
I donate veggie tan leather scraps to the Flight Club Foundation to be turned into chew toys for the parrots. I first came into contact with the Flight Club Foundation through a mutual friend and I think their mission of using parrots to make humans more environmentally conscious is both brilliant and fun.
What are some items that you make out of scrap leather?
I make pillows, sneakers, blankets, ponchos, jewelry bags— anything, really! Even the fringe on a few pieces is constructed entirely from leather scraps and I once made a poncho (below) entirely out of salvaged leather pieces.
Some of the scraps that are leftover from creating a garment are dime sized and at first I was like “what am I going to do with these?” and then I realized that I could stuff pillows with them! They feel amazing too—like a down pillow without the feathers poking out at you.
Why is it important to you to try and practice zero waste?
Waste not, want not! I grew up with my grandma and her siblings hearing about stories of their dolls made from corn cobs. They lived through the Great Depression and always stressed not wasting and making use out of what you have… There’s an appreciation for everything.
Of course I care about the planet and I want to keep waste out of landmines but zero waste is something that always came naturally and was instilled in me from an early age.
Do you have any advice for other companies that want to be environmentally conscious but aren’t sure how to start?
Start with yourself.
How are slow-fashion and zero-waste different?
You can have zero waste without slow fashion but you can’t have slow fashion without zero waste. A lot of people talk about slow fashion but I personally don’t think you can truly be slow fashion when you have sales. It feels counterintuitive that these companies are claiming "slow fashion" status when at the end of every season they have these giant sales to make room for the next trend. I try to make timeless and well crafted pieces that are both slow fashion and zero waste.
Why do you say you “aim” to practice zero waste instead of saying you “are” zero waste?
Because I think you can always be better. Yes, I don’t waste any scraps used to create my garments and I think technically that might be considered “zero waste” for a fashion company, but I think we should hold ourselves to higher standards and maybe even change the definition of zero waste to fit those standards.