No waste of fashion’s raw materials

Adriene Hill Mar 2, 2011

No waste of fashion’s raw materials

Adriene Hill Mar 2, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: We’ve got sustainable energy. And sustainable manufacturing. Sustainable agriculture and sustainable construction. Clothing that’s easy on the planet? Not really.

So some big clothing manufacturers and retailers have formed a new trade group called The Sustainable Apparel Coalition. They want standards for every single garment sewed and sold, every piece of fabric, every zipper, every manufacturer along the supply chain, and then an easy-to-understand scorecard for consumers so they can see at a glance the entire environmental impact of a single piece of clothing.

Adriene Hill reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk step one is cutting down on scraps.

Adriene Hill: I’m assuming most of you are not listening naked. So, look down at what you’re wearing. Chances are at least 15 percent of the fabric that went into that T-shirt or jacket or pair of jeans wound up on the cutting room floor.

Simon Collins: Which is a colossal and tragic waste of fabric.

Simon Collins is the dean of the school of fashion at Parsons in New York City. He says reducing waste in the production of garments is better for the environment, but that’s not the reason he expects it to catch on broadly.

Collins: I think if you look in the rise of the price of cotton, if you say to any industry, ‘we can stop you, we can help you to not waste 15 percent of your raw materials,’ they’ll be all over it. Maybe they couldn’t care less about sustainability, but they care about their bottom line.

So at Parsons, students have been working on zero-waste garments. Think of it like rolling out cookies and figuring out how to cut interesting shapes without wasting any of the dough. It’s not easy. And reducing waste like this requires a significant rethink of how clothes are put together.

Fashion designer Carol Young shows me around her workroom. An assistant cuts big curvy pieces out of some black knit fabric for a dress.

Carol Young: And then we had these big areas that didn’t have anything. And we though, oh we can cut our cloud scarf, so we put those pieces in there and then it uses up the whole piece.

By using up the extra fabric, she creates extra products she can sell in her little Los Angeles boutique. For Young, creating less wasteful clothes is part of her design philosophy.

For shoemaker Nike, it’s part of the business model.

Lorrie Vogel: We know that in the future there are declining resources and increasing demand on those resources, so we know we have to create products in a completely new way.

Lorrie Vogel heads up Nike’s Considered line of more environmentally friendly products. She says the company’s been successful at reducing waste, this year saving the amount of material it would take to make the uppers of 15 million pairs of shoes. Nike’s also started recycling plastic water bottles into fabric. And, in case you’re curious, it takes about eight bottles to make a jersey.

Vogel: We don’t want to just be less bad. What we’d like to do is really paint a vision of what good looks like. And for us that’s all about creating closed-loop products. So our vision is to take materials from an old shoe and an old shirt, grind them up and turn them into a new shoe and a new shirt.

A closed loop means that every new product is made from old products — without any new-new inputs. It’s a concept of fashion sustainability which allows us all to keep buying, to get that new pair of shoes we’ve been drooling over, without feeling bad about it.

Susanna Schick: It’s about creating new products, which create jobs, and creating them in a way that has as little environmental impact as possible.

Susanna Schick is a sustainability consultant for the fashion industry. She says using less to make new garments — and using recycled materials — makes a lot of sense when you think about sustainability as an economic as well as environmental concern.

Schick: A lot of sustainability-minded people are all about well just wear the same thing forever. Buy something and wear it forever. Buy used. Buy secondhand. But that’s not going to create jobs. That’s not going to create jobs here. That’s not going to create jobs in China, Africa, anywhere people make clothes.

And it’s a way forward that’s maybe more inspiring than wearing the same black dress over-and-over-and-over-and-over.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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