By Gayatri Keskar, Ph.D., Materials Manager, Material ConneXion
Whether it is out of a real desire to make the world a better place or an understanding of the enhanced brand value of a clear commitment to sustainable design, we are seeing an increasing demand from customers and manufacturers for sustainable textiles, creating less environmental waste, and using less energy while making high-quality products for the fashion, interiors, automotive, and furniture industries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the US alone generates an estimated 24 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste, which ends up in landfills each year, and the cotton production accounts for 2.6% of annual global water usage. As a result, larger apparel brands such as H&M and The North Face are working to help minimize textile waste through take-back programs and collections made from recycled fabrics while startups and even the European Union are creating circular processes and economic models.
Unlike linear economy, which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production, the circular economy is one that produces no waste and pollution. It aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.
While the focus is on turning unwanted textiles into raw materials for new textiles using ecological technologies, a critical challenge is to ‘design for recycling’ using existing waste streams in order to realize a truly closed loop economy. Interestingly, projects such as Trash-2-Cash are bringing designers, raw-material suppliers, and end-product manufacturers from across Europe together to work on new techniques for constructing novel materials – starting at the molecular level – to generate new textile fibers that are ‘designed’ to meet consumer as well as future recycling needs.
Concerted effort and incentivized consumers to initiate the change
I am excited to see that designers are now collaborating with material scientists to evaluate the use of ‘regenerated fibers’ for reducing our overall impact on the planet. Recently, Wool and the Gang introduced new Billie Jean Yarn, which is made using upcycled pre-consumer denim waste. The yarn is developed in collaboration with The New Denim Project, promoting conscious consumption and investment in sustainable materials. The denim scraps and offcuts are ground back down into fibers and woven into Billie Jean yarn. This process involves no chemicals and no dyes and saves on an average 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material.
There have been few promising early attempts in the US to create a closed loop apparel industry through newly developed eco-efficient cotton fiber regeneration processes and waste polyester recycling techniques. A Washington-based startup, Evrnu has developed a new recycling technology to convert discarded consumer waste into ‘regenerated’ fibers, thereby reducing the water usage by 98% that otherwise would be needed to grow virgin cotton. It completed its first prototype pair of jeans earlier this year in partnership with Levi Strauss & Co., creating the world’s first jean made from regenerated post-consumer cotton waste.
The biggest challenge so far is that the circular economy is a system-wide change, and not just limited to one product, company, or sector, which asks for open-minded collaboration to unlock the significant economic opportunity in the used textiles. We as consumers need to snap out of our ‘fast fashion’ mindset and switch to a more responsible approach by choosing quality over quantity. Some apparel manufacturers and retailers such as the Swedish denim company, Nudie, and Patagonia have launched programs to help expand the longevity of their products. They are promising quality and durability to consumers and building brand value for being environmental friendly. In addition to environmental conscientiousness, we also require effective incentive-based recycling programs that can encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. A collective effort from manufacturers, suppliers, and consumers to create more awareness and develop a culture of responsibility, repair, and reuse is critical for a successful circular zero-waste economy.
Categories: Fashion, Eco-Friendly, Textiles, Sustainability
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