Five materials for sustainability at scale

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Contributor Katharine Earley

Image: Cocccon
Image: Cocccon

From organic silk to recycled polyester, high street fashion brands are increasingly seeking high-performing materials with a low impact on the environment.

The quest for high-performing, sustainable materials continues apace as the more progressive high street fashion brands seek to create garments using fewer natural resources and generate a lower impact on the environment.

More than 1,000 sustainable materials were showcased at the Future Fabrics trade show in 2014. Meanwhile, designers can compare the impacts of diverse materials using interactive tools, and multiple collaborations are forming to develop healthier, low impact materials, pioneer closed loop models or prevent waste, including Fashion Positive and Reclaim to Wear.

“We’re seeing an increasing appetite for innovative, sustainable fabrics, and a growing interest from brands in transforming waste materials into a resource,” explains Sarah Ditty, SOURCE Intelligence editor-in-chief. “With many bio-based and synthetic options available, the real challenge for businesses, particularly big fashion brands, is integrating new materials into the design process from the outset.”

Here, we highlight five innovative materials on the market today:

Organic silk

Organic silk is produced by silk worms living in organically cultivated Mulberry trees. The worms consume the mulberry leaves, converting them into body mass, which they then use to spin their cocoon. Some 500 cocoons are required to produce one T-shirt, according to Swiss silk supplier ALKENA.

The company claims that feeding worms on leaves free from harmful chemicals yields larger, healthier cocoons and subsequently more consistent, better quality silk. Organic silk can be sourced in different weights, weaves and colours, and its production often takes place on a small scale among developing communities, including in China and India.

Farmers save money by avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, while protecting the environment and producing a fibre that is kinder to human skin. The material features in H&M’s new Conscious Collection, with garments including a black silk tuxedo jacket. You can source beautiful organic silks from suppliers such as Cocccon and Seidentraum.

diagram from ALKENA

Recycled rubber

Rubber trees are traditionally grown in plantations in deforested areas of rainforest (although small scale projects to tap rubber using traditional techniques are in place). Opting for recycled rubber offers a more sustainable alternative, as it avoids deforestation and its production generates fewer carbon emissions.

Outdoor clothing brand Timberland recently formed a partnership with tyre manufacture Omni United to create a new line of tyres designed to be recycled into Timberland footwear when the tyre treads wear out. Indosole, a collaboration between US social entrepreneurs and Indonesian craftsman, also produces shoes from tyres destined for landfill. Elsewhere, UK fashion brand Elvis & Kresse transforms rubber fire hoses into bags and belts and accessories.

Elvis & Kresse’s Reporter bag

Recycled plastic

With some 280m tonnes of plastic produced annually and less than 10% currently recycled, there is a big opportunity for fashion brands to derive value from plastic waste. Suppliers offering fibres made from recycled plastic include DGrade, Saluzzo Yarns and Bionic Yarn.

Fibres are largely spun from post-consumer plastic bottles, as well as plastic bags, and offer the same quality as virgin plastic while using less energy in the production process, and conserving natural resources. Importantly, giving plastic waste a new lease of life also helps to stem the flow of plastic into landfills and oceans.

Dutch fashion brand G-Star RAW has gone one step further by collaborating with Bionic Yarn to create a denim clothing line, Raw for the Oceans, made from ocean plastic debris. Elsewhere, EKOCYCLE, a sustainable lifestyle brand founded by will.i.am and the Coca-Cola Company, is partnering with brands including Adidas to create products made partly from PET plastic.

Recycled polyester

Polyester is a synthetic fibre derived from oil. Selecting recycled polyester, which is typically made from plastic PET bottles (suppliers include REPREVE and Eco-fi) – helps brands to reduce their reliance on finite natural resources and prevent plastic pollution.

Recycled polyester also requires fewer chemicals, energy and water to produce. Patagonia and The North Face both incorporate polyester made from plastic bottles in garments such as fleeces. The North Face revealed in 2014 that its Denali fleece is made from 100% recycled content. Innovative models to close the loop on recycled polyester are springing up worldwide.

Dutch aWEARness has created a circular supply chain for Refinity, its recycled polyester, leasing work clothing to companies and taking it back at the end of the contract to be recycled.

Luxury fashion group Kering, innovation business Worn Again and H&M have partnered to develop a technology to separate and extract polyester and cotton from end-of-life textiles. Meanwhile, Japanese chemicals company Teijin has created a ‘closed loop’ polyester through its ECO CIRCLE™ system.

H&M Conscious Collection 2015

Lyocell

Lyocell is a type of rayon fibre made from the pulp of trees such as eucalyptus and bamboo. The trees are cultivated on farms certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, grow quickly and require little water and few chemicals to thrive.

Lycocell creates a lower impact on the environment and produces fewer carbon emissions than mainstream, conventionally produced fibres. Additionally, some 98% of the solvent used to dissolve the wood pulp is recovered and reused in a closed loop process. The result is a soft, lightweight fibre, more commonly known as TENCEL®, which is made from FSC-certified eucalyptus by Austrian supplier Lenzing.

Many brands source TENCEL®, including Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s, H&M and Burberry. It can be used in jersey, knits and woven fashion garments as an alternative for viscose, cotton and silk. MONOCEL (similar to cotton) is produced in a similar way, and is made from FSC-certified bamboo.

Katharine Earley is a journalist and copywriter, specialising in sustainable business.

**This article first appeared on Ethical Fashion Forum blog here.

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