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From landfill to lookbook: the innovators taking on textile waste

January 28, 2021By Megan Doyle

As fashion confronts its huge textile waste problem, some of the most promising solutions are closer to home than you think.

A growing number of designers and textile factories are innovating with hyper-local textile waste created within their communities to offer new, exciting ways of reducing and transforming unwanted pre and post-consumer textiles into covetable goods.

The fashion industry’s textile waste problem is one that has been ignored by brands since the dawn of fast fashion. But just as clothing production and consumption has increased exponentially in the last decade, so too have the piles of clothing around the world that end up in landfills or incinerated. Currently, only 1% of textiles gets recycled into new clothing and without drastic industry-wide change, 150 billion tonnes of clothing could be in global landfills by 2050

Accelerating textile waste innovations are thanks in part to our changing definition of waste, says Dr Christina Dean, founder of upcycling brand The R Collective and Redress, a Hong Kong based NGO that aims to prevent and transform fashion’s textile waste. “If we rewind 10 years, waste was a filthy word – but I don’t think it is anymore – consumers are beginning to legitimise and care about waste reduction,” she says. “I think in the mainstream consciousness there is an understanding that there’s a lot of waste, and that it’s not really waste, it’s just a resource that hasn’t been utilised.”

The shifting perception of waste has also been fuelled by the pandemic, which highlighted exactly what happens when the production, shipping and sale of clothing comes to a grinding halt. “The stranded or cancelled orders and materials, garments stuck in warehouses or on the shop floor — all this created a much more tangible understanding of just how deadstock garments can actually accumulate,” says Dean. 
While COVID shone a light on the systemic issues that need addressing, on a smaller scale there are already a host of designers and textile manufacturers tackling waste in forward thinking, innovative ways. Their solutions are hyper-local, working with the textile waste generated by their community or nearby industries to create products that are reframing how we think about unwanted textiles.

“Waste is everywhere and that’s why it’s such an important opportunity for designers.”
Dr Christina Dean

But what is hyper-local waste and how can designers find and use it? 
“Finding your waste streams means going into the material source you like and finding the places in which it originates,” says Dean. “It’s about finding a waste source that is both creatively exciting, suitable for the product you’re making, and is in some way reproducible or replicable.” Broadly speaking, hyperlocal waste can be split into two categories: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Crucially, brands should be looking for waste textiles that are local to their manufacturing, not necessarily their studio. “The main reason for that is reducing the cost of moving waste,” says Dean. “Waste is cheap or free to get, but there is a lot of handling costs and limitations that come with that, so keep your supply chain close to the waste.” 

Meet Juliana Garcia Bello, an Argentinian designer based in Arnhem, an hour outside of Amsterdam. She launched her label, Garcia Bello, in 2017, designing pieces made from old clothing donated by her local community in Buenos Aires. After moving to the Netherlands in 2019, Garcia Bello implemented the same sourcing model she used in Argentina and quickly got to know her community in more ways than one. “I put flyers up around my new neighbourhood and received a lot of messages and donations,” she says. Working with locally donated materials means that Garcia Bello collections are a direct reflection of her community. “I always receive the materials first and then try to understand what I have to work with. These are the materials that I have here, in this neighbourhood with these neighbours, so that’s what I need to work with.” 

Last year, Garcia Bello entered the Redress Design Award (RDA), the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition. It was here that she developed a production system that requires 16 old garments: two pairs of jeans, five tablecloths, and nine shirts that can be deconstructed and transformed into 16 new garments. Her innovative framework, that any designer could work with using their own materials, won her the 2020 RDA Womenswear prize. “Juliana is a replicable designer,” says Dean. “She’s using a post-consumer waste source, like shirts — every country has shirts — and the pattern in itself is like a cookie cutter. Whether you’re in Haiti or Poland, particularly in places with post-consumer waste, that concept can be very interesting.” 

“There is an understanding that there’s a lot of waste, and that it’s not really waste, it’s just a resource that hasn’t been utilised.”
Dr Christina Dean

While post-consumer solutions are important, it’s crucial to address the waste that is generated before textiles become clothing. When garments are cut in the production phase, as much as 15% of the fabric can end up as waste. Going even further back into the supply chain, the Fixing Fashion parliamentary report found that 440,000 tonnes of supply chain waste is generated in the preparation of fibres to make yarn and in the garment production phase.

Working to reduce pre-consumer waste in Southeast Asia, a global manufacturing hub, is Aummy Ninkamhang, the CEO of textile innovation startup Stelapop. Based in Ayutthaya, Thailand, Stelapop sources pre-consumer waste textiles from neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, transforming offcuts into materials that can be made into everything from furniture to coat hangers. Stelapop has developed 20 different materials, all of which are coloured speckled by recycled textile fibres. 

Still in its infancy as a factory, Stelapop is already working with companies like Converse, Everlane and American Eagle to develop new materials from textile waste that are beautiful, high quality and versatile. Their goal is to one day produce durable outdoor materials that can be used to build houses. “We don’t want to produce something from waste that will just become waste again,” says Ninkamhang. “We want people to appreciate it, so we always ask ourselves: how can we turn waste into something that everyone will love?” 

Originally a textile designer, Ninkamhang has seen first hand the amount of pre-consumer waste created by fashion and is passionate about getting brands to take responsibility for this stage in the supply chain. “Brands are really focused on post-consumer waste because there’s more marketing to be done around it,” she says. “It’s something consumers understand, so it creates more impact with them. But brands have no idea how much production waste they create, and they don’t feel like they need to be responsible for it.” 

Part of the solution, she believes, is for brands to design with a garment’s end of life in mind in order to ensure it can be recycled easily. In order to de-trim waste textiles of buttons and zips, Stelapop had to develop a machine that could do this time-consuming, usually manual task. Ninkamhang says the fact that there is technology to attach but not remove trims from garments shows a lack of forethought that is typical of clothing production. “We want everyone to be responsible for their production and to think about closing the loop before going to the store front,” she says. “We have to think about how to assemble and disassemble these trims from the beginning — we have to care about these small things before we focus on the big things.”   

Looking at the wider picture, how do we reduce waste creation in the first place? Reducing excess stock is at the core of the issue, and Dean believes that technology will be fundamental to this. “We need technology to understand what people are buying and make it quicker,” she says. “Making it quicker always makes people feel frightened, but actually, faster supply chains are more responsive and therefore would reduce waste.” Digital technology can also be used to understand what materials you’ve got, and where they are, she says. “If a lot of businesses knew their own inventory, they’d probably design into it a lot easier. The reality is that they’re all working off old Excels — a hangover from the analog days.”

All of this really boils down to the seemingly insurmountable issue of reducing consumption. But seeing as dismantling the consumption-driven economy that the fashion industry relies on is unlikely in the timeframe we have to get in line with the Paris Agreement, there will always be opportunities for innovative, scalable solutions to textile waste. “I think consumption is really important, which is at odds with what one might think as an ‘environmental person’,” says Dean. “But ultimately, I think consumption can be okay if it’s done purposefully and intentionally, that’s where fashion can be a force for good.”