The latest report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sounds the alarm on the pollution generated by the fashion industry and outlines ideas for redesigning the sector going forward. The report underlines that today’s textile industry is built on an obsolete, highly polluting approach which must be reinvented in order to help safeguard the environment. One major problem is that used clothes are very rarely recycled, leading to the discharge of some 500,000 tons of micro-fibres – the equivalent of over 50 billion plastic bottles – into the ocean every year. The conclusion is that the entire apparel production chain needs re-thinking and new materials and business models must be tried out.

textile INDUSTRy CAUSING Water polluTION

Shutterstock - Credits: Shutterstock

A number of FashionTech startups are now ready to take on this challenge. There are two main trends among those who are looking to produce clothing in a different way: using natural plant resources including grapes, mushrooms and maize as a basis for textile production; and using hi-tech approaches such as 3D printing. Both of these movements have the same goal: to transform the textile industry into a sector that takes greater care of the environment.

New materials enabling environmentally-friendly production

A large number of tech entrepreneurs have turned to nature for inspiration, drawing especially on the properties of plants. Italian startup Vegea is working to directly bio-source fibres from grape pomace, a sustainable resource comprising grape skins, pulp, seeds, and stems, in order to manufacture clothing, plus also handbags and shoes, in an environmentally-friendly way. Fellow-Italian design service company Grado Zero Espace has launched Muskin, 100%-biodegradable plant-based ‘leather’ produced from fungal spores. Mushrooms have also provided a source of inspiration for the MycoTEX venture, which last year became one of the first startups to join the  Amsterdam-based Plug and Play accelerator programme Fashion for Good, whose aim is to improve the fashion industry’s social and  environmental impact.

H&M has collected 55,000 tons of clothing – the textile equivalent of 270 million tee-shirts – in five years

Similar initiatives are being taken by some of the most famous fashion brands and designers. Under a four-year partnership with the H&M Foundation, launched in September 2016, a team from the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) has developed, in collaboration with Ehime University and Shinshu University in Japan, a  hydrothermal (chemical) process which enables mixed textiles to be recycled by separating out the cotton and polyester components. The results, which have been rather encouraging, are expected to be on the market soon. The Swedish fashion chain has for the last five years been collecting old clothing at all its sales outlets, leading to the transformation – via either direct re-use or recycling of materials – of over 55,000 tons of clothing.

DITA VON TEESE

Meanwhile additive layer manufacturing (ALM) – aka 3D printing – has also been applied in this field and has proved to be particularly environmentally-friendly. When an item of clothing is printed out layer by layer, there is absolutely no wastage of materials. A number of fashion designers have been using ALM technology, including Iris van Herpen in 2012, threeASFOUR in 2013, and also Francis Bitonti and Michael Schmidt, who teamed up in a highly-publicised collaboration initiative, with burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese modelling their 3D-printed dress.

Electroloom also embarked on an ALM initiative in 2015, with a crowdfunding campaign to help fund its foray into 3D printing. Now pioneers in this field are going way beyond the basic ALM approach, breaking new ground by creating ‘modular’ clothing. Researchers at MIT, for instance, have already developed a photochromic ink technology called ColorFab that can change the colour of your jewellery, a technique which is likely to be applied to clothing in the near future.

Washing with less water

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BILLION

LITRES OF WATER USED EVERY YEAR IN US HOTELS FOR WASHING

Quite apart from the basic manufacturing stage, there is also room for considerable improvement at other stages throughout the lifetime of every item of clothing. While it currently takes over 20,000 litres of water to grow and produce one kilogram of cotton, a number of tech startups are now focusing on the subsequent stages, e.g. saving water through more environmentally-friendly washing techniques. Colorado-based TERSUS Solutions has developed a washing machine that works with Liquid Carbon Dioxide (LCO2). The process, which is water-free, is highly effective as it eliminates almost all polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons usually present on workmen’s clothes either worn in heavy industry or otherwise exposed to chemical pollution. Meanwhile UK-based cleaning solutions company Xeros calculates that hotels in the United States use over a billion and a half litres of water each day for laundry purposes. The company has developed a cleaning system which replaces traditional washing soap by millions of recyclable polymer beads, an approach which reduces by over 75% the amount of water needed.

As an idea of the inventiveness shown by some engineers, a number of years ago French industrial designer Elie Ahovi designed Orbit, a washing machine that uses no water whatsoever, which he entered for a competition run by the Electrolux Design Lab, now the Electrolux Ideas Lab, in 2010. The machine consists of a superconductive ball cooled with liquid nitrogen, which you fill with your dirty clothes, and a battery-filled ring generating a magnetic field, inside which the ball levitates as its electrical resistance drops. Basically, what happens next is that the laundry is cleaned cryogenically by being bombarded with dry ice. However, this brilliant idea did not in the end make it through to commercial production.

Elie Ahovi - Credits: Elie Ahovi
Xeros - Credits: Xeros

Clothing hire and subscription platforms: consuming less and dressing better

Meanwhile in the Circular Economy, there are nowadays a number of online clothes exchange and hire platforms that enable us to take a more flexible approach to our wardrobes. Vinted, based in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, is highly-reputed in the second-hand apparel world. San Francisco is also known for ‘rag trade’ companies that provide hiring solutions aimed both at people on limited budgets who prefer not to buy clothes – whether new or second-hand –  and those who are keen to reduce their environmental footprint and support the Sharing Economy. Back in Europe, Belgian startup Tale Me also provides a clothes-hire option for those who would rather not buy and own. The company mainly targets expectant mothers and infants, the aim being to provide clothing solutions for growing children and women whose body shape changes during pregnancy and again after giving birth.

Regard d'expert

David Oates

CEO of Curtsy

In the future the textile industry will probably have very little interest in throwaway apparel

In the United States, Californian startup Curtsy also offers a rental service. David Oates, CEO of the peer-to-peer rental platform explains: “Our customers are mostly in college” – by which we are to understand that they are usually on a very limited budget. Although some of them will no doubt be looking for a way to make sustainable and environmentally-friendly purchases, “what most of them like about our concept is the price. They like being able to rent an item for 80-90% off retail. Buying an item new feels wasteful by comparison, because they will typically only wear it once, especially if it is a more formal item.” At the moment the startup is not thinking of launching into recycling, but David Oates recognises that “Curtsy's impact on waste in the fashion industry could be tremendous”. He also predicts that in the future the textile industry will probably have very little interest in throwaway apparel, and that hiring solutions – which are basically a more responsible approach – are sure to become more widespread. “ There are so many exciting companies changing the landscape right now. Stitch Fix and Rent The Runway are two great examples.”

Detoxifying the textile industry

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brands

and textile suppliers involved in the detox PROCESS

Major clothing brands are also getting involved in this process of change and Greenpeace, in its Detox campaign, acknowledges the initiatives they are taking. In 2016, the environmental campaigning organisation rated some of the 76 textile brands and suppliers – accounting for around 15% of global textile production – who have committed to ending the use of toxic chemical substances in their production chains by 2020. And while on the one hand Inditex (Zara), Benetton and H&M are praised as ‘model pupils’, Nike, Esprit and Victoria's Secret are singled out for their lack of commitment. Greenpeace has also been running a more targeted campaign called Detox Outdoor, which points the finger at brands that make outdoor clothing using the rather dangerous perfluorocarbons (PFCs) in their production chains. The campaign highlights the contradictions involved in claiming to be nature-lovers, while at the same time polluting nature.

Smart city

OMsignal's smart textile turns apparel into quantified-self tools

Archive July 2013

On the other side of the line, Puma and Adidas are applauded for their commitment to finding substitutes for these products. Adidas, which had already set up a venture producing shoes which are 95% made from plastic culled from the ocean around the Maldives (run in partnership with Parley for the Oceans – a space where people come together to raise awareness of the vulnerability of the oceans), announced a 2017 production target of a million pairs of training shoes made from plastic waste removed from the seas. This is the equivalent of recycling eleven million plastic bottles. The German sports clothing manufacturer hit the headlines again recently when it used fabric from seats on the Berlin metro for its latest training shoe creation. Moreover, this technological exploit is environmentally-friendly in more ways than one, as these trainers also come with a year’s free pass on Berlin’s public transport system. So there are strong indications that some major players in the sector are starting to redefine the primary function of clothing, moving from the purely utilitarian to the highly innovative. And it is not hard to imagine that connected clothing will in turn widen the field of FashionTech concepts, forging an even more environmentally beneficial alliance between fashion and the new technologies.

By Marie-Eléonore Noiré
Journalist