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Is Sustainable Fashion Really Scalable?


Some industry leaders have postulated a future with no need to grow raw cotton and a fashion industry that thrives on recycled and upcycled materials alone. While the point where we’ll negate the need for fresh raw materials is likely a long way off, not to mention questionable as a benchmark of sustainability, the proportion of sustainably sourced materials that go into our apparel and footwear is already growing rapidly.


A straw poll of fashion and premium apparel executives indicates we’re five or so years away from a crossover point where a majority of items are made predominantly with recycled or upcycled materials or are refurbished and resold. This outlook is optimistic, perhaps, but there seems little doubt that the ability to “do sustainability” is quickly becoming a requirement for fashion brands to be sustainable as enterprises.


Brands and consumers are becoming increasingly educated about the massive amount of clothing and textiles that is wasted each year instead of being recycled or upcycled into new goods. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 87% of material used for clothing production is landfilled or incinerated after its final use, representing a lost opportunity worth some $100 billion annually. The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group estimate that 92 million tons of industry textile waste is created each year and fashion resale platform ThredUp says that US consumers alone discard nearly 17 billion pounds of apparel annually.


As former CEO of H&M Karl-Johan Persson said at the 2018 Fashion Summit in Hong Kong, “Without the transformation of the fashion industry, the planet will not be able to cope. …We definitely have to speed up the shift towards waste-free models, towards a circular economy, and we also need to start to think in new ways and start to collaborate with new partners – because no one can do this on their own.”


Scaling Sustainability


While there is broad agreement on the need for change within the industry, charting a practical course to sustainability at scale is a major challenge for many established brands. It requires rethinking how and from what products are made, the supply chains through which materials are sourced and goods produced, and the “recovery chain” that allows goods and materials to be recaptured.


The rapidly growing recommerce market is a powerful opportunity for brands to recapture products for resale or for materials recovery. And for those recovered items, strategies to reuse or recycle components and materials have to be formulated, too. Disassembly requires the separation of materials, decolorizing and the respinning of yarns. New technologies like natural fiber welding (NFW) are easing this process. Extending product longevity is another strategy, one that might involve reselling items multiple times or reusing parts of recovered items in new or refurbished products.


The biggest brands may face challenges in sourcing completely sustainable materials in garments, but they do now have the option of choosing to build them using sustainably made inner components. Chargeurs*PCC Fashion Technologies recently launched a full collection of eco-responsible interlinings called Sustainable 360. More than 500 brands, including Adidas, Claudie Pierlot, Faherty, J.Crew, Macy’s M -0.1%, Madewell, Maje, PVH Corp. PVH +0.4%, Target TGT +4.4% and Uniqlo, are committed to sustainability from the inside out and are making use of Chargeurs’ new interlinings in their collections. Itochu is among the brands that are creating entire ranges using these sustainable components exclusively.


Interlinings include the technical fabrics that help garments retain their shape, structure and durability, such as shoulder pads and the hidden felt layers that reinforce shirt collars and cuffs. The new materials Chargeurs is using to create these include BCI cotton, GRS-certified recycled polyester, hemp and recycled plastics. “Developing product using recycled fibers or natural fibers is part of our full-circle commitment to corporate social responsibility and it enables brands to build sustainability into their products from the base up,” says Audrey Petit, Managing Director of Chargeurs*PCC Fashion Technologies. The Chargeurs example is a proof point of the practicality of transitioning to products made predominantly with sustainable materials and components.


Adopting New Formulas


According to the Sustainable Apparel Commission, product designers can determine 80% or more of a product’s environmental impact, so brands must prioritize the use of recycled and upcycled materials at the beginning of the creative process in order to move toward circularity. As they rethink their materials sourcing and supply chains, fashion and apparel companies can draw on a multitude of resources, ranging from the CFDA’s Materials Index to the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol to the HIGG Index suite of tools for measuring supply chain sustainability. To build in traceability and recoverability, brands can digitize their operations and their products at the point of manufacture. This allows information about the items and their provenance to travel with them throughout the entire product lifecycle – making eventual resale, reuse or disassembly and recycling faster, safer and more sustainable.


Although fully circular fashion and apparel production is likely still years away, the industry can take a big step forward by recycling textiles and other materials to move away from the linear take-make-waste model. While large-scale brands may not yet be able to profitably create clothes made with completely sustainably sourced materials, they can certainly work to reduce wastage by upcycling samples and older inventory, using sustainably produced interior components, and digitizing sourcing, manufacturing and retail operations to improve efficiencies.