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Sustainable Solutions to the Clothing Industry’s Staggering Waste Problem

The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, surpassed only by oil. This includes pesticides, toxic dyes, solid waste, and fabric offcuts, all of which add up to a colossal amount of waste. A huge portion of this output is unused excess fabric and textile scraps. In 2013, 15.1 million tons of textile waste was produced, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, of which 12.8 million tons ended up in landfills.

An exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse, tackles this silent environmental hazard, showcasing creative solutions to preproduction by three designers based in Tokyo, Milan, and Los Angeles, respectively, each of whom has grappled with environmental waste in their textile business. During a tour of the exhibition, co-curator Susan Brown explained to me that she wanted to showcase designers who have been working with sustainable solutions for a significant portion of their career: The three she selected have been using their techniques for at least two decades.

Christina Kim, Luisa Cevese, and Reiko Sudo each interpret the concept of scraps differently within their businesses. Their work addresses waste throughout different phases of textile production: fabric waste, textile waste, and garment waste. What’s most captivating about Scraps is the way it visually translates the waste within the clothing industry. The three designers’ very different works illuminate various phases of an often opaque yet ubiquitous global industry.

Kim is the founder of the Los Angeles–based company dosa, which produces clothing, housewares, and accessories. Her work uses a series of generational materials made from the handmade scraps that are typically discarded yet which took hours of labor to produce. She refashioned these to create “second-generation” saris and tapestries in patchwork patterns, then using the leftover scraps from those as part of yet a third generation of tapestry called a “Tikidis Shawl.”

Cevese, whose company Riedizioni makes bags that are modern and industrial, has used as inspiration for her work the selvages, or fringes from the fabric loom, a beautiful and virtually endless material that is typically thrown away in the cutting process. After experimenting with different ways to use this robust yarn through looming and crocheting, Cevese developed the process that has become the foundation of her company: She embeds scraps into polyurethane, a durable, waterproof, lightweight plastic material, which she uses to make functional bags. Beautiful to behold, the scraps become abstractions of themselves.

Sudu, founder of Toyko-based textile company NUNO, is concerned with sustainability solutions within the silk-making process. Her scarves use the outer layer of the silk egg called kibiso, which is generally discarded because it’s too coarse to turn into silk. Sudu refashions it into finer yarn, which is then woven into scarves. The innermost layer of the silk cocoons produces scuffed-up ends, which are also generally discarded; Sudu turns these into handmade paper called oragami chosi.

As described in the exhibit’s information panels, all three of these designers are business owners; they create products for consumption and hope to turn a profit while doing so. In addition, their tactile solutions largely cater to a high-class market. The Riedizioni products, for example, are marketed at $30 for a wallet and $400 for a satchel. So it might be tempting to dismiss these products as yet another high-end fashion statement capitalizing on the environmentalist trend. However, by displaying them all together, Scraps highlights the fact that creative solutions do exist and gives the viewer hope that others in the industry will continue to develop more. Its aim, then, is to display creative and unlikely solutions by designers in the textile industry that push the definition of scraps beyond waste. For those outside the industry, it’s an eye-opening look at the excessive waste of clothing production and how solutions may be found, even if the price point of said solutions may keep them largely out of reach of much of the population.