What is Zero-Waste Fashion (and Why Does It Matter)?

by , 07/19/10   filed under: Ask a Designer, Featured, Features, Green Designers

Mark Liu, zero waste, eco-fashion. sustainable fashion, green fashion, sustainable style, Ask a Designer

Zero-waste design isn’t a new technology or material. Instead, it’s a new way of thinking—a philosophy that forces you to challenge existing techniques and become a smarter designer. Technique-wise, it involves fitting all the flat pieces of your clothing pattern like a jigsaw puzzle so no fabric is wasted. Considering that roughly 15 percent of the fabric is discarded when a typical garment is made, the cumulative effect of leaving behind no waste has far-reaching environmental consequences. More than that, however, zero waste about working within those constraints to invent beautiful new forms of fashion.

Mark Liu, zero waste, eco-fashion. sustainable fashion, green fashion, sustainable style, Ask a Designer


It might be easier to understand the significance of zero-waste fashion if we compared it to the revolution in haute cuisine. Just like fashion designers, most chefs don’t invent new techniques. Rather, they modify preexisting recipes by mixing different styles, genres, and trends.

Pattern-making has changed very little in the past hundred years.

So-called “innovation” is really a fusion of different references. Although there are hypothetically unlimited options for creativity, most people tend to follow predictable routines. Pattern-making, for instance, has changed very little in the past hundred years. But unlike in food, our lack of originality in fashion is actually poisoning the planet, and we urgently need to invent alternatives.

Mark Liu, zero waste, eco-fashion. sustainable fashion, green fashion, sustainable style, Ask a Designer


Two of the world’s top chefs, Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrias, have turned to the science of molecular gastronomy to challenge the fundamentals of cooking. Both have held the title for world’s best restaurant. They’ve also invented impossible new foods, from egg-and-bacon ice cream to foie gras cotton candy. Their food may sound frivolous, but these chefs have learned to use techniques and a level of knowledge previously reserved for scientists. Adrias has even closed his restaurant until 2014 to pursue his research.

Zero waste is avant-garde cuisine’s fashion equivalent because it challenges the basics of making clothes.

Zero waste is avant-garde cuisine’s equivalent in fashion because it challenges the fundamentals of making clothing. Behind the seemingly effortless designs is a growing body of research that draws on different branches or science and mathematics. It requires pattern-making know-how, a working understanding of sustainability principles, and an inquisitive mind that is constantly learning.


When it comes down to it, however, zero-waste fashion is still an art form. It’s like writing poetry. At first, it’s difficult to write in rhyme and meter. In a sonnet, you must work with a limit of 14 lines. Only when you devote yourself to this medium can you tell a story and evoke emotion. Anyone can drape a rectangle of fabric, make a kimono, or stick some leftovers on a dress. But to make a zero-waste tailored ensemble for high fashion requires an entirely different level of skill.

Zero waste requires smarter, more fearless designers who can see beyond drape and cut.

I hope that my zero-waste fashion research becomes an incubator for the fashion techniques of the future. They started out as a “cute” idea, but my designs have become increasingly more complex and sophisticated with each passing season. Zero waste requires deliberate consideration, along with smarter, more fearless designers who can see beyond drape and cut. Zero-waste design is definitely not easy, but it’s one of the more creative tools the fashion industry has to build a brighter future.

+ Mark Liu

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6 Responses to “What is Zero-Waste Fashion (and Why Does It Matter)?”

  1. TimoRissanen says:

    Great post Mark! It’s reassuring to see more and more zero-waste designers write about their work in open fora like this. In case anyone’s interested, I attempted to list zero-waste designers last year: http://zerofabricwastefashion.blogspot.com/2009/08/no-waste-and-less-waste-fashion.html

    Alongside Yeohlee Teng and Zandra Rhodes as pioneers, I should have mentioned Claire McCardell whose work Bernard Rudofsky featured in the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ in 1947. Today I also found a link to another zero-waste designer from Holly McQuillan’s blog: http://precariousdesign.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/twinset-warpeace/

    Any budding zero-waste designers out there, go for it! Blog, too; had I not, it might have taken years for me to find out about Holly’s brilliant work, as well as Julian Roberts: http://julianand.com/ (his website is only open on Wednesdays)

  2. Abigail Doan says:

    Thanks, Mark and Timo, for your insightful comments. It’s been quite a journey since we first had this dialogue on Inhabitat in 2008. Lots still to be done, but with each conversation like this, further clarification and creative pollination occurs.

    See http://www.inhabitat.com/2008/02/24/estethica-2008-showing-at-london-fashion-week/

    Best wishes,
    Abigail Doan

  3. Sarah says:

    I just wanted to point out that “zero-waste” fashion is not a new idea. Patterns taken from historical clothing (pre-20th century) show that very little, if any, fabric was wasted in the process of making fashionable garments. See Dorothy Burnham’s Cut My Cote from 1973 which has examples of historical clothing patterns. http://www.worldcat.org/title/cut-my-cote/oclc/1072584&referer=brief_results I would also check out Janice Arnold’s work.

  4. Holly says:

    Great post and comments! Like Timo I am heartened to see Mark writing about the approach and to see him using words such as “fearless” and encouraging risk taking… ideas missing from to many designers vocabularies – fashion and other fields. If anyone is interested in giving it a go I put together some instructions a while ago that can get you started which are linked here http://precariousdesign.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/instructions-for-pattern-process/
    Sorry there aren’t any images in it yet – I’m working on it!

    And Sarah is right – this isn’t new, but the approach taken by the latest crop of zero-wasters has a slightly different focus i think (well I like to think we do!), and anyway we should all aim to stand on the shoulders of giants – it’s got the best view.

  5. East Fourth Street says:

    This is a great post and thanks for writing it. As a zero-waste metal-smith designer, I find the extra challenge of finding reclaimed materials to use in my jewelry interesting and exciting. I want my jewelry and accessories to not rely on the reuse platform, but on the merit of their design. It’s an extra step that honors the earth and proves that designers can be extremely creative.

  6. hemalatha says:

    So environment friendly more people should do this.
    Thank you.

    I wanted to read your graduation research please let me know where I will find.

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