Sustainability in the fashion industry was once the focus of a handful of designers like Stella McCartney and outdoor gear companies like Patagonia.
But traditional and new brands are trying to improve a supply chain increasingly criticized for its contribution to landfills and for causing other forms of pollution throughout the manufacturing process.
From collaborating and creating biofibers to making eco-friendly label fasteners, some in the apparel industry are working with tech startups to clean the closets of the world.
The biggest problem is the volume of unwanted clothing that ends up in landfills. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to promote sustainability, clothing production globally doubled from 2000 to 2015. During the same period, the number of times a garment was worn decreased by 36%. In total, “the equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second,” its report revealed.
In roughly the same period, according to the World Economic Forum, 60% more clothes were purchased, but consumers only kept them half the time.
But some companies, like H&M, are trying to increase their own sustainability while encouraging consumers to keep clothes out of the trash. At H&M’s flagship store in Stockholm, for example, customers can pay a nominal amount to have unwanted clothes turned into new clothes through a process that breaks down old fibers and combines them with new ones.
The eight-step process is designed to make a point, not a profit. “We want to engage our customers and make them understand that their own clothes have value,” said Pascal Brun, Head of Sustainability at H&M.
But traditional mechanical recycling, widely used, has its limits. “As brilliant as the fashion industry is on the outside, the supply chain has often relied on 19th century gear,” said Stacy Flynn, founder of Seattle-based startup Evrnu. . Companies like Flynn’s are looking to reduce fibers to their basic chemicals and replenish them with less impact on the environment.
Evrnu’s first product, which Flynn said she hoped to become commercially available this year, converts cotton in clothing to lyocell, a cellulose fiber that is now made only from wood.
The process, called NuCycl, will update the initial recycling step of sorting, grading and shredding fabric by adding a camera that can more accurately identify a fabric’s makeup. Decorative trims, label content or even the yarn used can reduce the cotton content by up to 20%.
“It’s like the difference between baking and baking – you can be more flexible with the ingredients when baking, but with baking you have to be precise,” Flynn said. “It’s the same with chemical recycling – if you know what you have, you can optimize the process.”
The heart of the technology lies in the next step, at the pulp mill, where the shredded fabric is dissolved and turned into pulp. This pulp becomes thick paper, which will be shipped to the next part of the textile supply chain, the fiber producers. There it is repolymerized to make lyocell.
Evrnu has partnered with several brands, including Adidas and McCartney, to use recycled fibers in their fabrics. “When the consumer is done with or if the mark is stuck with a dog, these clothes can all come back into the system, repolymerized and made into something new,” Flynn said.
Another area of interest relates to new fibers and materials which are based on products that are found in nature but which are not of animal origin.
Several companies, for example, are developing alternatives to leather because hides are particularly problematic, from the methane cows that produce it to tanning methods that often involve toxic chemicals like chromium. Vegan leather, despite its eco-friendly name, is no better because it uses plastic, said Theanne Schiros, materials scientist and assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
An alternative is mushroom leather, which relies on the mycelium, or fungus roots, to produce an animal-free alternative. Mycelium has been used for thousands of years in different ways, Schiros said, even to heal wounds, but entrepreneurs and designers have set their goals higher.
In addition to Bolt Threads, a producer of fibers and materials that caught the eye last fall when it announced its product and collaboration with several designers, other companies, such as MycoWorks, are developing “leathers.” from mycelium.
MycoWorks chief executive Matthew Scullin said that while the company explored uses in automotive upholstery, the focus is currently on clothing and footwear.
Schiros is part of a team from Columbia University working on an alternative to bio-leather; the latest prototype, she said, is “a naturally dyed and germ-grown sneaker that’s part of Slow Factory’s One x One initiative,” referring to the nonprofit that is working on sustainability and climate concerns.
The pandemic forced her to work from home, rather than a lab, but she found a smart workaround.
She used her backyard to test if the bio-leather that had been treated with their herbal tanning technology was breaking down – in which case, the decomposition is a good thing. After burying the sample, she tested the mass of the material, as well as the soil’s pH and nutrients, for 60 days.
“ VISIBLY DETERIORATED ”
Her home experience, she said, found that after seven days, “the samples had visibly deteriorated, were smaller in size and had lost over 70% of their mass.”
She is also the co-founder and scientific director of Werewool, which is developing an alternative to wool fiber. Created by three of its former students at FIT, the company seeks to create biodegradable fibers from the DNA of proteins already present in nature.
Schiros also worked on an algae-based yarn also started at school, which is part of the State University of New York. The research is carried out in collaboration with Columbia, where Schiros has a research scientist position.
Companies that hope to provide ‘cradle to cradle’ solutions – the term used for processes that aim to keep materials in a circular economy, taking into account the end state of the materials early in the design process. That’s the idea behind Thousand Fell, a shoe maker that primarily uses recycled materials, said company co-founder Chloe Songer.
‘A LITTLE BIT IN VAIN’
Thousand Fell also wants to make it easier for consumers to recycle their shoes. “You can do design thinking and great production, but if you’re not set up to actively collect the products, it’s kind of in vain,” said Stuart Ahlum, co-founder of the company. To that end, in November, Thousand Fell partnered with UPS to provide consumers with an easier way to recycle their used shoes.
Ultimately, these developments will transform the fashion world as long as customers buy into them. The look and feel – as well as the price – must work. “If we could make a shoe for $ 400 but nobody bought it, that would defeat the goal,” Ahlum said.
Moreover, being environmentally friendly is not enough. As Scullin of MycoWorks put it: “There is an expectation circulating that consumers are willing to sacrifice quality for durability. But it isn’t.”