The problem with the idea of sustainable fashion, is that right now it’s only possible for small and emerging brands.
It’s not that mass market brands don’t care, or aren’t motivated. There are many that are. It’s just that the technology required to make 5,000 relatively affordable and sustainable garments literally doesn’t exist. In fact, the technology to make 5,000 luxury and sustainable garments doesn’t exist, either.
Some large brands have elements that are sustainable. Nike uses knitting to create less waste. Levi’s uses less water to manufacture its jeans. H&M integrates organic cotton into its garments. Kering, the parent company of brands like Gucci and Stella McCartney, pioneered a heavy-metal-free leather tanning process.
But right now, the only truly sustainable garments – ones made with non-toxic dyes and finishes that are disposed of responsibly; organic and natural textiles that can be composted or recycled; or upcycled textiles that have been lovingly crafted into new uses; short and traceable supply chains where you have a relationship with the farmer who raised the sheep for your wool and the family-owned factory that milled it – those are all expensive and rarefied processes that make it impossible for a sustainable brand to scale, and pushes the price of a sweater from $50 up to $250 or even $700. Is that price tag worth it? Sure, to the kind of people who appreciate quality, will seek out these sustainable brands, and have $250 in disposable income to spend on an ideal. But most of the 6 billion people on our planet aren’t like that.
Most people just need a sweater that fits in their budget and keeps them warm and makes them feel good about themselves. And when it goes out of style or pills or gets coffee on it or is attacked by moths or just doesn’t make them happy anymore, they want to be able to drop it off at someplace who will take care of it for them.
Any sustainable fashion system has to take that person into account. She is a good person, but can’t or won’t, for whatever reason, invest her extra time and money into a perfectly sustainable and expensive wardrobe. In short, sustainable solutions can’t be cute or handmade or bespoke. They have to be scalable. Enter: Silicon Valley.
Tech Meets Fashion
So far, tech’s interaction with the fashion world has been cute, but not truly exciting to sustainability nerds like me. Sewing biofeedback widgets into your clothing? Meh, not interested.
But there’s a new crop of technology startups that are tackling the real problems of the fashion industry, and now they are getting a huge shove forward from fashion brands.
Fashion For Good is an initiative that is using fashion industry money from the C&A Foundation and C&A itself (C&A is a large, European department store), Kering (the family-owned fashion conglomerate that owns brands like Gucci, Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, and Puma), and Galeries Lafayette (the iconic French department store) to push sustainable fashion forward. It’s accelerator program supports innovative ideas that could revolutionise the fashion industry. I had the opportunity to visit in the spring when it launched, and it was like a conference for the sustainable fashion community. Representatives from partner organizations – Ellen McArthur Foundation, Cradle to Cradle, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Safer Made, Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals – were all there.
It’s structured like a typical start-up incubator – start-ups pitch their ideas, are chosen for the program, receive funding, hang out together while refining their product, and are connected with large companies so they can land those deals. But this incubator is focused solely on fashion start-ups with ideas that benefit the environment and society. There are three parts to Fashion for Good’s innovation platform:
- An Accelerator Program: Fashion for Good works with Plug and Play, a leading Silicon Valley accelerator, to give promising start-up innovators the funding and expertise they need in order to grow.
- A Scaling Program: Fashion for Good finds innovations that have proof-of-concept and helps them scale by offering bespoke support and access to expertise, customers and capital.
- An Apparel Acceleration Fund: This fund will catalyze access to finance where this is required to shift at scale to more sustainable production methods.
Plug and Play, a vaunted Silicon Valley incubator that helped Paypal get off the ground, will have three employees at Fashion for Good. “When I became informed of this project, I said, could it be possible that what we have done at Plug and Play in the last 10 years, helping something like 7,000 startups, could we apply the same concept to technology and startups that have double bottom line?” Plug and Play founder Saeed Amidi said. “I need them to be profitable, to stand on their own feet, but at the same time make a big impact environmentally and socially.” Of course, fashion is not a website. Can Silicon Valley really tackle an industry that is still based on women working on sewing machines?
“Nowadays I do 70 to 80% software, but 20 to 30% percent hardware. And this is even a step beyond what I’ve been doing, it’s not even technology hardware. It’s clothing, fabrics – cotton is one of the oldest industries in the world. It’s a learning curve, but as long as we can apply the same fundamental process to this industry, I think we can be very successful.”
Let’s Join Hands and Work Together
Why would different brands work together on this? Because they consider these ideas precompetitive. Using these new, sustainable ideas is like choosing where to source buttons or which factory to have your clothing manufactured in. Brands buy from the same button companies and use the same factories. It’s what you do with those materials and design that increases or decreases your market share. Of course, these issues are more important than buttons.
“It’s great that we can work together and identify start-ups that can bring us some solutions,” Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chic, French, Chief Sustainability Officer, told me. “And I hope also that we will have other companies that will be able to join us. Our way of thinking about sustainability, it’s about sharing. So our EP&L [Environmental Profit and Loss statement], we put it open source. When we put in place for leather our heavy metals-free tanning process, we wanted to share it also with our competitors. If we want to change something, we have to work with other companies.”
So while in Amsterdam, I got to sit in on a pitch session where sustainable fashion startups described their work and vied for funding and space at the coworking hub. I had arrived feeling pessimistic about the state of the fashion industry. The scale of the problem was so huge and intractable! But after my day seeing the nascent technologies focused on yanking fashion into the 21st century, I came away feeling like maybe innovation could save the world. Or at least, save the world from fashion’s deleterious effects on climate, water, people, and animals.
Here are some of the most exciting companies that have been accepted into the program:
The Problem: Cotton
Cotton, although it is a natural textile made from a plant, is an imperfect material. It’s the most significant crop in terms of land use after food grains and soybeans: in 2013 – 2014, it required 2.3% of the world’s arable land that could otherwise be used to grow a wider variety of produce. Conventional cotton requires glyphosate, and herbicide that has been labeled by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen for agricultural workers, and in 2009, 6.2% of global pesticides were sold for use in cotton agriculture, which negatively affects the surrounding ecosystem. But organic cotton requires more land and irrigation to produce the same amount of cotton for a t-shirt. It’s hard to track organic cotton’s provenance. A middleman could mix conventional cotton in with organic and then charge more.
Collecting waste from fibrous food-crop production, including hemp, flax, banana and pineapple, Agraloop transforms these into fibers for use in textiles. Processed using conventional cotton machinery, Agraloop doesn’t require synthetic chemical inputs (unlike rayon viscose), and doesn’t require energy. In fact, in generates surplus energy. It also doesn’t generate wastewater or solid waste, just organic fertilizer for farms.
Solution: ICA Bremen
Using nano-technology to put scan-able tracers into fibers of organic cotton, ICA Bremen will help brands easily identify organic cotton, plus the mix ratio of conventional and organic within textiles.
The Problem: Leather
Even if you’re not a vegan, leather poses a problem for the sustainable and ethical consumer. In the slums surrounding Bangladesh tanneries, 90% of the people who live there die before they reach 50, because of the toxic effluent with heavy metals that is dumped directly into the rivers. (Watch the documentary River Blue to get a visceral idea of how bad unregulated leather tanning really is.) Even if the leather tanning industry were cleaned up, however, raising cows that provide most of our leather is an environmental disaster. Cows, as they are currently raised, are huge emitters of greenhouse gases. It used to be that we could say that leather is just a byproduct of the meat industry and that cows aren’t raised just for their leather. But recently, meat consumption has dropped enough that our demand for leather has outstripped the supply of byproduct leather available. But the alternatives to leather, which are just synthetic plastics (and one of them, PVC, is pretty toxic) aren’t great either, from a style, durability, and sustainability standpoint.
Solution: Amadou Leather
Made from the skin of amadou mushrooms, Amadou is a renewable, biodegradable, vegetarian and eco-friendly alternative to leather. It feels and looks like a high-end suede. You can’t buy any products made with it yet, but a pilot collection of footwear and accessories have successfully undergone viability, aesthetic and durability tests.
Solution: LiteHide™ by LeatherTeq
LiteHide™ by LeatherTeq is a process that eliminates salt pollution in the preservation of hides. It allows indefinite storage of hides ready for any type of tanning, which reduces the time it takes for a brand to bring products to the market.
The Problem: Opaque Supply Chains
It’s a gargantuan and expensive process right now to accurately trace supply chains. Apple, for example, declared in 2016 that 100% of its suppliers had submitted third-party audits, but the Los Angeles Times traced their supply chain back to mines that employ child labor. Fashion companies face the same problems, but multiplied: metal mining, animal abuse, toxic rayon viscose that destroys the rainforest, child labor, low wages, and dangerous working conditions, subcontracting from approved factories to unsafe unapproved ones – there are a multiple of ways that a large company can be caught harming the environment or workers even after doing their best to clean up their supply chain.
Solution: A Transparent Company
A Transparent Company uses Blockchain technology to allow fashion brands to trace the origins and histories of products. It allows you to easily gather and verify stories and origins, keep them connected to physical things and embed them anywhere online.
The Problem: Water Pollution
Many (most?) textile manufacturers in Asia dump toxic effluent from their operations straight into the surrounding rivers and lakes. In India, the rivers run foamy and green, devoid of life, poisoned with salts, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals, and running farmers off the land. In China, Greenpeace tested a typical discharge point (one of about 435) from the textile industry into the sea, and found a range of hazardous chemicals, such as the hormone disruptor nonylphenol (NP), chlorinated anilines and antimony. And that’s just into the ocean. There are plenty of Chinese rivers involved, too. The alternative to petrochemical dyes, vegetable dyes, are expensive and hard to scale, especially since they require more land use to grow.
Founded by a team of electric and mechanical engineers, Dragon’s high-efficiency water filtration system operates off light energy. When applied to textile production processes, it could increase water quality while reducing the level of chemicals and energy required.
Aimed at brands, dry-cleaning professionals, and industrial laundry cleaning, Tersus uses recycled fluid CO2 (from industrial manufacturing) as a solvent instead of water. (Coyuchi uses it in their new textile rent and recycle program.)
Pili uses microorganisms to create natural, non-toxic color.
Colorifix dyes are produced, deposited and fixed onto fabrics without the need for heavy metals, organic solvents or acids. It relies exclusively on compounds that are widely used in the cosmetics, pharmaceutical and food industries, and uses up to 10 times less water than conventional dyeing practices.
Using a reactive dye immobilised in silica particles, Ecofoot’s H2COLOR dyeing technology reduces energy use by 80% and water use by 70% compared to traditional dyeing techniques. The process also take less than half the time.
Solution: Nature Coatings
Nature Coatings turns agricultural waste into high-performing (yet inexpensive) biodegradable pigments and finishes for textiles.
SpinDye® offers a clean and traceable coloring method for textiles. Already available in nearly 2,000 shades, it reduces water consumption by 85%, chemicals by 70%, and energy and CO2 both by 30%, compared to traditional coloring processes.
The Problem: Waste
Fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste per year globally. That’s 4% of all waste (2.12 billion tons) humanity dumps each year. It’s more than toxic e-waste, and more than twice as much as supermarkets toss in food waste. Much of it comes from the cut-and-sew process, not what consumers throw out. In NYC, for example, the amount of commercial textile waste is 40 times larger than consumer textile waste, and it’s probably orders of magnitude larger in Asian countries in which garment exports dwarf other exports. Most modern fashion is not truly recyclable either (less than 1% of post-consumer fashion waste is). It can only be downcycled or just thrown out, especially if it contains synthetic threads. And then there’s also packaging waste that comes with fashion, the plastic bags that keep it from getting stained on its way to you or the store. Packaging waste made up about 30% of America’s total solid waste in 2012.
Eon.ID is developing the ﬁrst global tagging system based on RFID for textile recycling. A thread tag is implemented directly into the fabric, providing each article of clothing with a unique digital identity and identification number. The recycler can easily bring up each garment’s ‘ingredients list’ and quickly sort clothing, thus increasing recycling rates.
Solution: Circular Systems
Circular systems has developed a closed-loop recycling of synthetic textile waste, including complex blends and coated/laminated materials that contain spandex/elastane, PU, and more, using mechanical and semi-chemical systems, at a lower cost than other currently-available chemical systems.
Tipa develops 100% biodegradable and compostable packaging made from bio-plastics.
Once you receive a product, you send back the RePack packaging to the store for reuse. It has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of e-commerce packaging by 80%.
Solution: Normn Hangers
NORMN Hangers are made from 100% recycled paper and printed with vegetable ink. Designed in a cradle-to-cradle mindset, they are also 100% recyclable and can be disposed of using existing paper recycling schemes. They’ve provided hangers for Reformation, Topshop, and Puma, among many others.
A mushroom-based textile shaped on custom-fitted moulds, MycoTex is a new one-step way of producing clothing that eliminates the need for spinning yarns, weaving and other processes. In addition to being chemical-free and requiring little water to develop, MycoTex is 100% biodegradable, and can be composted after use.