Mistra Future Fashion
The Global Change Award is one of the world’s largest innovation challenges founded by the H&M Foundation, in collaboration with Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, aiming to catalyze early innovations that can accelerate the shift from a linear to a circular fashion industry.
In 2016, the Global Change Award received 2885 applications from 130 countries. By leveraging Accenture’s capabilities in analytics and data visualization on this large data set, the H&M Foundation was able to identify insights on future trends within sustainable fashion. The intent of this trend report is to provide valuable guidance on the transformative journey towards a circular fashion industry.
About 13 years ago, I was travelling in a beat-up “bakkie” (or, as we Americans call it, pick-up truck) through a dusty, northern Mozambican town. With a bucket on her head and a face lined from years of hardship, an elderly woman walked slowly down the road, quietly going about her business… while wearing a bright red Ohio State sweatshirt, complete with their mascot, Brutus Buckeye! This sweatshirt, probably discarded at one point in a Salvation Army depot in Ohio, found a new owner in the most unlikely place.
And while one can argue the merits of second-hand clothing imports and their effect on African apparel industry, the following conclusion is clear: When we discard our unwanted clothes, they do not go away.
Rather, the “lucky” ones go on to reuse, after being sorted, categorized, packaged, and shipped, often to faraway lands. This fascinating video shows what happens when these discarded duds arrive in India. “Maybe the water is too expensive to wash them,” says one of the sorters, perplexed by the state of the clothing sent by the West.
But what happens when a piece of clothing is too worn to be, well, worn again? Has it reached its end of life? Judging by the millions of tons of clothing ending up in landfills across the world, one would think so. But it doesn’t have to be.
Clothes that cannot be worn again can be taken apart. The “easy” way is via mechanical fibre recycling, which entails chopping the clothing into small pieces to create new fibre. But this process weakens the fibre, which still needs to be blended with a high proportion of new (or virgin, in industry speak) fibre. And only a small percentage of total clothing actually goes through this process.
But this process doesn’t work if your old t-shirt is made of blended fibres. And we absolutely love those stretchy, fitted t-shirts, which usually have a bit of elastane. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s clothing is made up of a cotton/polyester mix, which means these fibres cannot be “born again” as new fibre for clothing.
But perhaps not for long. Over the past few years, a number of research institutes and innovators (like Worn Again, Evrnu, re:newcell, Saxion University, Mistra Future Fashion, Deakin University, VTT, Aalto University and Tampere University) have been developing chemical recycling processes that can get more life out of those blended t-shirts. I have had the opportunity to speak with some of these guys to learn more about how such technologies can transform the way we use – and reuse – clothes. As Worn Again states, such technologies can create “Abundance for Everyone. Forever.”
In other words, there is no end of life. Only end of use.
But we’re not there yet. The processes for turning blended clothing into new fibre still need perfecting – and scaling – to help the industry eventually eliminate the concept of waste. So, in the meantime, there are some practical things that we – the customers who love stretchy t-shirts – can do.
Love our clothes! We can be inspired by the tips from the Love Your Clothes movement, helping us to think about how we buy, use, and pass on our clothing.
For every new piece of clothing we buy, we can gift or swap an old piece… give it to friend, take it to a charity shop, recycling centre, a “take back” scheme, or take it to swishing party.
Pull a Mark Zuckerberg. We should not be afraid to wear the same thing, every day, to work. Apparently, this also helps us to be more successful in our careers.
Check the labels. Until cotton recycling technologies really take off, a blended t-shirt (e.g. cotton and polyester) is harder to recycle than one that is of a single fibre – whether natural or man-made. Let’s go for that 100%.
Tell our friends…and kids. The clothing we love is taking its toll on our earth. At least 350,000 tons of clothing end up in landfills in the U.K. alone. In the US, just 15% of used clothing and textiles are diverted from landfill and incineration. We all have a role to play. Let’s spread the word and bring back our clothes.
And the more that we do that, the more we can give new life to our old clothes.
*This story first appeared on The Huffington Post
We’ve seen a rash of textile-recycling schemes emerge of late — in which the textiles in question may become new garments, but for the most part they remain, well, fabrics. But in what may be the first fabric-to-fuel program we’ve heard of, Japan Airlines — which is already working to roll out sustainable aviation biofuel for flights during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo — is now working to turn used clothing into jet fuel, in partnership with Japan Environmental Planning (Jeplan) and Tokyo’s Green Earth Institute. The organizations have teamed up to create a collaborative council that could pilot the alternative energy source by as early as 2020.
In October 2015, Jeplan founder Michihiko Iwamota introduced a technology to create bioethanol from cast-off T-shirts and denim jeans, using fermentation to break down the sugars contained in cotton into alcohols. If all goes well with test flights planned to start in 2020, the company aims to establish the first commercial fuel plant by 2030.
“I totally believed that in the future, there would be a car that runs on garbage,” said Iwamoto, referring to the trash-powered time machine from Back to the Future II. “But years went by, and that didn’t happen. So I thought I’d develop it.”
Although addressing a large energy source, 100 tons of cotton yields only around 10 kiloliters of fuel, or roughly 2,641 gallons (a commercial airliner uses about 1 gallon of fuel every second). As Nikkei Asian Review points out, even if all the cotton consumed in Japan were used in fuel production, this would give only 70,000 kl or so annually — less than 1 percent of Japan’s jet fuel usage. But since the technology can also be applied to other types of waste, including paper, clothing may only be the beginning.
Meanwhile, Mistra Future Fashion, a Swedish research program for sustainable fashion, has launched an investigation into the relationship between fabric properties and the shedding of microplastics from polyester fabrics. The company aims to deliver a framework for the construction and care of polyester fabrics in order to minimize microplastic shedding to improve environmental performance and strengthen global competitiveness.
Eunomia Research & Consulting has estimated that 190 thousand tons of microplastics from textiles enter the world’s marine ecosystem each year. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) – which earlier this year teamed up with G-Star to call on the textile and washing machine industries to design solutions to eliminate ocean microfiber pollution – the machine-washing of clothes is a big source of plastic pollution in oceans, with small plastic fibers shed by synthetic garments being washed through water treatment plants into waterways, which can also enter the food chain, as fish and other marine organisms can mistake these fibers for food.
Research carried out by the campaign ‘Mermaids Ocean Clean Wash’ for G-Star suggests that polyester, acrylic and nylon items are the biggest culprits, with an acrylic scarf shedding 300,000 fibers per wash and a polyester fleece jacket losing almost a million fibers every time it is washed.
The investigation will be conducted in spring 2017 in partnership with Boob Design,Filippa K and H&M, and the findings could be used for designing a subsequent, larger research project surrounding the microplastics problem.
“Only a strong alliance of dedicated stakeholders around the world can turn the tide,” said Frouke Bruinsma, Corporate Responsibility Director at G-Star. “Everyone is welcome to join us.”
*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands