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Sustainable fashion finds success in new materials

By Katerina Mansour - 15 April 2021

Within the past few years, consumer demand for sustainable fashion has increased. Documentaries like The True Cost (2015) have exposed the social and environmental impact of fast fashion, effectively raising awareness.

Can innovative fabrics help the industry become more sustainable? We delve into the key trends and players in this field.

New consumption habits are driving unsustainable practices

The convenience of being able to buy any clothing item at extremely low prices in a few clicks has led to many consumers buying much more than they need. Furthermore, consumption habits when it comes to fashion have shifted towards wastefulness.

Despite having access to more clothing options than ever before, once people purchase an item, they tend to discard it soon after. In fact, on average people wear a clothing item about seven times before throwing it away. Furthermore, it’s estimated that UK consumers own £30 billion worth of unused clothing that is just sitting in their closet. Because of how poorly made these clothing items are and because of the low prices, discarding clothing has become normalised and far too habitual. These clothing items wind up in landfills, where it can take up to 200 years for them to decompose.

Fashion companies continue to use highly polluting processes

Beyond wasteful consumerism, the manufacturing of clothing items themselves also has a dire impact on our environment. The fashion industry is the second most polluting sector, after aviation. It generates around 92 million tonnes of textile waste and consumes 1.5 trillion litres of water per year.

Significant amounts of toxic waste from textile manufacturing are dumped into rivers nearby, polluting the water. Indeed, the World Bank has identified 72 toxic chemicals that end up in waterways from textile dyeing. This is especially the case in Bangladesh, the world’s second biggest garment exporter.

One of the many changes the fashion industry has been testing is the use of new materials. Indeed, the use of certain raw materials to create textiles is a solid step in achieving sustainability in fashion. Consumer perceptions also appear to support this trend. A McKinsey survey conducted in 2020 showed 67% of surveyed consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor.

Sustainable fashion through innovative materials

Zèta shoes are recyclable and are made from a grapes-based vegan leather.

1. Vegan Leather

Vegan leather has become quite the trend in the past years. In addition to meeting demands for more sustainable materials, it’s also suitable for vegan and vegetarian consumers.

Reports have shown the environmental impact of vegan leather production can be up to a third lower than for real leather. But vegan leather can be made with a variety of materials, some of which are less sustainable than others. Indeed, plastic-based vegan leather is problematic, especially if it ends up in a landfill or water, where it will leak chemicals into the environment. Furthermore, large amounts of energy and water are used to produce these types of plastic.

Avoiding plastic-based leather shouldn’t be too difficult. Pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, barkcloth, and many other plants or fruits are used to create sustainable vegan leather. Companies worldwide have created innovative materials that mimic the appearance and texture of leather.

Piñatex, leather made from cellulose fibre extracted from pineapple leaves, was developed by Dr Carmen Hijosa. Hugo Boss was one of the first brands to use this new material, launching a range of sustainable sneakers.

Grape-based leather has also grown in popularity. The French brand Le Coq Sportif recently launched a range of sneakers in collaboration with Vegea, an Italian startup. The startup develops an alternative to leather, made from the stalk, skin and pips of any wine grape. Zèta is another startup leveraging this fruit for sustainable fashion. The startup creates zero waste sneakers that are recyclable and made of recycled grape materials.

Startups have also branched out to unconventional animal materials. Ictyos, one of Early Metrics’ rated startups, turns fish skin into marine leather, leveraging a chrome-free tanning process. Gelatex, another rated startup, develops a leather-like textile made from gelatin, a by-product of the meat processing industry.

2. Recycled materials

As previously mentioned, recycled materials are a popular go-to when creating sustainable fabrics. This trend expands beyond leather.

British textile company Camira collaborated with SEAQUAL Initiative to create fabrics made from waste found in the oceans. The organisation processes marine plastic and plastic bottles from landfills to make yarn that can then be used by Camira. This strategy of reusing ocean waste is becoming increasingly widespread. Manufacturers like Aquafil have come up with solutions to create materials like nylon from ocean and landfill waste.

Meanwhile, some fashion brands have opted for reusing fabric waste. In 2017, Athleta committed to making 80% of its apparel materials with sustainable fibres, such as recycled polyester and nylon. Some materials leveraging fabric waste have been around for decades. Cupro is one example of this. The breathable and biodegradable material is made from cotton waste, produced in a closed loop (meaning chemicals can be extracted from wastewater and reused). Brands have used Cupro as an alternative to silk.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that not all textiles can be sustainably recycled. Polyester is a material that is subject to controversy on this front. While rPET (recycled PET) takes fewer resources to make and keeps plastics from entering landfills or oceans, the process of recycling it isn’t highly sustainable. Although it takes 59% less energy to produce rPET than virgin polyester, it still consumes more energy than organic and regular cotton, hemp and wool. rPET also releases microplastics that pollute the environment.

In order to accompany consumers in their purchases of products made from recycled materials, startups and brands are developing solutions for better transparency. Waste2Wear has developed a blockchain-based system for consumers to verify the origins of their products. This helps users ensure the materials used by a company truly come from plastic waste.

3. Wood and plant-based materials

Hemp is all the rage right now in the sustainable fashion industry. It requires about 50% less water to grow than cotton, doesn’t require harsh chemical herbicides or pesticides and returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. Furthermore, processing hemp can be done without the use of chemicals. Fashion brands like Patagonia have been leveraging this durable plant to create clothing with a lower impact on the environment.

Another new material used in fashion is Tencel lyocell. The production is based on dissolving wood pulp and on a drying process called spinning. It requires less energy and water than conventional cotton and is biodegradable if not mixed with other synthetic fibres. Once produced, it is already white, which eliminates the need for bleaching. Fashion brands like Balzac Paris have been using Tencel to produce more sustainable clothing items.

The importance of sourcing and manufacturing

Key areas sourcing executives in apparel plan to work on
McKinsey Apparel CPO Survey 2019

As implied in previous sections of this article, the sourcing and processing of a material are key when assessing its sustainability. The raw material itself can be highly sustainable, but that sustainability diminishes if manufacturing the fabric uses large amounts of chemicals, toxic dyes, etc.

Many countries have made commitments and launched projects to promote more sustainable sourcing and manufacturing in the fashion industry. In 2018, Shanghai officials announced their commitment to promote green manufacturing initiatives. In 2019, the Indian government launched SURE, a project committed to making the Indian fashion industry more sustainable. Among its resolutions is the development of sustainable sourcing policies to consistently prioritise and use certified raw materials with a positive impact on the environment. The project also aims to “make the right decisions about how, where, and what we source across the value chain by selecting sustainable and renewable materials and processes and ensuring their traceability.”

ESG ratings and certifications have become a popular way for consumers to assess a brand’s social and environmental impact. These analyses typically take into account the entire process of developing a product, thus including sourcing and manufacturing. The B Corporation certification is one of the most widely known labels available for this purpose in the fashion industry.

Beware of greenwashing

All in all, consumers are more aware than ever before of the fashion industry’s toll on our environment. While many companies are making genuine efforts, greenwashing is the elephant in the room that we can’t ignore. Many brands make misleading claims to pitch their products as being more sustainable than they truly are. Mistrust between consumers and fashion brands is growing due to this, leading many to research brands and materials in-depth before purchasing. Startups can be allies to both conscientious buyers and fashion brands that wish to do better for the sake of the planet.

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