The fashion sector in general – and fast fashion in particular – has a problem with projecting an image of sustainability. Rapidly trending designs are the oxygen that keeps the industry going and high-volume, low-cost production makes clothing accessible to the masses while creating economy of scale. All this results in enormous volumes of clothing being discarded long before it reaches the end of its useful life.
A problem of this magnitude cannot be resolved merely by donating clothes to charity; we are already seeing the environmental crises this has created in regions such as Africa and Asia. Other, more radical initiatives must be developed to stem the flow of textile waste. In this blog post, we take a look at some of the concepts that are being worked on and measures that the fashion industry can take immediately to reduce this burden on the environment. Image source: euronews.com
More sustainable textiles are being developed
Many of the clothes we wear today are manufactured from fibres such as polyester and nylon, which come from non-renewable sources such as petroleum. Even ‘natural’ fibres such as virgin cotton impact the environment with their heavy dependence on pesticides and the carbon footprint associated with production, harvesting and processing.
Of course, we must bear in mind that many of these natural and synthetic fibres can be easily and cost-effectively recycled, and that is something we will look at later on in this article.
But scientists are also working on entirely new textiles from innovative sources that may provide more sustainable alternatives in the future. Let’s look at a few of them.
Biosilk: Spinning yarns like spiders
While the silk produced by spiders to create their intricate webs is known to be many times stronger than steel, farming spiders for their silk isn’t commercially viable or scalable.
By studying the DNA coding of spiders and using patented biotechnology, a German start-up has successfully grown strands that are remarkably similar to spider silk. In addition to creating a fabric that has the same luxury feel as silk clothing, this product is 100% biodegradable and will disintegrate in seawater or soil in just a few months.
Biofibre: Making clothes from agricultural waste
Crops that are grown in industrial quantities often produce high volumes of waste, which is often left to rot in fields or burnt to make way for the next crop.
One US-based start-up has discovered how these natural by-products of an existing process can be transformed into a more sustainable textile alternative. By extracting cellulose fibres from plant stems and leaves of crops such as pineapples, bananas, oilseed and hemp, they have been able to create a purified soft fibre that can be spun into soft yarn that easily replaces synthetic fibres such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
According to the company, which is already working with major international clothing brands, the process uses less water than traditional cotton processing and creates approximately half the carbon dioxide of traditional hemp processing.
Wood-based glycols: reducing petrochemicals in clothing
Glycols extracted from crude oil and coal are widely used to add softness and flexibility to clothing. But like all products derived from fossil resources, they come at an environmental cost.
Once again, Germany is close to providing a more sustainable alternative: extracting glycols from beech trees. As the trees are sourced near the biorefinery that produces the glycols, CO2 emissions are also considerably reduced.
The next challenge faced by these innovators is how to scale up the operation to make a significant difference in meeting the global demand for glycols. While the current refinery has an annual output of 220,000 tons, not all of this is glycols and it’s a drop in the bucket of global annual demand for glycols: 35 million tons.
How brands are becoming more sustainable
Let’s take a look at some of the ways in which fashion brands are making their products and processes more sustainable. None of these ideas can single-handedly make a difference, and a combination of initiatives will be needed.
Many textile production processes require large volumes of water, consuming and often contaminating a natural resource that in some areas of the planet is scarce. Established methods of dye removal such as coagulation and absorption are time-consuming and inefficient.
An innovative biological process called a moving bed bioreactor (MBBR) is now being used by several eco-conscious manufacturers to remove dyes from the water before reusing or releasing it into the environment. This process is not only faster and uses less energy than traditional methods, but also ensures the treated water is safe when it leaves the factory.
Reducing production surplus and waste
Overproduction of fabrics and finished garments ensures there is sufficient stock to meet all orders, but this approach is wasteful of fabric, labour and energy. Technology has created tools that can be used to reduce textile waste; for example, to predict trends and the level of demand these will create more accurately, and to reduce the amount of fabric wasted at the cutting stage by intelligently planning cutting sequences.
Promoting longevity over fashion trends
Cheap clothes are a false economy, both for the producer and the consumer. Using better quality fabrics that last longer (and often require less harmful chemicals and dyes in their production) is more likely to generate brand loyalty from consumers, particularly in a waning economy.
If consumers are to be persuaded to pay more for better quality clothes, the fashion industry must also address the problem of rapidly changing fashion trends. Marketing should focus on the benefits of garments that can be used in multiple situations (for example, an outfit that is designed for the office but can be easily accessorised for evening wear) and more timeless designs that will significantly outlast trendier, but quickly obsolescent fashions.
Reducing the amount of packaging per garment and replacing plastic packaging with paper-based alternatives can make fashion more sustainable. At the same time, the packaging’s ability to protect garments must be taken into consideration; if more sustainable packaging is unable to adequately preserve garments in good condition, resulting in garments being rejected, the environmental impact will be far higher.
Storage, distribution and transportation of fashion clothing is another area in which brands can become more sustainable. Sharing warehousing and distribution facilities with other companies will reduce costs, energy consumption and carbon emissions. Scheduling transportation to ensure vehicles aren’t empty on return trips is another opportunity to become more sustainable. As EV technology is extended to commercial vehicles, this may also become a positive contributor to carbon emissions reduction.
Reusing and recycling surplus textiles and garments
Even if measures are taken to reduce overproduction, there will almost inevitably be surplus fabric and garments at the end of a season. Of course, many plain fabrics can be easily used for new designs, but what if the fabric has a distinctive pattern or design?
If a fabric design is season-specific, consider saving any surplus until the same season comes around again and incorporate it into the new season’s look. If the fabric design is starting to look a bit outmoded or unpopular among consumers, fabrics can be sustainably recycled and made into new fabric or other textile-based products.
Finished garments can likewise be recycled to repurpose the fibres.
SECUREBRAND® is a garment and textile recycling service from secure destruction specialists Avena Group. Primarily used by companies who wish to dispose of branded workwear securely and sustainably, it can also be invaluable for fashion brands who want to ensure their surplus fabrics and garments are recycled.
Some fashion brands are also keen to protect the distinctive styles of their collections and the patterns of their fabrics. By using SECUREBRAND® to recycle surplus fabrics and garments, they ensure these cannot be misappropriated and sold illegally to the detriment of their brand. Image source: oliberte.com
How does SECUREBRAND® process textiles sustainably?
While SECUREBRAND® is described as a textile destruction and recycling service, this could be a bit misleading. Textiles and clothing are only destroyed inasmuch as they are no longer usable finished fabrics or garments, but their individual fibres are still very much a valuable and reusable commodity.
SECUREBRAND® works to a three-level sortation system.
Level 1 fibres
These are the premium-grade fibres extracted from the shredding process. Being the longest and strongest fibres, they can be respun into new yarns that are then made into new fabrics.
Level 2 fibres
These fibres form the bulk of all material that doesn’t make the grade for Level 1. They still have a valuable use in manufacturing, being used to create padding material for upholstery and sound insulation.
Level 3 fibres
Although they are only a tiny minority of the material produced during the shredding process, Level 3 fibres are still put to good use as a sustainable fuel for heat and energy generation.
This system ensures that our “zero waste-to-landfill” policy is maintained and that the maximum benefit is gained by using SECUREBRAND® .
If you’d like to talk about using SECUREBRAND® for all your textile and garment recycling, fill out the form below and one of our industry expects will be in touch very soon.
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