First and foremost, Alisa Yao is a problem-solver. She creates out of need. But not excess. Never excess.

When she couldn’t find locally-made eco food wraps, she made her own. When she couldn’t find a suitably sized collar for her newly-adopted rescue dog, she
made her own.


“It’s out of that frustration, when I can’t find what I need, then I go and make something,” she says.


Yao seems happiest when she’s using her hands. But the source of her materials is what makes her a unique creator. As a zero-waste product designer, she rarely, if ever, buys anything new.


She approaches problem-solving – the genesis of great design – from a waste-less
perspective.

Alisa Yao brings a waste-not, want-not perspective to design. photo supplied


It’s a concept that the global fashion industry is slowly starting to adopt.

High cost of haute couture

Designing products that are used for longer, created to be made again and that use safe and recycled or renewed materials and technologies are the fundamentals of a circular economy, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The think tank was founded to help accelerate the transition to circular economies across various industries, including fashion.


The shift is necessary for an industry responsible for consuming the second largest amount of water in the world and about 10 percent of global carbon emissions.


If the fashion industry doesn’t change course, the results could be “potentially catastrophic,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


As consumers are starting to become aware of the social and environmental impacts thanks to documentary films like The True Cost and River Blue, they’re voting with their wallets and starting to seek out alternatives to mass-produced clothing.

Amid this changing global landscape, a pair of Tri-City designers are shaping their own sustainable visions in fashion and product design.


In the last 20 years, clothing production has approximately doubled. The phenomenon dubbed “fast fashion” is seeing quick style turnarounds, more collections offered every year and the cost of clothing decreasing. It’s the base of business for brands like Forever 21, the now-defunct Le Chateau, even online giant Shein, which Vox recently called “the future of fast fashion.”

Slow and steady


Amy Herndon grew up with many of the brands that popularized fast fashion.

Even as a teenager, she was unimpressed with the quality.


“Things would fall apart after like two washes,” she says.


She taught herself how to sew, making her own clothes and honing her skills in theatre production before applying for college.


These days, she designs and creates for her brand, Ization Studio out of her home in Coquitlam. Herndon was inspired to create a collection of basic pieces that would be versatile and not wed to any one season.

She mostly sells direct to consumers on her website. It’s part of her way of operating a sustainable fashion business. She only creates what people order.


“You don’t have to do a lot to be sustainable,” she says, explaining it’s not all
organic fabrics and recycled goods.


Growing up in Alberta, she was never exposed to an alternative way of running a fashion label. But upon moving to Vancouver for fashion school, she saw how many slow fashion and sustainable brands were based on the West Coast.


“That kind of opened my eyes to all the options and how many brands are here that are really doing a good job at keeping it small and local and just sustainable practices in terms of production, not over-producing [but] just making sure that the quality is really there so that you can have things for a lifetime.”


The pandemic has changed our shopping habits. Herndon has noticed more people are interested in shopping locally and finding sustainably-made products.

Since the start of 2020, there’s been nearly a 30 percent increase in online searches for sustainability-related keywords.


Creation station


Yao has made shower caps out of discarded Gore-Tex rain jackets; masks out of bed sheets and clothes.

She receives the majority of her materials as donations or from thrifting and has developed a name for herself in the community as an expert-level eco product designer.


“She’s just so creative in what she makes with rescued textiles,” says Alison Grouhel, who owns one of Yao’s rain jacket shower caps. “I thought that [product] was just brilliant.”


Grouhel runs a blog called A Sustainably Simple Life alongside Krista Sept. The duo began writing about their own sustainable journeys last spring. They were overwhelmed by the “doomsday” tone in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report.

The report warns that without: “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5C or even 2C will be beyond reach.”


Grouhel says she was surprised by the impact of something as basic as our everyday clothes. “We were both blown away by how damaging the fashion industry is to our planet,” she says. “It’s shocking how much we don’t know about fashion.”


A recent blog post outlined some easy changes that could be made at a personal level including buying less, buying second-hand, repairing instead of replacing and embracing your inner anti-Carrie Bradshaw by wearing an outfit more than once.


“The easiest thing that somebody can do to be sustainable in their fashion choices is to wear their clothes, not shop, just wear what they have,” she says. “That three months of extension of the wear of a garment is making a huge impact on the planet.”


Not everyone can afford to purchase fast fashion alternatives. But small habit changes, like Grouhel’s suggestion of wearing a piece of clothing more often could reduce impact.

The UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme estimates that if a piece of clothing can be worn for an extra nine months, its environmental impact could be reduced by 20-30 percent.

In Metro Vancouver, about five percent of our municipal solid waste is textiles. That’s about 40,000 metric tonnes.


Textiles can have a second life if they’re given to a sorter-grader, where they’re sorted into one of 400-some categories. According to a 2018 report called “Unravelling the Problem of Apparel Waste in the Greater Vancouver Area,” the six largest of these companies in the Vancouver area estimate that about half of what they process goes to global reuse markets, 20 per cent gets repurposed as rags, another 20 per cent goes to textile recycling markets and just 10 per cent is disposed.

But fast fashion is even eroding the quality of textiles and materials collected by sorter-graders.

Gathering material

Yao collects materials when she has the space. She has yet to run out of fabric, but has gotten creative when it comes to sewing accessories like buckles, clips, zippers and buttons.


While the pandemic interrupted usual supply lines for creators, Yao was unaffected. When she ran out of Gore-Tex to create heavy-duty shower caps, she just started using other waterproof materials and seam-sealing them.


Of the products she creates, she is perhaps most well-known for her yoga bolsters and eco food wraps.

No two products are ever the same. Such is the game played when using available materials: donated, thrifted and the ends of fabric rolls. To date, she’s created 70 yoga bolsters – essentially a firm cylindrical pillow. The interior is stuffed with tiny bits of fabric too small to be of use other than stuffing. Even the zippers are rescued from other products including discarded backpacks.


Yao estimates her bolsters alone have redirected more than 450 pounds of textile waste into a usable product.


Yao seems happiest creating. But while she likes keeping her hands busy, she acknowledges that she doesn’t want to make excess. It’s why she doesn’t have any stock on hand.


However, design can be more challenging if using limited materials. If a customer asks for a certain item in a specific fabric that Yao might have a limited quantity of, the pressure is on.


“In the back of my mind, I’m like I don’t want to mess this up,’ she says. “If I mess that up, I can’t get more of it.”


It also means that Yao isn’t producing in bulk. She’ll keep her raw materials until someone puts in an order, either inspired by one of her prototypes, or their own design challenge.

As a problem-solver, she enjoys creating custom products.

“I can’t just sit there and sew the same thing over and over. It’s not what I want to do,” she says. “I just enjoy the process of creating. I think that’s the fun part for me.”