MAKING GARMENT IS MAKING WASTE
We are now getting quite aware of the waste we produce as consumers. We have been encouraged to repare, reuse and recycle our clothes to lengthen their lifecycle and minimize the waste we produce individually.
Anyhow, even if we extend your garments life until they are completely torn, the remnant fabric will end up in trash since a very few percentage is eventually recycled. In Europe for example, the final share of clothing waste is:
8 % reused, 10% recycled, 25% incinerated, 57 % dumped in landfills*
Those figures speak for Europe which counts lot of emerged countries. So it is likely that the world figures are even worse. It might seam hard to believe since an increasing number of organization start to collect old clothes but it is actually hard to recycle textile, especially when it is made of mix unknow materials. So until we find proper recycling solutions which would be practicable worldwide, we have to admit that wearing new clothes is wearing additionnal waste. Ressource extraction has been made to make those new garments and it is likely that it will never get back to the soils.
Aside of this post consumers waste, there is a hidden waste we never talk about : the production waste. It is estimated that we produced 400 billions m2 of fabric and 60 billions m2 are wasted during the cutting stage.
15% of the fabric required to make a garment,
turns into useless tiny scraps
when we cut the pattern
and most of this leftovers
also end up in asian landfills,
far from sight, far from mind.
It means that 15% of the energy and money spent on growing, harvesting, weaving, shipping, is spent for nothing - aside from polluting.
CONVENTIONAL DESIGN IS PART OF THE CAUSE
Trying to solve this issue (mainly considered as an economical problem rather than an environmental one) textile companies now use automatic nesting softwares which enable them to test hundreds of pattern laying combinations in the shortest period of time. Consequently, they manage to gain a few centimeters of fabric but even with the most powerful algorithms available on the market, we are still far from a miracle. This is as simple as understanding the way jigsaw-puzzle work.
If pattern pieces are not designed to
fit together perfectly on a rectangle,
empty spaces will remain between them.
So, this cutting waste is actually the consequence of an excessive and thoughless use of non-complementary curves in conventional patternmaking.
As cutting and manufacturing are often outsourced in developing countries, occidental fashion designers never have to face the amount of waste created by their own collections. When it comes to making design choices, fabric dimension constraints and pattern layouts are secondary concerns for them.
Then what should we do ?
Blame Asian production units about their incapacity to manage our waste ?
- Too easy
Invest in new recycling techniques ?
- A good idea but still incomplete.
Then why don't we try to solve the problem at its source by reconsidering our designing & pattern making techniques ? Today in the fashion industry, most of the garments are developed following a block template inherited from "made to measure" garments. This template is a combination or horizontal and vertical measures that represent the body in an upright position. These conventional pattern blocks are taught in schools as the rules of garment making. Taking into account their worldwide daily use, it seems almost impossible to consider things differently... And yet alternatives exist. But the large majority of textile brands do no consider them.
YET, ZERO WASTE DESIGN METHODS EXIST
Often listed as the technique of "Zero waste Fashion Design", it demonstrates how we can consciously study a garment design so all the pattern pieces fit together on the fabric, without producing any waste.
HOW DIFFERENT IS ZERO WASTE DESIGN ?
In zero waste pattern making, garment curves (such as necklines, waists or armholes) are consciously studied so that once patterns are laid on the fabric, concave curves match with convex ones and all the fabric is then covered. No waste is produced. Compared to the conventional technique, where pattern pieces are designed independently, zero waste patterns are presented as rectangular blocks which represent directly the fabric used (width x length). Each pattern shape is then created by drawing internal cutting lines. As each element has a direct effect on the other ones nearby, designing and pattern making are thought out simultaneously. This enables us to make strategic design choices.
From my point of view, Joe O'neill's work is an excellent illustration of how zero waste design works. On the right, the picture of a raincoat created for the project ZEROWASTE MENSWEAR and above, the pattern used to cut the garment. The most interesting thing about this project is to see how Joe O'neill works on his designs. As you can see through the sketch below, he analyzes simultaneously how his design choices affect pattern layouts and consequently adjusts a few details so they all finally fit in a rectangle.
Even though there are no technical rules in ZWD, there is however a common practice which seems to work pretty well: thinking hierarchically from macro pattern pieces to micro. Proceeding this way, we still decide at first the general shape we want to give to the garment. Therefore we design the structure of the biggest pieces (back/ front/ sleeves/legs) first and then we think about the smaller pieces (collar, cuffs, buttoning, pockets, belt, loops) by analyzing the shape of the spaces left on the fabric.
ZWD is all about designing with patterns rather than creating patterns in the wake of designs. Not easy to find the happy medium between both disciplines. It is actually rare to get the right layout from the first attempt, it takes a while to figure out but successive iterations often lead us to think out of the box, question the rules we are used to follow and find the solution in creativity.
Then our brain get used to it his way of thinking and it requires less time to finilize a design.
Depending on the designer's product development target and methods, doing ZWD doesn't not necessarily mean reducing fabric consumption too. It really depends on how the project has been thought out.
Yet, I presume the underlying goal of designers who head for zero waste is to reduce their impact on the environement. It is therefore important to understand that achieving "zero scraps" on a garment wich requires additionnal fabric to be made is a non-sense ! The carbon emissions per garment will be higher since the amount of extracted ressources will be bigger. Yet, from the various industrial projects I have led and followed so far, fabric consumption was also reduced (or at least equivalent) in 100 % of cases.
Besides the positive impact
such a practice has on the environment,
there are other interesting
benefits to consider:
As mentionned above, ZWD is an opportunity to think differently and open up our creative perspectives. It is not easy for a conventionnal designer to accept pattern making mathematics constraints will have an influence on the final design but once he/she gets more comfortable with this, creativity is actually stimulated by the constraint ! I have witnessed multiple situations where designers, pattern-makers, prototypists, are reluctant at first but after a few hours of workshop, they eventually get their satisfaction in the iterative practical experimentation - since it is now missing in the industrial product development.
Working with constraints is also considering material properties, dimensions and flaws. In conventional practice for example, fabric selvedges are systematically thrown away because they are visually different from the rest of the fabric roll (as they are often woven tightly and contains tiny holes). Yet, some ZW designers purposely integrate those selevedges into the design either inside, into their seams (which makes them stronger) or outside (which makes the garment unique).
Caring about environmental impact goes with designing long lasting clothing. In that sens, scraps could also be used to "strengthen" sensitive areas. For example, in the Japanese kimono, the excess of fabric from around the neckline is folded underneath, to help strengthen the neck area. In the same way, layered gussets for men trousers can be used to strengthen the crotch area which often get torn with inner tights friction.
A multitude of other techniques can be imagined actually. And once gain, smart tricks can really make a difference for the product value.
Thinking about durability is also thinking about the way garment can be repared and altered.
In the olden days, dress makers added a seam allowance of up to 2,5cm for each garment, allowing them to be easily altered afterwards. But then over time, for savings purposes they decreased those seam allowances to 1cm, even sometimes 0,7cm. And some garments started to fray after a few cleanings! Also with a 0,7cm allowance, it's almost impossible to alter anything without loosing a size.
So opting for larger seams, can help us covering waste areas and increase the quality.
One of the tricks for ZWD is adding strategical seams in the design so pieces shapes can me complementary.
However adding a seam, lengthen the sewing time and consequenty increase the final cost. So it can be questionnable especially when you make garment locally - where labour is expensive.
From my experience though, where garments are industrially made in Asia, a few exemples showed us that the fabric consumption savings where so important (compared to a conventionnal product) that the additionnal sewing cost sdid not catch up with the fabric savings and significant gains remain.
Fabric often represents 60% of the final cost so it is worth reducing its consumption.
We could also argue on the fact that cutting time is shorten with ZWD, since there is no need to cut all around each piece (the blade separates two pieces simultaneaously) and there is no waste management at the end.
Conventionnal process is linear. The designer make the sketch, then a pattern maker makes the pattern and once it's validated, a digital file is often send to Asia so the supplier take care of the optimisation before cutting.
Collaboration is missing. This is why ZWD is for me a great opportunity to reconciliate ourselves with sheer collaboration. Product development teams discuss about their respective constraints and challenges, try to find solutions altogether and a richer creative process could see the light. People need to stop believing technical specialist has nothing creative to share. Multidisciplinary discussions are always a great opportunity to find innovative ideas.
Thanks to my experiences at Lectra first (as a CAD software specialist) then at Decathlon (as Minimal Waste Design project Leader), I have had the chance to discuss and work with different profiles ; designers, pattern makers, patterns graders, pattern cutters, optimization specialist, methods engineers and I understood that there are
3 major barriers
to overpass before ZWD is
widely used in fashion industry.
The first barrier, for me, is the rule of the pattern template system from which most garments are developed. Inherited from "made to measure" techniques, these pattern templates could be considered as part of our fashion legacy, and it would be inappropriate to reconsider them. They are so well rooted in the industry, that they are even the bases to CAD (Computer Aided Design) systems.
The second barrier is the separation between specialists. Creation and production are often split into different locations, different regions, even different countries, which significantly lowers the quality of collaboration and communication between people. Each sector has a very limited vision of the global process and therefore waste awareness is non existent. Even CAD system providers (Gerber/ Lectra / Optitex/ Investronica) have developed one specific software for one specific job - which makes co-design very difficult to implement now.
The third barrier is education but, for me, this is where change can happen! Fashion schools, litterature and media constantly talk about the myths and genius of fashion designers. Consequently, they teach pattern making as a secondary, rigid and non creative practice. This makes it more difficult for a designer to accept that pattern shapes should be considered during design decisions.
In short, ZWD methods are easier to apply for new brands which already have it in their DNA. Though the transition is harder for big and old businesses. It requires lots of time, practical demonstration, cost comparisons, environmental impact figures and above all it has to be supported by the top management to be successful.
At Decathlon we have chosen to label our project "Minimal Waste Design" instead of "Zero Waste Design" even though we use ZWD methods to work. And even with Miniwal Design, we sometimes manage to reduce fabric consumption up to 16 % - which is huge when you consider that some references are sold over 1 000 000 x/per.
We want to make a progressive transition whithout degrading product fonctions and fit.
* Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production - 2015
** fashionrevolution.org - 2014