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Photo by: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Simon Collins, far left, of Parsons, Scott Mackinlay Hahn and Fiona Dieffenbacher with a five-pocket jean pattern.
I really enjoyed this article from the Sunday New York Times, “Fashion Tries on Zero Waste Design,” and I’ve been thinking about it all week. It was something I’d never given much thought to, but it certainly seems like another straw on the camel’s back of consumerism, reminding us to make, not buy.
While the home sewer is often trying to make the most of a treasured piece of fabric — laying out the pattern pieces this way and that, trying to use every scrap, and often saving a bit for embellishment somewhere else — industrial sewing is stacked towards sewing efficiency, not fabric conservation. (Apparently 15-20% of the fabric used in making our clothes heads to the landfill since it’s cheaper to trash than recycle or reuse.)
The good news is that some impassioned designers are trying to change this trend. (Parson’s School of Design debuts one of the first classes in zero waste design this fall.) The bad news is that it’s really hard. (Large-scale production would have to change it’s entire infrastructure to accommodate different fabric widths.) In the article, Timo Rissanen, a Finnish designer teaching the Parson’s course, talks about rethinking his craft: ” ‘I basically had to learn to design again,’ Mr. Rissanen said of his initial forays into zero waste. ‘The first year and a half was a lot of trial and error.’ ”
According to the article, jeans are particularly hard on the environment:

    ” ‘Jeans are one of the most wasteful and polluting garments that are made,’ said Mr. Collins of Parsons, citing not only the unused fabric, but also the dyes added only to be washed out again, the energy used to transport the denim all over the world, the packaging, and the gallons of water used by consumers to clean the jeans. ‘And of course it’s one of the staples of everyone’s wardrobe.’ ”

So that raises a lot of questions for us all: Are we willing, as consumers, pay a little bit more to cover the costs of the sewing industry’s infrastructure changes? Should designers be mindful of pollution and energy while creating (ie no more stone washed or distressed jeans)? Or maybe we should all just make our own pants, using every scrap of fabric. Economist Robert Reich argues that economic growth and consumerism are not inextricably linked in this post on Salon; what better way to grow and shrink at the same time is there than tightening our literal belts?
(I highly recommend reading the whole article; it’s a fascinating look into the complicated decisions made in the garment industry today. Timo Rissanen also has a blog, Zero Fabric Waste Fashion, which has a lot more info on zero waste design if you’re interested.)