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Young Change Makers: How Danielle Elsener and Decode Are Helping To Make A Difference In Our World

An Interview With Sonia Molodecky

Absorb everything! — Being able to understand the complexities of the industry you’re in is key to being able to have real conversations about what’s going on. Read everything, go to exhibits (virtually!), reach out to people who know more than you, engage in dialogue, etc.

Be real — No one is interested in someone that’s too put together. Especially during this time it’s incredibly important to be yourself through everything you do, insecurities and all!

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Elsener.

Danielle Elsener has dedicated her life’s work to proving zero-waste as a valid and robust design model. For over a decade, she has learned from industry, educational institutions, and self-run initiatives to understand how best to do this. What began as a love for puzzle solving through zero-waste pattern-making, became a way to fix the fashion industry’s biggest problem.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

As a military brat, I grew up all over the states. I loved moving to new places and meeting new people everywhere we went. It definitely made me love long road trips and be able to pack light!

I was always given access to creative outlets which I’m so grateful for. I started sewing when I was 11 by going to quilting retreats with my Aunt and it all took off from there!

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It might be a bit strange to say, but I co-founded a collective that has made a huge impact on me and my way of working. Zero Waste Design Online is a collective founded by four women from different countries, all passionate about collating and sharing information around the world of Zero Waste Design. Myself, Holly McQuillan, Mylene L’orguilloux, and Cassandra Bellanger began this collective over the summer of 2020 after finding that there isn’t one concise spot online where one can find information around Zero Waste. Since our launch we have created an amazing community where we share projects, host workshops, and have monthly community calls. We’re going to be launching an e-learning platform within the next year as well and it’s mind blowing what we’ve accomplished in such a short time. The passion and devotion these three other amazing women have, as well as our community, makes me so thankful to be a part of it.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

DECODE is a Zero Waste Design System that solves industry problems through communication, sharing, and play. In addition to creating completely waste free garments, I have developed tools to allow others to learn how to design in a Zero Waste method. Being able to share this information in an accessible and digestible manner is one of the best ways to make a difference.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

I initially discovered Zero Waste Design when I was at my undergrad university — Savannah College of Art and Design. I stumbled upon the work of Holly McQuillan and Timo Rissanen (who literally wrote the book on modern zero waste design) as well as creative pattern cutters such as Julian Roberts and Rickard Lidqvist. The theories around restriction and creative problem solving through design completely unlocked a whole new world for me.

After college I worked at various corporate companies, most recently Nike, where I continued to pursue my love of Zero Waste Design. I learned along the way that corporations and manufacturers were often unwilling or unable to make the changes necessary to create Zero Waste garments on a massive scale. This has led me to return to school to get my masters at the Royal College of Art, where I began developing my system which includes everything discussed above as well as corporate consulting work and plans for a Zero Waste Future Factory.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Earlier this year I won the Evian x Virgil Abloh Activate Movement Grant, the first of its kind, where I was given a great platform to talk about my work as well as funding for the development of my Zero Waste System. The journey has been truly amazing!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference means touching as many lives as possible. When the first COVID lockdown hit I was stuck in London without the means to continue working on my masters collection, and was crippled by anxiety about the situation. In order to feel productive and useful, I decided to put my design system to use and designed a set of Zero Waste Scrubs which I made available free online for anyone to download and use. The response to the project was incredibly overwhelming. I have received messages from around the world saying how impactful the ability to take one’s safety into their own hands is. A factory in Myanmar asked if they could be licensed to mass produce the scrubs for those in need. One home sewer from the UK loved the concept so much that she asked if she could make tutorial videos on how to actually construct the garments!

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

Be persistent — even if you become known as the annoying *blank* person. (I was the annoying sustainability person at a few of my past jobs!)

Ask “stupid questions” — As a young person you have the innate ability to ask anything without ruffling too many feathers. Asking about why the system is the way it is and why is some of the most important things you can do. You can only change if you know what the problems are. Know the “why” — Seems simple, but understanding the motivations of people and companies around you is so important. Understanding your own “why” is even more important. Why are you doing what you’re doing right now? Is it because you’re expected to? Is it because it’s what’s been established? Can you make a change?

Absorb everything! — Being able to understand the complexities of the industry you’re in is key to being able to have real conversations about what’s going on. Read everything, go to exhibits (virtually!), reach out to people who know more than you, engage in dialogue, etc.

Be real — No one is interested in someone that’s too put together. Especially during this time it’s incredibly important to be yourself through everything you do, insecurities and all!

What are the values that drive your work?

Any work that I do revolves around 6 pillars.

Design is, of course, first and foremost. Design, rather than art, takes precedence because design solves a precise problem. Though both art and design create meaningful conversations, design intends to solve an issue and help a specific end user.

Experimentation is the only way to know if something you are doing is worth your while. It is the only way to find mistakes and poke holes in your conceptions.

Collaboration is an absolute necessity to create new, industry viable ideas that can have a meaningful output. Existing in a bubble cannot foster a future facing environment for today’s designers.

Obsess. And obsess and obsess and obsess. Keep picking at that irksome query until it is unraveled and you have become the expert in why it exists, when it happens, where it happens, and how you can learn from it.

Dissect what you are looking at to its integral pieces. What is necessary for this to exist? What are the physical vs theoretical implications of it? Why are you focusing your attention on it? Why has it grabbed your attention?

Educate the future. Working and learning for oneself is a thing of the past. Sharing information, processes and learnings is the only way to move our culture forward.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

I was lucky enough to find my design rabbit hole early on and stuck with it, but at the end of the day, being able to work on something that makes positive change for the future is what really matters.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

Zero Waste Design will take over the world! My lens is of course fashion design, but it has so many applications for other industries. I would love to be a resource that anyone can take inspiration from and work with to find sustainable solutions for anything.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I aim to build the world’s first Zero Waste Factory. A factory built on the principles of developing for the needs of our future rather than the wants of today.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

Education around empathy, creative problem solving, and relationships between everything in our world.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

You’re already doing way better than you think! The fact that you’re wanting to make a positive impact means that you are well on the way. Stay engaged, passionate, and inquisitive and you’ll get there.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Instagram @decodecodecode


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

About the interviewer: Sonia is a Canadian-Ukrainian lawyer, entrepreneur and heart-centered warrior who’s spent more than 15 years working in human rights, international law, business, economic development, community empowerment and her own personal journey into herself. Sonia has spent the past 7 years living and working with indigenous nations around the world, as a facilitator, partner, shaman apprentice and friend, gaining a deep understanding of both ancient systems and modern ways, and our interconnection with all life. She is a certified kundalini yoga practitioner, energy healing facilitator, avid adventurer and explorer of the natural world. Sonia speaks world-wide on topics related to meaningful collaboration, life economies, the power of partnerships and the benefits of informed, empowered and engaged communities. “It is time for us to take back our human story and co-create a new vision for a world that is in harmony with ourselves, each other, the Earth and all beings,” says Molodecky. Her book, A New Human Story: A Co-Creator’s Guide to Living our True Potential. launches December 2020. You can learn more about Sonia, her book and her podcast at www.soniamolodecky.com and follow her at https://www.instagram.com/soniamolodecky or https://www.facebook.com/sonia.molodecky

Young Change Makers: How Danielle Elsener and Decode Are Helping To Make A Difference In Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.