Shelly Xu: Taking Fabric Waste Down to Zero
Hi there, my name is Spiffy, I’m an interplanetary journalist hanging out on Planet Earth. Today I’m interviewing entrepreneur Shelly Xu, founder of SXD (Shelly Xu Design). She is laser-focused on UNSDG #12: Responsible Consumption and Production, and is on a mission to bring fabric waste down to zero! Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome Shelly! Let’s get to it—what challenges are you addressing?
Shelly: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! Globally, the apparel industry produces about 92 million tons of textile waste every year. Imagine one truck full of fabric going to waste every single second. This also adds to CO2 emissions and water waste, further harming our planet. My mission at SXD is to drive that fabric waste number down to zero.
Spiffy: That sounds like a major undertaking! What motivated you to conquer fabric waste?
Shelly: As a child, I used to sit on a refrigerator when dining with my parents in our 70 square foot home in Asia. We could only fit one table or one bed at a time, so we rearranged furniture throughout the day to make living work. This taught me creativity under constraint—finding beauty in a room full of limits. At SXD, we design zero waste clothing that maximizes beauty while acknowledging the resource constraints of our planet. And the need is urgent: many of my favorite places growing up are now littered with textile waste. I want to contribute to a planet that is better, not worse, for our next generation.
Spiffy: So how do you think SXD will help to create a more equitable world?
Shelly: Climate change impacts our planet unequally, and today people who are already marginalized are also the most harmed by climate change. Furthermore, we realized that the biggest clothing manufacturing countries in the world, like Bangladesh, are among the countries most impacted by climate change. This is why we launched our work with climate refugees in Bangladesh. We pay climate refugees and other flood-impacted locals about four times the hourly local wage to work with us. This helps them rebuild their lives. We design our zero waste jackets to be unisex and one size fits most. This simplicity allows us to hire even the newly trained climate refugees to work.
Spiffy: That’s going to disrupt things in a good way! Have you reached any milestones you’re really excited about?
Shelly: We just started our first brand partnership creating a zero waste version of one of our favorite brand's best sellers. This means a lot to us because we know that in order to shift the apparel industry to be better, we can't do it alone. We don't need to consume more clothes. We need to switch to better clothing options. That's why working with other brands to switch to zero waste is really exciting to us.
Shelly Xu making one of her first zero-waste designs. (Photo credit: Joe Thomas + Sustain)
Spiffy: What about failure, Shelly—can you tell me about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you discover?
Shelly: Last year, SXD became the first fashion-related startup to be a finalist in the President's Innovation Challenge—the startup competition across all the schools of Harvard University. I worked days and nights with my team on the competition, but we ended up not winning. That was really hard. But it taught me how to be "good at failing." After a few days, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and decided to reach out to those who won to learn from them. One of those winners ended up becoming my great friend. She introduced me to opportunities that I never knew before and helped me become a better entrepreneur. We have won numerous major competitions this year, and I'm also now an Advisor for her startup!
Spiffy: What is something unexpected you’ve learned from someone recently?
Shelly: That CVS is a great place to get vaccinated! I learned that from my dad!
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Shelly: If you want to be an entrepreneur and you have a meaningful idea, you should start now. I wish I began my entrepreneurship journey earlier! Even if it doesn’t work out, the skills that you learn—like building a community and bringing together a team—will be invaluable.
Spiffy: It sounds like it’s all worth it. Thanks so much for telling me about your amazing work, Shelly. It’s been an honor!
Shelly Xu is the founder of SXD and has spent over ten years prototyping sustainable designs. Shelly is committed to reversing fashion’s negative impact on our environment—a reality she has witnessed first-hand during her travels across China, Japan, and the United States as a child. An MBA candidate at the Harvard Business School, Shelly is an ex-creative lead from Instagram and previously worked at Prada and McKinsey. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 11, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog