Zero Waste Systems Thinking: PhD ongoing

The fashion system is contributing to the environmental and social crises on an ever increasing scale. The industry must transform in order to situate itself within the environmental and social limits proposed by economist Kate Raworth, and the 17 sustainable development goals set out by the United Nations.

This research explored methods of eliminating textile waste through utilising zero waste pattern cutting to expand the outcomes possible within industrial contexts and speculates as to the implications for the wider industry and society. Employing an experimental and phenomenological approach, this thesis outlines the testing of known strategies in the context of industry and responds with new emergent strategies to the challenges that arose. A series of interviews were conducted with designers who have applied zero-waste fashion design in an industry context – both large and small scale – to unpack the strategies used and contextualise the difficulties faced. The findings that emerged from the iterative design practice and the experience of working within the field tests inform the surrounding discussions and reflections. This reflection brings into sharp relief the inherent conflicts that exist within the fashion system and has led to the development of a series of theoretical models.

The implications for design and industry are broad. Firstly that while my licentiate thesis outlines garment design strategies, and broader – company-wide – approaches that can work to reduce waste in a given context, this research finds that a holistic transformation of the internal design and management processes of the industry is required for them to be successful. In response, theoretical models have been developed which seek to articulate the constraints, roles and actions of design within broader company practices, while contextualising these within the economic system it operates.  It is clear that reducing waste will only have a minor positive effect on the environmental outcomes unless we also reduce consumption of raw materials through reducing yield or reducing consumption – ideally both. These findings and models point towards a necessary recalibration of the industry as a whole – small changes are not enough as the existing methods, processes and ethos are deeply embedded, and its agents are resistant to change. The results concur with previous research and conclude that a fundamental shift in thinking is required – one that prioritises a different set of constraints to those the industry and society currently focus on – in order to make the rapid and meaningful change necessary.

In my PhD Thesis, I will expand on the models explored in my Licentiate, illustrating an alternative way of working that builds a way of thinking about the design of textile-based forms and their production from the yarn onwards through a lens of Zero Waste Systems Thinking.


McQuillan, H. (2020). Digital 3D design as a tool for augmenting zero-waste fashion design practice, International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, 13:1, 89-100, DOI: 10.1080/17543266.2020.1737248

McQuillan, H. and Rissanen, T. (2020) ‘Mind-Body-Garment-Cloth’, in Townsend, K. and Solomon, R. (eds) Crafting Anatomies. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 147–168.

McQuillan, H. (2019). Weaving Futures: Adopting alternative postures to develop new methods for the construction of textile-forms in the context of micro-manufacturing. Paper presented at Making Futures Conference, Plymouth College of Art, Plymouth, UK.

McQuillan, H. (2019) Zero Waste Design Thinking. Licentiate Thesis. Edited by L. Hallnäs. University of Borås.

McQuillan, H. (2019) ‘Waste, so what ? A reflection on waste and the role of designers in a circular economy.’, Nordic Design Research Journal. Espoo, Finland, 8(8), pp. 1–9. Available at:

McQuillan, H. (2019) ‘Hybrid zero waste design practices. Zero waste pattern cutting for composite garment weaving and its implications’, in Running With Scissors, European Academy of Design.

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