What makes a zero-waste fashion company? 5 ways we decrease our waste (it’s not just scrunchies)
In the fashion industry, phrases like sustainability and zero-waste have become marketing gimmicks too often and, unfortunately, don’t really mean a whole lot. In fact, they can be outright misleading.
Many (big and small) companies are doing their part to source and produce their garments mindfully. But many others are also trying to capitalize on hype words without taking meaningful actions.
Meaningful actions mean doing more than just repurposing fabric into scrunchies (which hernest does—funnily enough, they’re one of our most popular items). What I mean here is that it’s not about the very light lift that it takes to sew up scrunchies; it’s about committing to revamping operations that tackle bigger picture environmental issues genuinely.
So how can you tell if a clothing company is actually walking the sustainability walk or just greenwashing to inspire the warm and fuzzies? Here are five critical things that every consumer should know about waste in the fashion industry before they click checkout.
It starts with the right partnerships.
Eliminating Waste in the Supply Chain Has its Limits…
…but still trying to minimize waste is crucial. Not knowing your entire supply chain is no longer acceptable. No two fibres are grown the same or processed the same. The black and white thinking that one fiber is better than the other in no way reflects the truly nuanced and diversity of practices which makes up the global supply chain. And if you can’t trace it, you can’t know. Before a product is even made, businesses can drastically reduce their supply chain waste and influence how it’s managed.
From my experience building hernest, I have found that a critical factor to waste mitigation is selecting who we work with in terms of their practices and physical location. Since we don’t buy our fibres directly from a grower (we buy finished fabric), we purposefully work with partners in countries with exceptionally high standards and regulations that are open and transparent about who they, in turn, work with. We also trace the fibres to their original suppliers to ensure that our standards are followed throughout the supply chain. And we publish a lot of information about these business decisions so our customers can learn about these issues and feel confident in their decision to buy hernest products.
For example, I chose Portugal as hernest’s production base because, besides their high standards for worker rights and skilled labour, the country also offers excellent technology. Portugal is where we have our fabrics milled, and they also uphold rigorous standards for recycling fabric by reusing it in other industries across the country. We also source our TENCEL and Organic Cotton from European countries to ensure alignment with our policies and practices.
It is often a challenge for small companies to source materials because of the minimum order quantities required. But carefully choosing your sourcing and production isn’t just about fibres or assembly—this business decision has human rights implications, too.
Internal Processes Can (Still) Significantly Decrease Fashion Waste
I recently really came to terms with the value of measuring twice and cutting once, as the saying goes. And that the precision that goes into creating our tech packs can have a pretty direct and consequential impact on waste reduction. Tech packs are the path for a patternmaker to develop a garment. So, as you can imagine, the closer a prototype is to the end product that will go to customers, the more efficiently the finished garment will be made.
These learnings came out of an incredible opportunity I had as a participant in the Social Enterprise Hackathon sponsored by BNP Paribas. This hackathon for social entrepreneurs gave me access to diverse talent at BNP Paribas. The experience helped surface new solutions to business challenges (another cohort is coming up in June 2022 if you want to learn more).
Participating in this hackathon led me to discover how much value we can squeeze from heavily investing in the up-front prototyping stage. By gathering customer feedback early on and iterating accordingly, we could eliminate a lot more downstream waste by aligning more accurately to customer wants and needs.
It sounds simple enough, right? But it’s an area that I realized hernest needed to double down on in keeping the long view in mind. So we dug into dissecting the processes that inform production decisions like colours and fit to proactively incorporate feedback loops and change how we get from concept to creation.
The Best Defense in Fashion Waste is to Wear your Closet.
If you follow hernest on social media, you can probably tell that I am pretty much obsessed with fibres and fabric. I could geek out all day on fibres and fabrics.
There are so many sustainability stats out there that it’s pretty hard to tell what’s what. The sources are often subjective or misleading, so it’s challenging to accurately quantify fashion’s true environmental impact in a consistent, meaningful way.
What I look at in guiding hernest are the concepts of versatility and wearability and how they can ultimately reduce waste. I want customers to consider each purchase, have a purpose (or 3) in mind for each garment, and wear the heck out of it. I want it to be among the 20% in your closet that gets 80% of the wears! In fast fashion, the average garment gets worn about five to seven times (depending on which study you're looking at). That’s it. And although they’re often seasonal or trend-based (meaning, they aren’t intended to be worn long-term), these garments are made of inexpensive fabrics that outlast the landfill—fabrics like polyester, spandex, and nylon that take decades if not centuries to break down in landfills. This is alarming considering that the average American throws 80 lbs of clothing in the trash each year.
So, rather than aspiring to meet a very low bar of designing clothes that will be only a handful of times, I design hernest to defy seasonality with multi-functionality that you'll want to wear again and again. It’s estimated that if you can wear your garments 50 times, you can decrease the carbon footprint of that purchase by 400%. If you’re interested in learning more about fibres and fabrics, check out content from Andrea Cheong, who does a fantastic job blasting the myths and dirty laundry of the fashion industry.
At hernest, our goal is to never need to landfill anything in our production cycle—ever.
This is a promise I made from the very beginning, and it rings as true today as it did when I first founded the company. As a small business, we take great pride in championing progressive policies that allow us to step up as a purpose-led fashion company.
Committing to a returns and warranty issues process that ensures no garment is sent to the landfill drastically minimizes our waste footprint. When we do have extra or unsellable merchandise available, we take on giving campaigns with Mamas for Mamas. We most recently donated 30 pieces to mamas in need during the fall of 2021. We also choose to partner with organizations like The Cutting Edge, which helps newcomer women to Canada get started in careers as sewing machine operators. These women leverage our extras and end-of-roll fabrics to produce our scrunchies and eye pillows so that we can use every bit of fabric possible.
Through these seemingly small but intentional choices, we have essentially been able to eliminate most of our waste today. And I promise that we will keep pushing to transition all our fabrics to fully biodegradable options (for example, our lightweight fabrics, like some of our bottoms, are still a work in progress).
Closing the Loop is All in the Details
Beyond internal processes to create garments, many little details can make a fashion company even more waste conscious. For hernest, we’ve focused on making even the smallest details reusable and compostable. So we’ve taken measures like eliminating hang tags, switching to heat transfer labels, and using compostable garment protectors and reusable packaging. And we’re always open to doing more. Recently, for example, we participated in a pilot program for Quill bags that shows great signs of uptake in our community.
As we continue to grow and evolve, my goal for hernest is to get to a place where we can implement a take-back and recycling program to completely and cyclically steer the reuse of fibres to produce new fabric. It’s a big goal. We developed our sustainability roadmap to keep us accountable to these goals. The challenges to closing the loop are not insignificant. Our ambition is to produce garments using 100% recycled fibres and ensure that our garments return to the cycle after use by customers. That's when we'll know we've truly managed our waste and become fully circular.
After all, as a shopper, you have the power to direct your purchasing to support companies that are authentically doing their part to change the industry for the better. To us, that means building trust and transparency and leading through action. If you’re curious to learn more about how we plan to steer into the future of sustainability, you can read our 2030 plan published on our website or drop us a DM any time.