Scraps, Sustainability, and the Worst Species on Earth (Spoiler: It’s Humans)

Zero Waste Daniel picks up after 2 rings. ‘It’s a crazy day to be Zero Waste Daniel!’ he tells me, excitedly, when I ask him how he’s doing. Despite slotting me in between appointments over lunch one day in early September, our chat doesn’t feel rushed. He’s totally at ease, yet still fabulously energised and passionate.

I can hear the muffled soundscape of his city – New York – as he takes my call on the street: the low hum of traffic, the calls of construction workers, the slow wail of sirens far-off in the concrete distance.

Cities like Daniel’s are synonymous with pollution. Each year, the world’s cities generate over 720 billion tons of rubbish, from processed-food packaging to hazardous waste. But for zero-waste fashion designer Daniel Silverstein, his city is more than its waste: it’s his resource.

Working from material scraps collected from non-profits like FabScrap – a warehouse in Brooklyn where over 250 designers donate their fabric waste – Daniel cuts, sews and crafts unwanted waste into incredible handmade designs.

If he can make it here, he can make it anywhere

New York is more than the source of Daniel’s materials, however. It’s his inspiration:

‘There’s this idea that New York’s the most difficult city to succeed in – you know, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And that inspires a certain kind of street style – where you’re trying to be capable of surviving anything – that’s hard to find in other cities.’

Daniel tells me impractical fashion just doesn’t work in New York. ‘You have to move around. It’s not like LA when you just drive to a parking lot all the time, or London where the sidewalks are more spacious and it’s ok to be a little more proper. It gets really gritty here… even in nice neighbourhoods.’

This explains Daniel’s designs – powerful black tees with lightning bolt mosaics and urban sports tops with the word ‘woke’ across the chest – all as unique and gritty as his streets.

Zero Waste Daniel has created a closed loop production system: all scraps are kept until they’ve been used. As a self-confessed sustainable fashionista, I’m fangirling by this point.

But I worry if coronavirus has hindered production, so I ask Daniel how it’s impacted zero waste fashion.

‘I think the pandemic actually highlights some of the goals of sustainability in a bitter-sweet way,’ Daniel tells me. ‘It’s made people stop what they’re doing and work with what they have. It’s highlighted the scarcity of resources based on our systems.’

He explains it further:

‘So, you know, when the virus stops things like down production, and oil isn’t getting spun into polyester, that polyester doesn’t get spun into fabric. And when that isn’t being shipped from country to country, it’s harder to get hold of things unless you’re making them yourself. And people are doing it in a way that can be easily adapted to sustainability.’

Shifting dollars

Ah, the S word. I ask Daniel how we can create a more sustainable society – one that supports enterprises like his.

‘We just need consumers to shift their dollars towards us,’ he states simply. Every bit the environmentalist, he goes on to make a natural world comparison:

‘What you water grows. And in business and policy, money is water. Who holds wealth is who holds value in our current society, so give the money to people who want better things, and then those systems will grow.’

Zero Waste Daniel definitely wants better things – for people and the planet. Although, on the subject of people, he can’t help but get infuriated:

‘People are animals, and we are clearly the dumbest, because we’re the only ones who are living with this much filth and waste. Every other species is completely zero waste.’

Despite being the dumbest, Daniel loves people, and he prioritises kindness and love in his life. This becomes clear when I ask him about his community:

‘In the community I foster in my life and my work, there is no hate binary, there just is no hate.

‘The idea of any of that bullshit in my life is intolerable to me and I have a very visceral reaction to it – it makes me anxious and sweaty and my voice will crack. The people who I keep around me, who I lift up and support in my life, they’re kind people with good intentions for the earth, their families, their communities.’

Zero Hate Daniel

No hate. That’s what Daniel’s about. ‘I don’t put it out and I don’t want it back.’

The designer recognises that creating these boundaries keeps his community smaller than other fashion professionals, but it’s something he values:

‘I’ve worked really hard to cultivate this, and it’s sustaining me, so it’s something I highly recommend.’

The emphasis on community, and caring for it, is a huge part of sustainable business practice. Ethical fashion like Zero Waste Daniel’s is founded on moral commitments – protecting peoples’ environments and water sources, paying a fair living wage, and lifting them up from historically oppressive regimes.

By creating a zero-waste business model, Daniel shows how totally possible it is to succeed with new ways of production – the kind that avoids dangerous practices (like polluting water sources with industrial waste) – that the modern textile industry has been getting away with, unregulated, for decades.

It’s not only his business that Daniel keeps zero waste, it’s his lifestyle too – albeit imperfectly. By his own admission, Daniel states zero waste is about doing your best everyday – and being realistic.

No one’s perfect, but by sending as little to landfill as possible and avoiding excess packaging, he’s embedded an admirably eco-friendly daily practice.

As someone who’s partial to my fair share of bamboo toothbrushes and beeswax wraps, I’ve made a start on low waste living. But I know these trends just aren’t gonna cut it when it comes to the nitty gritty of climate change.

Unsure how to do better on the sustainable front, I ask Daniel for one solid tip to try out, something everyone can do to take action.

‘If you want to reduce your waste, look at it. Analyse it and figure out what the number one thing you’re throwing away is. Then tackle that one item’.

‘You don’t want to just crash in, it’s a gradual process.’

So, no treating low-waste living like a fad diet?

‘No! Once you change one practice in your life consistently, you can knock down the next one when you’re ready.’

This makes sense. Although, I’m worried as soon as I start scrutinising my waste, I’ll be faced with the uncomfortable reality that yes, I am snaffling 8 packets of salt & vinegar crisps a week. Minimum. And I’m just not sure I’m ready for this right now.

As we finish our call, Daniel’s off to work on his next project – something he’s calling ‘fashion-tainment’ (a virtual fashion hybrid where clothes act as comedic entertainment). 

I’m off to spend the afternoon staring into my bin. Thanks for the low-waste tip, Daniel. It’s been a pleasure.


Zero Waste Daniel

He / Him

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Daniel was interviewed by Emily Kemp
Illustrations by Ellie Bassford


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