The fashion industry has long been criticized for being one of the most unsustainable industries on the planet. It is responsible for around 3 percent to 5 percent of global carbon emissions. Oil-based polyester accounts for about 50 percent of fiber production, and cotton, which is reliant on large volumes of water, land, fertilizer, and pesticides, contributes another 25 percent. Moreover, billions of pieces of clothing are simply discarded when unsold or at the end of their useful lives, ending up in landfill or incinerators.
Despite some progress, the fashion industry is struggling to adopt sustainable innovations at scale, due to multiple factors including limited processes for collection, sorting and pre-processing; costs; and output quality. The collection rate of discarded textiles from households is, for instance, only 30 percent to 35 percent on average. However, material production contributes between 25 percent and 40 percent of the industry’s CO2 emissions. This presents a powerful incentive to redouble efforts to scale the production of more sustainable alternatives.
The industry may be approaching a tipping point. Consumers increasingly demand sustainable choices, and younger cohorts, in particular, are willing to pay more for items that reflect their sustainability values. In addition, significant R&D investment means several technologies and new materials are likely on the verge of application at scale.
The fashion industry is accelerating investment in material alternatives that are more sustainable than traditional ones, both through textile innovation and recycling. Many innovations are being tested in the market, including bio-based and compostable materials such as hemp, leather alternative Piñatex and vegan Mylo leather. New waste-based materials include Spinnova, which is made from cellulosic fiber, and Agraloop, which converts agricultural crops into textile-grade products. Meanwhile, companies such as Newlight Technologies and Fairbrics are spearheading the production of regenerative materials from greenhouse gases.
The only other scaled material alternative is cellulose-based Lyocell, a form of rayon invented in the 1980s that accounts for less than 2 percent of global textile volume. Textile-to-textile recycling recovers materials from pre- and post-consumer textile waste to produce yarns for new fabrics. This sort of closed-loop recycling could be applied to between 18 percent and 26 percent of gross textile waste in Europe by 2030. Renewcell, Ambercycle, Circ, Gr3n, and Worn Again Technologies are among the relatively high-profile companies specializing in textile-to-textile recycling.
The technology has piqued investor interest, fuelling expectations that its ability to scale is imminent. With hundreds of materials patents being issued every year, the industry is seeing increasing momentum, albeit at a small scale. Companies involved in this space include Bolt Threads, which manufactures bio-based Mylo, and Natural Fiber Welding, which produces USDA-certified 100 percent bio-based and fully recyclable Mirum. Cellular agriculture specialist Galy has created a form of in-vitro cotton which it says uses 78 percent less water and 81 percent less land than traditional cotton.
Both textile-to-textile recycling and scaled innovative materials could be prioritized in parallel since they are mutually reinforcing: while recycling and feedstock collection rates grow, innovative materials can alleviate volume pressure on virgin materials such as natural cotton. In doing so, innovative materials also could enable a greater number of producers of these virgin materials to switch to more sustainable practices, such as organic, regenerative farming, or certified sustainable foresting.
Demand for scaling is being driven by several factors, including increasing regulatory attention and growing consumer expectations that the fashion industry will soon find solutions to its sustainability problems. In the past, consumers said that while they supported sustainability in fashion, they were not willing to pay more for it.
But a shift is underway, and consumers are starting to prioritize sustainability when making purchasing decisions. Younger generations, in particular, are willing to pay more for products that align with their values, including sustainability. This represents a powerful incentive for the fashion industry to adopt sustainable innovations and scale them up.
However, there are still several challenges to overcome. One of the biggest obstacles to scaling sustainable materials is the cost. Sustainable materials are often more expensive to produce than traditional ones, which makes them less appealing to fashion brands that are focused on maximizing profits. Additionally, there are limitations to the supply of sustainable materials, which can hinder their adoption.
Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure for collecting and processing discarded textiles. The collection rate of discarded textiles from households is only around 30 percent to 35 percent on average, which means that the vast majority of textiles are either sent to landfill or incinerated. To address this issue, there needs to be a significant investment in the infrastructure for collecting and processing discarded textiles, as well as public awareness campaigns to encourage consumers to recycle their clothing.
Despite these challenges, there are many reasons for optimism. The fashion industry is investing heavily in sustainable materials and recycling technologies, and there are many promising innovations on the horizon. In addition, consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable choices, which is driving fashion brands to prioritize sustainability in their operations.
In conclusion, the fashion industry has a long way to go before it can be considered truly sustainable. However, there are many exciting developments in the works, including new materials and recycling technologies, which could help the industry to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and waste. By investing in sustainable innovation and scaling up these technologies, the fashion industry can create a more sustainable future for itself and the planet.