Danielle Elsener Takes Zero-Waste Design to COP26 and Beyond

World leaders, campaigners, policymakers, not-for-profits and more are converging on Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), seeking solutions that will limit global warming and tackle the climate crisis. 

The environmental impacts of the global fashion and textile industry are well-known and demand has rocketed for innovative solutions at every stage of the value chain. Danielle Elsener is demonstrating the potential of new ways of working at the highest level, bringing zero-waste design to the global stage at COP 26. 

A group of people in hi-vis jackets stand in front of eight metal cages filles with textile waste.
The team building ‘Generation of Waste’ in the delegate-only Blue Zone at COP26. Image: Lateral North

From more than 4,000 applications, Zero Waste Design Online – the collective formed by Danielle and like-minded colleagues around the world – is the only fashion-focused exhibitor among the 28 selected for the VIP-only Blue Zone at the conference.  

The collective’s exhibition in collaboration with Sustainable Fashion Scotland‘Generation of Waste’, will feature an installation with a massive bar chart indicating the size and scale of fashion’s waste problem from manufacturing to end of life, as well as examples of how zero-waste design approaches can eliminate waste from the very beginning. 

“It’s a huge moment for Zero Waste Design and there is real opportunity to create change,” Danielle explains.

Bringing together fashion designers, researchers and social entrepreneurs, the Zero Waste Design Online collective develops educational resources and supports networking among designers, students, researchers, and anyone who is interested in using zero-waste design to create a more sustainable fashion industry.

With plans to launch an e-learning platform and downloadable zero-waste patterns available on their website, the group hopes to use COP26 to raise awareness among policymakers of the need for new approaches and the urgency of supporting initiatives driving real change.

Through working with businesses and developing her own brand DECODE, Danielle has devoted her career to demonstrating that zero-waste design is both environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, cutting costs and maximising the value of raw materials.

A large metal cage with signage saying 'Retail' and 'World Leaders Act Now'
The bar chart of textile waste focuses on eight phases of the value chain. Image: Lateral North

As she graduated from the MA Fashion programme at the Royal College of Art in 2020, her AO20 design system won the Activate Movement grant from Evian and Virgil Abloh, while her work has also been praised by Abloh and Apple’s former Chief Design Officer, Sir Jony Ive. 

Last year, in a collaborative project brought together by Future Fashion Factory to celebrate Campaign for Wool’s Wool Week, Danielle worked with luxury woollen fabric from Yorkshire mill John Foster to create a unique three-piece zero-waste outfit.  

Danielle Elsener wears a navy shirt untucked, under a navy casual jacket and matching shorts.
Danielle Elsener models the three-piece outfit she made for Future Fashion Factory’s Wool Week 2020 collaboration, in heritage twill from Bradford mill John Foster. Image: Danielle Elsener

DECODE’s Instagram account documented the process from design to finished product, part of Danielle’s mission to spread the word that zero-waste design is both realistic and attainable. At workshops with the Future Fashion Factory community and at York Design Week, among others, live demonstrations have given fashion designers the chance to make along at home using Danielle’s own zero-waste patterns.

But the clearest evidence that zero-waste design and manufacturing is a viable business model is in the next phase of DECODE’s growth. With premises in New York City, DECODE MFG will manufacture for brands while also producing an in-house line of zero-waste basics. It will provide a local manufacturing partner for New York brands as well as reducing the carbon footprint of shipping products internationally.

As COP 26 provides a platform to raise awareness of fashion’s environmental impact, and DECODE MFG paves the way for zero-waste manufacturing on a commercial scale, Danielle sees the momentum gathering for a new, more sustainable, way of working in the fashion industry.

“We have to remember that these issues will persist, and prove more costly if we don’t do something about them now,” Danielle says. “This is why I’m starting DECODE MFG. There is no better time to fix our infrastructure, and I’m here to provide an immediate answer that aids these woes while building a more sustainable future.”