Climate Stories Episode #9 – Shelly Xu (MBA 2021) Reducing Waste Through Beautiful Design

In our first few months, Climate Stories have focused on cars, buildings, electricity, solar farms, green jobs, war and peace. In this post, we look in our closets - to find sustainably designed clothing and eliminate wasted fabrics.

“I want to eliminate waste from the past and waste from the future by creating new clothing designs from leftover bolts of fabric that would otherwise be thrown away.” – Shelly Xu (MBA 2021)

Shelly Xu is a 31-year old whirlwind. While studying at Harvard Business School, her business, Shelly Xu Design (SXD), was both the “crowd favorite” and won the grand prize for social impact at the 2021 New Venture Competition; she was designing and even sewing in her dorm room; and she began manufacturing her own bespoke, sustainably designed denim jackets in Bangladesh to aid local workers who are deemed “climate refugees.” You can purchase them on her website.

In the year and a half since her 2021 HBS graduation, Shelly has raised $1.2 million in an oversubscribed pre-seed round funded largely by customers who share her vision. She has begun hiring permanent staff and has added industry experts to her group of advisors. Her customer base has increased and she has articulated her company’s roadmap: “SXD creates magic for everyone we touch.” By “magic,” she means “good things that happen without having to work so hard.” Her goal is to use technology and design to create “a beautiful zero waste future that is beloved by consumers.” By January 1, 2023, she hopes to be able “to translate sketches to zero waste designs that match current fit requirements 75% of the time.”

Shelly is tackling a daunting, multi-faceted challenge. Quoting the 2021 State of Fashion report, recently reported that garment production continues to grow annually by 2.7%, while 25% of garments remain unsold and less than 1% are recycled into new garments.

Estimates are that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of global waste water. In 2020, the BBC reported that 85% of all textiles are thrown away in the U.S. and “globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is created each year and the equivalent to a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second.” The report added that “textile production alone is estimated to release 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year.”

According to United Nations’ forecasts, “the sector’s emissions will rise by more than 60 per cent by 2030, if transformation towards a sustainable fashion industry fails to materialize soon.”

Shelly believes that good design can inspire the fashion industry to avoid these frightening forecasts. Her business is built on two prongs:

  1. She’s developing a software algorithm that she hopes will automate zero waste designs that both cost less and look better. While building a standalone model, she charges a fixed fee for a “managed service” product with which she can run the algorithm in-house while co-designing and iterating with brands.
  2. To drive revenue in the short term, Shelly is creating her own zero waste products as well as creating “merch” or merchandise for select customers. “It’s our own R&D,” Shelly said. “It’s a way to create good designs and it feeds into our algorithm.”

A case in point: Harvard i-Lab Brand Experience & Creative Director Adrian Gill approached Shelly to create some new products with sustainability in mind for the i-Lab’s 10-year anniversary. In response, Shelly said, "We actually built 10 innovations into the laptop sleeve for the i-Lab’s 10-year anniversary.”

HBS student Chiyoung Kim demonstrates the product. (Photo credit: Oscar Alvarez)

Among the innovations are “zero fabric waste design and an eco-friendly waterproof feature achieved through ecorepel, which biomimics the protective function found in waterfowl feathers.” Other innovations include “functional ones like a reversible laptop sleeve, and a QR code that tells the full story of the product.”

Shelly grew up in China and moved to the United States with her family when she was 10 years old. She credits her interest in sustainable design to her early childhood. She explained: “We lived in a very small apartment and had to be creative rearranging the furniture to make do. I recall a beautiful grassy area between the buildings. The area was filled with flowers and sparked my love of nature. But when I returned recently, as an adult, that same grassy area was filled with trash. It’s hard to watch irreversible harm being done to nature.”

A self-taught designer, Shelly started out as a visual arts major at Columbia University, but switched to the then-new sustainable design major. “We knew that design alone had to solve real problems. There were no answers. We had to learn, to debate solutions and that dialogue inspires me today.”

A Pablo Picasso quote has stuck with her: “Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress that you can’t even imagine in advance.”

After stints at Instagram, McKinsey, and Prada, Shelly began her MBA studies at HBS. In her first semester, she found the Harvard i-Lab. She told Climate Stories how grateful she was to be “welcomed as a consumer and human-oriented company, unlike the more typical app or AI product.” She continued: “Through the Entrepreneur-in-Residence network, I met CEOs who taught me how to prioritize as well as legal and accounting experts. The i-Lab provided the foundation for my startup.”

For Shelly, climate change is personal. “I care about the next generation, people the same age as my 18-year old sister.” She continued: “They have the burden of gun violence and I don’t want to put one more burden on them to have to solve. They are worried about global warming. I have been lucky; I’ve attended good schools and have great connections who know how to solve these problems. I want to make solutions for the next generation.”

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.