From the launch of the UK government’s inquiry into the fashion industry to the promise of a global UN charter for sustainable fashion, 2018 saw a rise in the sustainable fashion agenda. The momentum has continued into 2019 with fashion industry leaders assembling at Davos House early this year during the World Economic Forum to discuss the launch of the 2019 CEO Agenda.
Meanwhile, designers, fabric innovators and wider fashion stakeholders gathered in London for the 8th Future Fabrics Expo. The event included a series of seminars which saw key industry experts share their vision and progress towards sustainability. Cutting-edge brands and designers, including Stella McCartney, Bossa Denim, Toyoshima, Comistra, G-Star Raw and Lenzing, discussed the opportunities for textile recycling, the importance of improving transparency in garment labelling and the need for increased investment to scale-up innovations.
In conjunction with the seminar series, the expo showcased hundreds of innovations, each targeting key impact areas of fashion value chains. The emphasis was mainly on brands and manufacturers that were addressing key environmental issues associated with raw material sourcing and manufacturing, as well as dyeing and finishing processes. A select few companies showcased their solutions to enhance transparency, traceability, end-of-life solutions and the circularity of garments, but these remained a minority. The following are a few examples of the types of innovative solutions displayed at the expo.
The raw material sourcing and manufacturing of fabrics is highly resource intensive, accounting for a large share of the environmental impact in textile supply chains. Greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, chemicals, waste and biodiversity loss are prominent issues across fashion supply chains.
Several brands are at the forefront of addressing these issues, using pioneering design and technologies to reduce impacts.
Lenzing is one such company, recognised as an international leader in wood-based cellulose fibres. The Austrian group has several brands and is well-established, with revenues exceeding the €2 billion mark in 2017. The company sources wood pulp from FSC and PEFC certified forests and uses these to produce fibres. Unlike agricultural crops, such as cotton, wood production does not require artificial irrigation, nor does it compete with agricultural land used for food production. Lenzing’s production processes are certified to numerous environmental standards and involve several close-loop models. One of the organisation’s brands, TENCEL™, produces lyocell and modal fibres that are used by high-street brands across the world, including Patagonia and Reformation.
While less advanced in scale, BOLT Threads is another innovative company aiming to create closed-loop production processes. Through bioengineering, BOLT Threads is moving fabric manufacturing away from petroleum-based polymers and toxic processes. One of its innovations, Microsilk®, is an alternative to conventional silk production where high amounts of energy and fertilizers are typically used to produce cocoons. By studying silk proteins spun by spiders, BOLT Threads has developed proteins using fermentation, yeast, sugar and water. The bioengineered liquid silk protein is extracted from this process and spun into fibres.
BOLT Threads also use mycelium cells, from the underground root structure of mushrooms, to create an alternative to animal leather named Mylo™. The material eliminates the demand to raise cattle, which has a significant environmental footprint due to the land area, feedstock and transportation required. Besides, Mylo™ does not use toxic chemicals that other alternative ‘pleathers’ made from polyurethane or PVC use. The cruelty-free company, Stella McCartney, recently announced their partnership with BOLT Threads and unveiled their iconic Falabella bag made with Mylo material.
Fabrics are often made more attractive through the use of colour. However, synthetic dyes that provide colour are notoriously harmful to the environment, especially when leached into waterways. Research by the World Bank suggests that up to 20% of all water pollution worldwide is related to the process of dyeing textiles.
WeAreSpindye is a brand that offers an alternative innovative colouring system. Primarily focused on polyester, the world’s most popular man-made fibre, WeAreSpindye uses trailblazing technology to create masterbatches of dye. By adding pigments to the spinning solution, the company creates consistent colouring of fibres. The process uses 70% less water, 90% less chemicals and up to 40% less energy than traditional dyeing methods.
Japanese-based dye manufacturer Food Textile also focuses on eliminating the need for toxic chemicals. Using tomatoes, cabbage, onions, coffee and other perishables that would have otherwise been disposed of, Food Textile is pushing boundaries in more ways than one. The company creates natural dyes using food waste, thereby creating a circular model that not only addresses waste but also avoids synthetic dyes. As a result, the company has launched a successful range of textiles in a spectrum of natural hues.
Fashion supply chains typically include several tiers of suppliers, often spanning across the globe in countries where legislation to safeguard the environment and human rights are less stringent. The complexity and extent of these supply chains can make it difficult for brands to map their supply chain and ensure responsible sourcing. Supplycompass is a sourcing platform that aims to simplify this complexity. The platform matches brands with manufacturers and includes a dashboard allowing for cost estimates, the creation of technical design packs, sample requests, as well as the organisation of freighting and deliveries. In doing so, Supplycompass provides an opportunity for enhanced transparency and traceability, allowing brands to build “faster, leaner and more responsible supply chains”.
Enhancing transparency and traceability is vital in the creation of more responsible supply chains. However, the fashion world needs to increasingly move towards circular models that consider entire value-chains, from raw material sourcing to end-of-life.
Global textile production has doubled in the past 15 years, now exceeding 100 billion garments annually. Yet, less than 1% of these garments are recycled into new clothing.
The surplus of waste is increasingly problematic. Many fashion companies resort to burning excess stock, while most of the donated clothing ends up in markets across developing countries, where demand for the influx of garments is rapidly declining.
Circular.fashion is a digital platform that allows material suppliers, fashion brands and recyclers to close the loop. The platform includes a circular design software that helps brands select recyclable materials with sustainable properties. It also includes guidelines for circular design to ensure that garments are more readily recyclable. Circular.fashion also offers brands with the opportunity to create a scannable tag, the “Circularity ID”, which can be attached to each garment. The tag acts as a digital summary of the product’s lifecycle, which can be used by customers and in sorting/recycling facilities.
While still in its infancy, EON is another company harnessing technology to improve the circularity of garments. The start-up was considered the first global tagging system for textile recycling and is supported by The Fashion for Good-Plug and Play Accelerator, a programme aimed at scale-up promising technologies in sustainable fashion. EON is designed to provide a digital identity to garments to enhance the traceability of garments across their entire value chain.
Yet the transition to circular fashion is first and foremost dependent on recycling systems. Mechanical recycling, which involves the deconstruction of fabrics into fibres that can be reused, is more common than chemical recycling. The process is, however, challenging due to blended fabrics (e.g. blended cotton and polyester) and dyes. Chemical recycling is typically costly and is comparatively underdeveloped. UK-based start-up, Worn Again, is overcoming these challenges through the development of pioneering recycling technologies capable of chemically separating and decontaminating fabrics for reuse. While still in its infancy, the company aims to be competitive against virgin resources and is already partnering with leading fashion brands, such as H&M and Kering.
Innovation in the manufacturing and processing of fabrics is on the rise. The 8th Future Fabrics Expo presented a room full of hope for the future of the fashion industry. While the technologies outlined above are at different stages of commerciality, growing investments into fabrics, manufacturing processes and recycling infrastructure have the potential to turn fashion into a force for good. Nonetheless, it is important to note that no single innovation is a panacea for the future of fashion. More emphasis needs to be placed on circular practices that address the range of environmental impacts that occur at each stage of a fashion supply chain. While companies such as Supply Compass, EON.ID and Worn Again are bringing new ideas and solutions to the table; there remains ample room for progress, increased action and investment in end-of-life solutions and circularity business models. In 2019, we hope to see the momentum for sustainability and circular solutions continue to grow to the top of the fashion agenda.
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