Fashion has a major sustainability issue, with textile waste making up a significant portion of the problem. Staggeringly, synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester and acrylic account for more than 50 percent of the world’s total textile production.
Non-biodegradable materials — that rely heavily on non-renewable resources like oil — shed plastic microfibers throughout their lifecycle, impacting our fragile natural ecosystems. According to the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, up to 30 percent of plastics polluting our oceans can be attributed to synthetic textiles.
The question remains: are producers and consumers really that interested? According to Common Objective (CO), an intelligent business platform operating based in London, it would appear so. Research from ‘Mapping the Fashion Industry 2018’ shows that basic Google searches for sustainable fashion” and “ethical fashion” were up 46% and 26% respectively. CO also found that over 100,000 people used social media to ask the brands they wear #whomademyclothes as part of this year’s Fashion Revolution Week.
“It’s about overcoming the perception that sustainable or ethical fabrics are somehow not suitable for high-end fashion,” says Clare Lissaman, director of product and impact at OC. “However, we’re seeing an increasing number of designers showing that this is not the case.” She cites brands like Roland Mouret, which uses ecovero viscose, or Ferragamo, which is incorporating Orange Fiber — a new innovative fibre from wasted oranges peels — as well as Stella McCartney, perhaps the most famous example of the intersection of luxury and sustainability.
So are new textiles really tackling sustainability? ORDRE takes a look at six newly developed sustainable textiles solutions that just might revolutionise the industry.
Mango Materials, a biotech start-up based in the San Francisco Bay area, is facing the world’s polyester problem head on. A raw material supplier, the company turns waste emissions into biodegradable textiles, and is currently constructing facilities to produce large volumes of polyester-like fibers for use in traditional supply chains. It also plans to collaborate with brands to develop products.
“Our material can biodegrade in industrial and natural environments, eliminating microfiber pollution and textile waste in a circular, closed loop process,” explains Tze Wei U, head of product and business development. These biodegradable materials produce methane, which can then be easily regenerated into new product, eliminating the need for excess materials and processes.
According to Tze Wei, a growing consumer demand for sustainable product is driving change in the fashion industry and brands are adapting to this shift by embracing new materials: “Companies in the luxury sector are very interested in offering innovative, premium materials in their products, so customers have come to expect sustainability as part of paying a premium for luxury.”
Econyl is recyclable nylon yarn, produced entirely from recovered consumer waste including fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial plastic. Every 10,000 tonnes of the raw materials can save 70,000 barrels of crude oil and also avoid 57,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Produced by Aquafil, a global leader in sustainable luxury fibre production, econyl’s value proposition lies in its regeneration process: it can be repeatedly recycled and remoulded. Due to its elasticity, strength and resistance, conventional nylon is most commonly used for swimwear or sportswear, but many brands now see the benefit in adopting econyl yarns. One such brand, Now_Then — a luxury swimwear label — recycle up to 300 grams of marine debris and nylon waste for every swimsuit they produce. In addition, their fabrics and components are detox and oekotex certified, meaning they are free of harmful and toxic chemicals.
“It’s about overcoming the perception that sustainable or ethical fabrics are somehow not suitable for high-end fashion”
As Lissaman suggests, for fibre producers, the difficulty remains in communicating with designers about innovative textile options. “One challenge is getting the fabric mills to engage with the new fibres and present them to their customers, rather than waiting for a customer to ask for them,” she says. By creating new yarns and fabrics made from 95 percent discarded post-consumer and post-industrial textiles, Osomtex presents an alternative to this. Founded by Patricia Ernecheo in Switzerland, these high-quality, upcycled yarns don’t require water, toxic dyes, or harsh chemicals for production — making the supply chain entirely sustainable.
Lissaman asks, If you can get the same result from an environmentally friendly alternative, then why not? Osmotex’ participation at Paris Fashion Week in October 2017 was a sign that the luxury industry is cottoning on. Osmotex showed alongside six other companies bridging fashion, technology and sustainability, catching the attention of Stella McCartney, who enlisted the brand to create a pair of socks to accompany invitations for her AW’18 show.
Founded in 1904, Isko is considered one of the world’s leading denim manufacturers. It produces over 250 million meters of fabric each year, manufacturing denim for international fashion brands like Topman, Guess and Diesel. Responsible innovation is key to Isko: every collection is made entirely from regenerated fibers, in collaboration with biotechnology company Tencel. These fibers are derived from sustainable raw wood sources, but offer the appearance and wash-down of vintage denim.
The Isko Earth Fit collections are made with eco-friendly raw materials like pre-consumer recycled cotton and post-consumer recycled polyester, made from plastic bottles. It is the only denim collection in the world certified by Nordic Swan Ecolabel and the EU Ecolabel, both highly prestigious accolades verifying sustainability efforts in the industry.
“The key issue for luxury brands will always be can they get the quality they need,” says Lissaman. “If they can be convinced of that then the the sustainable aspect is a bonus. Collaboration and partnership between luxury brands, their suppliers and the new textile and fibres technologies will be key.”
Sustainability is about making products useful to market with a lower environmental impact than the alternatives currently available. Packaging is another critical aspect that the fashion industry must acknowledge. According to 2016’s report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics — product packaging is plastic’s largest application, representing 26 percent of the world’s total volume. Currently, only 14 percent is effectively recycled annually. The report also states that the industry put 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging on the market in 2013, a figure expected to double within 15 years and more than quadruple by 2050.
Finnish start-up Paptic is challenging the industry’s wasteful packaging habits, producing a sustainable plastic substitute made from 86 percent renewable and biodegradable wood fibres. Renewable, recyclable and reusable, Paptic’s durable and lightweight properties makes it a promising alternative to regular oil-based packaging. It’s application has also been seen in the fashion and beauty industries.
Frumat was founded with the goal of transforming biological industrial residuals into new fundamentally sustainable raw materials. These residuals, classified as “special waste,” go to landfill, or in some cases, are burned. Frumat saves this material from being destroyed, converting it into new products such as paper, cardboard, vegetable based simil-leather and other materials. It’s most exciting product is derived from apple skin; following a distillation process, the end product is a material which has the appearance and durability of leather. The three founders are optimistic for the possibilities: “Our products can be used in bookbinding, furniture, footwear and throughout the fashion industry as well.”
For Pascal Martin, a consultant specialising in retail, luxury, and consumer goods at strategy consultancy firm OC&C, brands need to excel when it comes to adopting new textiles. “Consumers will become loyal to a brand for using sustainable textiles if they do something exceptional with it. Additionally [for consumers], above and beyond the use of sustainable technologies, the price has to be right.”
“The key issue for luxury brands will always be can they get the quality they need? If they can be convinced of that, then the sustainable aspect is a bonus”