Sustainability gamechangers: The innovations set to shape the future of fashion this January
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Originally published on Eco Age.
In her monthly column, Techstyler founder Brooke Roberts-Islam curates a ‘must-know’ list of the innovations set to shape the future of sustainable fashion. Dedicated to positive change, Brooke highlights what is being done right now to transform the fashion industry.
The conversation around sustainability heated up to boiling point in 2019, and 2020 has been dubbed the year of action. In this first gamechanger roundup of the year, the innovations supporting a drive towards circularity and inherent sustainability within textiles and garment manufacturing are the initial focus, followed by a surprise change of tack by fashion bible, Vogue.
The Erca Group, a chemical company in Italy that produces formulations for dyeing textiles, has developed chemicals from waste vegetable oils for dyeing virgin and recycled polyester. This example of circularity taps an underutilised waste stream to produce chemicals that reduce the need for virgin resources for chemical creation. Erca collects leftover vegetable oil from households and restaurants and upcycles it into textile formulations including softeners, emulsifiers, and detergents that are used during textile dyeing and processing. It is worth noting that with this type of waste stream input, scalability could be a challenge.
The innovation, called Revecol, is Bluesign approved, which means it meets all safe chemical use criteria of the Bluesign chemical inventory and management system. Erca created Revecol following the launch of ReactEVO, a soaping system for cellulosic fibers, in 2012. Their data concludes that ReactEVO reduces energy consumption by up to 70 percent, water use by up to 50 percent and treatment time by up to 20 percent when performing reactive dyeing of cellulose fibres. If Revecol can provide such resource-saving reductions for polyester this is a circular leap forward.
Image: TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™
Recycling waste textiles into new fibres is a common practice that is fairly straightforward for materials like polyester, but more complex for natural fibres like cotton and viscose. Cotton and viscose are made of cellulose (plant-based) fibres, and these are damaged during wear and washing so that they break down to different degrees over the life of a garment. This has made it challenging to recycle post-consumer cotton and viscose garments effectively. The result is that most cellulosic recycled materials have been created from pre-consumer waste (for example, denim offcuts created during the cutting process of making jeans) rather than from garments disposed of by consumers at end-of-life. Consequently, the millions of tonnes of cotton and viscose garments dumped in landfill have been close to impossible to include in viscose fibre recycling processes, until now.
The Lenzing Group launched Refibra, a viscose from recycled pre-consumer cellulose waste, back in 2017. Last month they announced the first successful production of Refibra from post-consumer waste as part of the recycled proportion of the fiber’s content (which still includes virgin fibres to achieve consistent quality and performance). What this means, broadly speaking, is that a wider range of waste input streams can be used to create recycled viscose, and the scope for recycling cotton and viscose has been expanded. Lenzing can now incorporate up to 10 percent of post-consumer cotton waste in the 30 percent recycled raw material content in Refibra, representing a further shift towards circularity for the textile industry.
The devastating effects of microplastics leaching into waterways from the breakdown of plastic water bottles, fishing gear, plastic bags and synthetic clothing is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face. Studies have found these plastic particles in every ocean on the planet and even in the Arctic. Marine life is ingesting these plastics, which are then entering our food chain. Removing these plastics at the source is considered the only way of effectively reversing this pollution.
An innovation by Turkish appliance manufacturer Arcelik announced towards the end of 2019 (and commercially available this year) captures 90% of microplastics during clothes washing. This game changing innovation will be integrated into their Grundig washing machine appliances, but will also be available to other manufacturers to integrate into their machines. This is significant because it provides the technology for the entire appliance industry to transform all washing machines on the market from pollution-generating devices to part of the global microplastic solution. The innovation is fitted within the detergent drawer of washing machines to filter the microplastics from water before it leaves the machine. It is not yet clear whether this device can be retro-fitted to machines, or how the captured microplastics should be disposed of to ensure they do not enter waterways via landfill, for example.
Image: Vogue Italia
In headline news this week the decision by Vogue Italia to banish fashion photoshoots in favour of illustrations is an interesting one for several reasons. It is a recognition that fashion editorials require enormous financial and environmental resources (and no doubt Vogue Italia have saved vast sums by cancelling global photoshoots for this issue). In fact, editor Emanuele Farneti told the Guardian that to fill the September 2019 issue, the biggest of the year, with original photographs there were “One hundred and fifty people involved. About 20 flights and a dozen or so train journeys. Forty cars on standby. Sixty international deliveries. Lights switched on for at least ten hours nonstop, partly powered by gasoline-fuelled generators. Food waste from the catering services. Plastic to wrap the garments. Electricity to recharge phones, cameras … ” This decision also points to the glamourous titles in the industry wanting to resonate more closely with ‘woke’ consumers, who are well-versed and engaged with sustainability initiatives. It wouldn’t seem very ‘in vogue’ of Vogue to be promoting unsustainable excess in an age of growing eco-anxiety.
Of course, fashion editorials will not be banished forever, but Vogue Italia’s decision has prompted a pause for thought about the evolution of sustainability in fashion in 2020. As mentioned, 2020 has already been dubbed the year of sustainability action beyond words and this decision follows the commitment of Vogue editors to “preserve our planet for future generations.” Now that Vogue Italia has started the conversation, a blueprint for conducting sustainable fashion editorials would provide an actionable way forward for the industry. The complexity of this can’t be underestimated, but a way of assessing the collective impact of the physical resources and logistics associated with (often international) photo shoots would be a good start.