From seaweed shoes to synthetic spider silk, the fashion industry is finding inventive solutions to its sustainability crisis.
Prada’s recently released line of bags might have seemed familiar and not simply because of their iconic silhouettes. Its new Re-Nylon range — featuring six bags for men and women — will all be made from a recycled nylon material, Econyl.
Produced by Italian synthetic textile manufacturer Aquafil, Econyl uses waste like fishing nets and industrial plastic from landfill and recovers the usable nylon from it. This nylon waste is then processed and recycled to its original form, meaning that Econyl is a fully regenerated material. It can be recycled indefinitely without affecting its quality, says Prada.
Now in its eighth year of production, Econyl has been picked up by sports brands like Speedo and Adidas, as well as fashion companies like H&M and Stella McCartney. Its versatility means it has also been adopted by interior brands where it is useful for making carpet and flooring.
Econyl’s popularity shows how pressing an issue sustainability has become in the clothing industry. If fast fashion — the habit of buying cheap, trend-led items — continues, it is estimated that the industry will consume a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050. And as fashion brands increasingly come under criticism for their part in the climate crisis, they want to appear as eco-conscious as possible.
Prada hopes that all its nylon accessories will be made with Econyl by 2021, but the regenerated nylon is far from the only sustainable textile on offer.
Piñatex is a natural textile made from pineapple leaf fibre. Developed by Carmen Hijosa, a leather goods designer, it is made from the fruit’s leaves, which are usually discarded during the pineapple harvest. That means the process requires no additional farming. The company says that the process supports rural communities in Philippines, where it is made, by creating a new source of income for farmers that otherwise rely on a seasonal harvest.
The resulting textile is a soft and durable leather substitute that can be used in clothing, accessories and interiors. In April, Swedish fashion brand H&M released a pair of cowboy boots made from the material as part of its sustainability-focused line, Conscious Collection.
In order to create a leather substitute, Californian start-up Bolt Threads, turned to the vegetable world, using mycelium (mushroom roots) to create Mylo. This manufacturing process is both quicker and also does not require livestock-rearing. A 2014 UN report showed that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past fifty years and could increase by 30% by 2050 if the current rate continues.
The V&A’s recent Fashioned from Nature exhibition, which explored the relationship between fashion and where it sources its textiles, included a Stella McCartney handbag made from Mylo.
Bolt Threads also studied spiders’ DNA and their silk production to create Microsilk, a silk substitute which avoids much of the traditional pollution caused by textile production. The company says it combines the best parts of silk — versatile and breathable — with new upsides, namely that it is easier to wash.
Other sustainable options from the natural world include US shoe start-up Allbirds, which last year used the pulp from eucalyptus trees to create its Tree Runners line. Meanwhile Brooklyn-based AlgiKnit headed to the seas, using kelp — a type of seaweed — to create sustainable yarn for use as footwear, accessories and interiors.
Though these methods might seem futuristic, these products are not just a recent phenomenon. Lyocell, a type of synthetic cotton, was originally developed in the 1970s by an American fibre company. Popular among high street brands, from Anthropologie to Allsaints, it uses biodegradable solvents and renewable wood material to create a closed loop recycling system.
Lenzing, the world’s leading producer of lyocell, just announced its plans to build the world’s largest lyocell production plant in Thailand. With an investment of €400 million (£360 million), the Austrian company’s new plant will have an annual capacity of 100 million kilograms of the material.
Last year, Burberry caused a scandal when it announced it had burned almost £30 million worth of stock. In an attempt to reduce waste, the British-based luxury fashion house has partnered with Elvis & Kresse, a UK-based company that “rescues” waste material and turns it into accessories and homeware. Their latest range features handbags with straps and bases made from decommissioned fire hose and the main body from rescued Burberry leather.
Fashion brands are finding creative solutions to avoid Burberry’s waste in the first place. Le Kilt, a UK-based company that specialises in creating skirts inspired by the founder’s Scottish heritage, already used raw and unwashed denim to reduce water waste for its jackets and jeans. But it has also came up with a solution for all its fabric off-cuts: a new range of smaller skirts for kids.
Going one step further, New York-based Zero Waste Daniel makes all its apparel with off-cuts and scraps from factories in the city’s garment industry. Founded by Daniel Silverstein in 2016, the brand says that each piece of clothing “diverts roughly 0.5 kilograms of textile waste from landfill”.
Where fashion meets technology
The fashion industry has frequently turned to technology to source its clothes more sustainably, and one advance in particular has been fruitful: three-dimensional (3D) printing.
Last September, Julia Daviy’s eponymous fashion brand premiered a line of wearable clothing made by 3D printers at an event during New York Fashion Week focusing on tech. The clothing is completely recyclable, and when it is finished with, the material can be reused to print new items of clothing. The designs are customisable and high end: skirts start in the region of $700 (£550).
Ministry of Supply, a Boston-based clothing supplier, has produced 3D fashion at the more high street end of the spectrum. Founded by four Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students in 2012, it specialises in business wear. It claims that its 3D Print-Knit collection reduces waste by over 30% because of its more accurate design process, thereby cutting down on off-cuts.
Tech like artificial intelligence (AI) could help reduce waste by making the shopping experience more personalised. One of the problems of online shopping is the pollution caused by delivery services like Asos and Amazon. In the UK, 25% of women’s fashion orders are returned, which exacerbates the pollution problem as it doubles the number of journeys.
Fashion subscription companies like Stitch Fix use AI to tailor clothing recommendations to customers in the hope of reducing return orders. Last year, Asos introduced a new virtual assistant that asks customers to fill in their details such as age, weight and height. Once those are filled in, the software suggests clothes that customers who answered similarly bought.