Sustainable Fashion: The innovations that are (or might be) closing the loop

A while ago, it was Dutch Sustainable Fashion Week and that means that there were plenty of side events to visit to hear the latest on moving towards circular fashion, waste reduction new textile innovation. I joined in the Book Launch of Dana Thomas ‘Fashionopolis” at the Fashion for Good Centre on Tuesday. As for any event on sustainability, Dana Thomas started the night by facing us with numbers, and these are extreme enough to create urgency to act:

  • 20% of our water is depleted by the fashion industry
  • 99% of our clothes are not recycled
  • 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills
  • for 1 kg of cotton 1 kg of chemicals is used
  • we throw away 2.1 billion tons of clothing a year
  • 60% of all textiles used in apparel are derived from plastic (accounting for nearly 3 trillion plastic bottles every year)
  • it is estimated that about 35 percent of the microplastics that enter the ocean are synthetic fibers from clothing

The industry, generating no waste, and all textiles would be recyclable and are put back in the loop. More than ever, the industry is embracing this change with 90 apparel brands committing to the Circular Fashion System Commitment due June 2020 and set up by the Global Fashion Agenda. And fortunately, there are also some great developments to learn from that could fix the broken system of our current ‘fast fashion’ industry. Lately, a small but growing group of innovators are attempting tackle wastefulness and pollution in the apparel right at the source and large brands are taking note and start to invest.

Herewith an overview of the innovations that are seemingly taking apparel from ‘beyond business as usual’ to circularity in the industry:

Reduce

An increasing number of brands are eliminating problematic materials and dyes from the production process. Everlane, for instance, publicly committed to eradicating all virgin plastic from the company’s supply chain, stores, and offices by 2021.

There is a natural fiber and eco-textiles ‘revolution’ approaching. Made from organic waste, living bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells or fungi, designers are growing biodegradable textiles (Algae Life, AlgiKnit) and shoe soles (Bloom Foam) and are creating environmentally friendly materials like genetically engineered leather (Modern Meadow), leather made from pineapple leaves (Piñatex), silk made from orange peels (Orange Fiber). It is a matter of waiting for these technological advancements to reach more scale.

Then there is the waste of rest material. In in our current fashion system, the shirts, trousers and blouses are developed in large amounts of numbers where many (average of 30%) never reach the consumer. For fashion brands this is a built-in waste and for our planet, it is a complete waste of scarce resources. In comes ‘producing to order’, made possible by vastly evolving technology coined as ‘SewBots’. Programmed knitting and sewing machines can make ‘one offs’, where the product will get developed after you have ordered it and will be designed with your exact measurements, leaving little rest material behind.

Reuse

Will owning clothes become a thing of the past? We can now lease our jeans at Mud Jeans, and hopefully more clothing items will follow. I believe it will not take long before we will find more and increasingly user-centric borrowing platforms and stores like Lena Library, Tulerie, and My Wardrobe HQ in the shopping streets and, of course, online.

Brands are investing in expanding the life of clothing items, like the repair and reuse program of Patagonia and Nudie Jeans, and are investing in the afterlife clothing and take back the products after they are used. And Eileen Fisher now buys back garments from customers at $5 each and reworks the material into new merchandise. This Renew program brings in $3 million of the company’s $450 million in annual sales.

Recycle

Lastly, the fashion industry starts to ‘waste’ into value. An increasing amount of relatively new brands are building their collections on recycled materials like Ecoalf (100% recycled materials from discarded fishing nets, plastic bottles, worn-out tires, post-industrial cotton, and used coffee grinds), Veja (introduced material called B-mesh (“bottle mesh”) that is made from recycled plastic bottles) and Girlfriend Collective (sports bras and leggings made from recycled plastic).

At the moment, many textiles are cocktails of different fibre materials blended together and separating fibre materials so that they can be recycled is a major challenge. It is therefore crucial that we start designing products and textiles for disassembly, with different components made from mono materials. Filippa K is setting focus on 100% recycled and 100% recyclable collections, with their Eternal Trench Coat. Wear2 incorporates seams that by using microwave energy make the separation of tags, labels, zips and other materials easy and inexpensive.

A game changing technology that now enables us to separate cotton from polyester has also came to the rescue. The polymer recycling technology of Wornagain can separate, decontaminate and extract polyester polymers, separate cellulose from cotton and non-reusable and turn them into new textile raw material. With such advancements we are able to do this over and over again and we no longer need our planets raw and scarce materials.

Bringing it together

Of course, closing a loop can’t be done by one stakeholder alone. Given that the idea of a circular economy is to create a loop of events, everyone in the supply chain carries responsibility for the shift to take place. 2020 is approaching and we need effective alignment in the industry to turn otherwise fragmented innovations into change at scale. I am hoping to see and hear about collaborative initiatives like Easy Essentials and the Design for Longevity platform to connect the apparel industry for circularity.

So, are you a stakeholder working in or with the apparel industry and do you know about collaborative initiatives for circularity? I would love to get in touch!