Recycling

For a True War on Waste, the Fashion Industry Must Spend More on Research

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by Mark Liu

The rise of fast fashion in Australia means 6000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. The ABC’s War On Waste visualised this statistic by piling a giant mound of clothing waste in the middle of the city. So what to do about it?

A scene from the ABC’s War on Waste. ABC

Sustainable fashion experts advocate abstaining from buying fast fashion, promoting clothing swaps and repairing old clothing. Others suggest buying organic and ethically-sourced clothes or designing clothing using zero waste techniques. The hope is that greater transparency in supply chains will lead to an end to sweatshops and unsustainable fashion practices.

These are admirable initiatives, but they only reduce wastage or delay garments from ending up in landfill. They do not address the fact that the scale of fast fashion is so massive it can easily eclipse other sustainability initiatives. Nor do they address the wastefulness of existing technologies and the urgent need to research new ones.

Even if we could magically stop the global production of all garments, we would still need new, green technology to clean up the waste we have already created. There are long-term strategies for green technologies such as electric cars, but where are the major companies and research institutes developing the next generation of sustainable fashion technologies? The development of new synthetic biology technologies may be the key.

From catwalk to research

I would like to share my journey from zero waste fashion design pioneer to trans-disciplinary fashion researcher to highlight the challenges faced by sustainable fashion and the need for more research.

Ten years ago, I presented my “Zero-Waste” Fashion collection at London Fashion Week. I and other sustainable designers at the time took the waste streams of other industries such as scrap materials and leftover fabric and created our collections from them. I was selected for “Estethica”, a new initiative created by sustainable fashion gurus Orsola De Castro, Filippo Ricci and Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council. Sustainable fashion was shown on London catwalks next to luxury fashion – a revolutionary step for the time.

I pioneered a way of creating tailored, high fashion garments so that all the pieces of a garment fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle and no waste was created. Conventional pattern cutting creates about 15% wastage of material, even if the pattern has been optimised by a computer. I wanted to systemically change the way clothing was made.

To design a garment with zero waste requires new patternmaking techniques, based on advanced mathematics. Author provided

But the problem with zero-waste design is that it is very difficult to create. It requires a skilled designer to simultaneously imagine the garment as a 3D item and a flat pattern, while trying to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw. It is easy to make an unfitted or baggy garment, but creating something that looks good and fits the body was a real challenge.

Even after all these years, most contemporary zero-waste fashion is still not tailored to the body. I practised this technique for years to master it. It required breaking all the rules of conventional pattern-making and creating new techniques based on advanced mathematics.

These were exciting times. Our fabrics were organic, we made everything locally and ensured everyone was paid an ethical wage. The press loved our story. But problems started to emerge when it came to sales. We had to sell more expensive garments, using a smaller range of fabrics – our materials and labour costs were higher than those of companies that produced overseas. Often fashion buyers would say they loved what we did, but after looking at the price tag would politely take their business elsewhere.

As a sustainable fashion designer, my impact was limited. It was also impossible to teach zero-waste fashion design without explaining how advanced mathematics applied to it. It was time to try a new approach, so I decided to apply science and maths to traditional fashion techniques.

My PhD research explored the underlying geometry of fashion pattern-making. Combining fashion with science allowed the traditional techniques and artistry of making garments to be explained and communicated to scientist and engineers.

Consumers have embraced fast fashion. Shutterstock

In the meantime, fast fashion companies rapidly expanded, with Zara, Topshop and H&M reaching Australia by 2011. They produced massive amounts of cheap products making low margins on each garment. Consumers quickly became addicted to the instant gratification of this retail experience. The size and scale of their production produced hundreds of tonnes of garments every day.

The limits of fashion technology

Fast fashion companies such as H&M have developed recycling initiatives in which consumers can exchange old clothing for discount vouchers. This is supposed to prevent clothing from going to landfill, instead recycling it into new clothing.

However, there are those who are sceptical of H&M’s recycling process. In 2016, investigative journalist Lucy Siegle crunched the numbers and concluded that “it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste”. This, she said, was the amount of clothing they produce in about 48 hours.

A 2016 H&M sustainability report reveals that only 0.7% of their clothes are actually made from recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials. In the report, H&M acknowledges :

Today, this is not possible because the technology for recycling is limited. For this reason, the share of recycled materials in our products is still relatively small.

In fact, their 2016 annual report states that more research is needed:

if a greater proportion of recycled fibres is to be added to the garments without compromising quality, and also to be able to separate fibres contained in mixed materials.

Sustainable technologies strive for a “circular economy”, in which materials can be infinitely recycled. Yet this technology is only in its infancy and needs much more research funding. H&M’s Global Change Award funds five start-up companies with a total of 1 million Euros for new solutions. Contrast this with the millions required by the most basic Silicon Valley start-ups or billions for major green technology companies such as Tesla or SolarCity. There is a dire need for disruptive new fashion technology.

Many of the promising new technologies require getting bacteria or fungi to grow or biodegrade the fabrics for us – this is a shift to researching the fundamental technologies behind fashion items.

For example, it takes 2700L of water and over 120 days to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt. However, in nature, bacteria such as “acetobacter xylinum” can grow a sheet of cellulose in hours. Clothing grown from bacteria has been pioneered by Dr Suzanne Lee. If a breakthrough can be made so that commercially grown cotton can be grown from bacteria, it may be possible to replace cotton fields with more efficient bacteria vats.

But why just stick with cotton? Fabrics can be generated from milk, seaweed, crab shells, banana waste or coconut waste. Companies such as Ecovate can feed fabric fibres to mushroom spore called mycelium to create bioplastics or biodegradable packaging for companies such as Dell. Adidas has 3D printed a biodegradable shoe from spider silk developed by AM silk.

Although I began my journey as a fashion designer, a new generation of materials and technologies has pulled me from the catwalk into the science lab. To address these complex issues, collaboration between designers, scientist, engineers and business people has become essential.

To clean up the past and address the waste problems of the future, further investment in fashion technology is urgently needed.

*This story first appeared on The Conversation

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Fashion Must Fight the Scourge of Dumped Clothing Clogging Landfills

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By Lucy Seigle

Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. At last the industry is acting – but more has to be done

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Stella McCartney’s winter 2017 collection was modelled against the backdrop of a landfill site. Photograph: Harley Weir and Urs Fischer for Stella McCartney

Facebook users will be familiar with the On This Day feature. From time to time it greets you with a blast from your relatively recent past. Some find it unnerving, especially if it’s a picture with an ex, for example. But my eye is always drawn to the clothes. Whatever happened to that handbag? Do you still wear those jeans?

If it’s an image from more than three years ago, then the answer is probably “no”. According to a recent report from Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years. For a younger demographic, you can probably halve that. A UK-based fashion company tells its buyers to remember that a dress will stay in the owner’s wardrobe for only five weeks.

The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK. While an estimated £30bn-worth hangs about gathering dust – Tinie Tempah’s refrain “I have so many clothes, I keep some at my aunt’s house” was spot on – an unpalatable quantity goes in the bin. A survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s last spring found that 235m items ended up on landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer. Surely we can do better than this?

Vivienne Westwood – never one to miss an opportunity to call her legion of fans to action – thinks we can. “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill,” she said recently at one of her own shows. Hot on her heels, Vetements, very much the “it” brand of our times, made its own statement last week. The label filled the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the commercial hotspots of global fashion retail – not with its latest collection, but with waste garments en route to a recycling charity.

But it was Stella McCartney who really upped the ante, electing to shoot her latest collection on a Scottish landfill site. Models lay across the rusted husks of old cars and languished on top of household waste. From a sustainability perspective, Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top-performing brand. Much of this success is based on McCartney’s own personal resolve. It’s clear that the landfill backdrop is not just an interesting aesthetic to her.

Now there’s an obvious contradiction between selling fashion and instructing us to buy less, but what these designers are calling for is some sanity in an industry now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet.

The fashion industry has developed a pretty terrible reputation – not least for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies. Four years ago, 1,133 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while producing clothing for high-street brands and their subsidiaries. After that, many worried what was next.

For those in and around the industry, garment waste has long been rumoured to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecast to increase as fashion waste becomes an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans. This is a tale of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionised both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced – and not often for the better.

Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and doesn’t make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory (and a large factory in Dhaka can produce 240m pieces a year).

There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced globally each year (predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka without waste management systems) but my own research puts it between 80bn and 100bn garments. That means a lot of hidden fashion waste.

Stella McCartney
Stella McCartney: according to parent company Kering, her brand is its best-performing subsidiary from a sustainability perspectiv. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Imaages for P&C and Fashion ID

Where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of big production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting room (called jhut) often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires a regular occurrence. But what happens to all the rest?

“You don’t even want to know,” says Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus, who spends a lot of time following unwanted garments out of factory gates. “You see it by the side of the road being sold, or just dumped, but a lot is burned,” she says. “I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can’t really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste.”

Meanwhile, the urge to buy grows stronger as clothes shopping takes on a quasi-addictive quality. And let’s be honest here, are the fast-fashion corporations with their extraordinary profits likely to do anything about consumption, the driver of waste and the driver of the industry’s impact? Their business model, after all, depends on it.

Increasingly these brands are signposting a way of allowing us to have our cake and eat it. They are buying into recycling schemes and investing in competitions to close the loop on textile fibres. The idea is that if they can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments, the impact of fast fashion can be negated.

The trouble is, it’s hard to buy into. I have been critical of brands overclaiming in this area before, particularly when I looked at the numbers around H&M’s recycling week in 2016. In truth, there are quite a few technical barriers to closing the fashion loop – that is, regenerating fibre from an old, unloved outfit, spinning and making it into something else, all within a timeframe and quality that’s interesting to the consumer.

“Every fabric is different,” says Aus, “so one garment might contain a blend of different fabrics. On top of that, you have to strip out the zippers and buttons inherent in post-consumer fashion waste.” So while a consumer may believe that a loved jumper or sundress is going to be magically regenerated into a new item, in practice your old T-shirt is probably going into a well-worn recycling network.

She and her team have developed software to keep track of potential garment waste data during production, which she is trialling with a large manufacturer: Beximco in Bangladesh. By getting information about the volume and material of leftover textiles, she can design that material back into a product before it becomes waste. “I’d rather not produce waste in the first place,” she reasons. “Plus, this is a better system for large brands who find recycling and regeneration difficult. That is easier for smaller, more agile companies.” This means some of fashion’s big lessons about its waste may come from unlikely parts of the apparel world. For once, the smaller companies have a chance to steal.

Tom Kay, the founder of Cornish outdoor brand Finisterre, is addressing a waste problem highly relevant to his customer and doesn’t care that it might seem niche to the rest of us. “The average neoprene wetsuit only lasts two years,” he says. “We’ve redesigned with wider seam tape and better stitching but it still only lasts probably for three. It would be disastrous for these things to be dumped, but there’s nowhere for them to go. That’s why you see them piled up in people’s garages.”

Last week, he launched an intriguing job advert in partnership with Exeter University: a £26,000-a-year position, paid by Finisterre, to be filled by a materials scientist who shares his dream of making wetsuits from wetsuits. “We don’t know how it will go, but I’m excited,” he said.

The Figures

■ Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing was purchased in the UK – an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012.

■ Fashion in the UK lasts an average of 3.3 years before a garment is discarded.

■ Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

■ Providing one tonne of clothing for direct re-use by giving it to a charity shop or selling it online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

*This story first appeared on The Guardian

Cradle to Cradle: Fashion’s Grave Reality

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The circular economy.

Closing the loop.

Cradle to cradle.

These are all phrases you may well have heard of. If not, best to familiarise yourself with them a.s.a.p. As our increasingly consumerist lifestyles reach tipping point, organisations are desperately trying to gather and reuse our rubbish, because otherwise, we may have nothing left to make anything with.

This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit was kicked off by someone I had, until that moment, not heard of: Bill McDonough. If you are as clueless as I was, take the next 14 minutes and 30 seconds to get to know him and his ideas a little better. You won’t regret it.

Interesting, right?

People were still clapping by the time I’d completed my purchase of his book, Cradle to Cradle.

Fashion’s grave reality

McDonough’s work is clearly applicable to the creation of many, if not all, products. But it is particularly relevant to clothing because this industry has arguably one of the most linear and wasteful cycles in modern society. And this cycle’s impact on the environment is exacerbated by its speed and the quantities involved.

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The fashion cycle: cradle to grave

With 92 million tonnes of textile waste being produced by the global fashion industry in 2015, corresponding to more than 12 kg per person, it’s clear that we are hemorrhaging valuable resources every second of every day.

So What Exactly is Being Wasted?

I recently wrote about the differences between natural and man-made fibres, and the importance, as a consumer, of understanding where these different fibres come from.

In particular, I highlighted popular man-made fibre polyester as the most used in clothing production today.

Polyester is derived from fossil fuels, one of our planet’s none renewable resources. A resource so valuable in fact, that it should be treated as a ‘nest egg’ McDonough suggests.

And yet, not only do we buy cheap, poorly made clothing using this precious resource, but we throw it out in such a way that these valuable materials cannot be retrieved.

Perhaps excavating landfill sites will be a common activity in the future?

How insanely backward would that be?

How Can the Fashion Industry Do It Better?

How can this regressive fashion industry transform itself into a regenerative one?

When it comes to fashion, and the materials we use, we can work to achieve a circular system in two ways:

By creating a “biological” cycle, whereby an item made with 100% natural fibres (wool for example), able to be broken down by bacteria, is reclaimed by nature into its vast ecosystem when we no longer want or require it.

clothing fashion lifecycle cradle to cradle biodegradable

The fashion cycle: cradle to cradle (biological)

Or a “technical” one, whereby the clothing we buy made of man-made fibres is designed in such a way that the fibres can be separated and reused in a never-ending production cycle, whilst not degrading in quality.

 

fashion clothing lifecycle recycle circular cradle to cradle

The fashion cycle: cradle to cradle (technical)

Some organisations are themselves working on large-scale collection schemes in their shops. These schemes provide them with the raw materials to experiment with ways of recycling fibres.TT

Unintelligent and Inelegant Things…

My favourite phrase from ‘Cradle to Cradle’ is: ‘products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant –what we call crude products

Everything we buy, and everything we do, is part of a bigger process.

We can’t know everything. But know this: as a wearer of clothes, what you chose to buy and wear really matters. Because with every purchase, you are telling the world who and what you support.

Choose not to buy cheap clothes from people who cannot tell you how or where their products are made.

Chose not to buy clothing from companies who ignore our collective responsibility to address the issues the fashion industry and, by default, we all face.

A product without background, without craftsmanship, made without thought or purpose or regard for the future is a product without beauty, without meaning and without worth.

It’s a crude purchase. Simple.

*This story first appeared on Study 34

What “Going Circular” Means for the Apparel and Textile Industry

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The apparel and footwear industry is forecast to generate double-digit growth to 2020 according to business analysts McKinsey & Co. One of the challenges is reconciling this growth with sustainability initiatives. As this report states it, “Sustainability and rapid business growth are not compatible; to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.”  The solution proposed is an alternative business model that is based on a closed-loop system.

A circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the circular economy as being “restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.” In striving to achieve greater environmental responsibility, the notion of a circular economy is the latest iteration in creating a blueprint for industry.

In his book, Closing the Loop, Brett Matthews asks whether this laudable aim of infinite recycling is in fact realistic. The report is divided into seven sections and concludes with actionable recommendations and further reading resources. The first section gives an overview of the issue, definitions, and the global and local challenges. The second section considers how these principles are applied largely using interviews with innovative thinkers, manufacturers and brands. The approach provides a clear introduction for readers new to the field, as well as more in-depth information and actionable strategies for those already implementing a sustainable plan.

Textile waste

In the U.S. there are an estimated 25 billion pounds of textile waste generated annually of which just 15 percent is donated or recycled, much of it shipped to African countries. In Uganda, 81 percent of all clothing sold is second hand, according to Dr Andrew Brooks, whose book Clothing Poverty investigates the connection between garment retailers and sub-Saharan poverty.

Recycling alone is clearly not enough. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is one of the initiatives that’s attracting much interest as a way of promoting recycling and end-of-life management. The European Union (EU) has already successfully implemented such schemes for the automotive and packaging industries. Voluntary measures are also not enough, but they do serve an important function with trial initiatives on a small scale, before larger investment is made. Ultimately, legislation is needed at an industry or global level.

Possible processes

Mechanical textile separation has been used with some success for quite a while, but the increase in blends and hybrid textiles, laminates and finishes make this process increasingly difficult. Chemical recycling is now receiving more attention and some funding – in Europe.

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Scale is a key issue in the sustained supply of quantity and quality of material ideally achieved locally to prevent increasing the carbon footprint. Solvay’s Move4earth is a European Union funded project that seeks to recycle airbags using a technology that allows them to separate the technical textile from its coating without any significant loss to the material properties.

The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have been developing a cellulose dissolution process for recycling cotton that reduces the water footprint by 70 percent and the carbon footprint by up to 50 percent.

In North America, Evrnu use a combination of chemical and mechanical processes to recycle post-consumer cotton garments. The process is designed to prevent off-gassing, reusing solvents and manage the environmental impact in a closed vat system. Importantly for the industry, it works within existing apparel business models.

Recommendations

“Going circular” successfully will require a varied but cohesive approach, and should include these considerations:

  • Whole system solution: The issue has to involve stakeholders at every stage, as textile innovation alone is not enough.
  • Collaboration: This needs to go beyond textile manufacturers and brands to include retailers.
  • Mechanical versus chemical recycling: Partnerships are crucial to achieve scalability and commercial success.
  • Complexity: More research is needed to determine the level of benefit measured against cost of development and implementation.

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitive Index (GMCI) report the U.S. is set to overtake China as the most competitive manufacturing nation within five years. This brings tremendous opportunity and responsibility for North America to take the lead in developing the principles of a circular economy for the apparel and textile industry. This has to be part of the innovation agenda if it is to be made to work environmentally and economically.

*This story first appeared on Advanced Textiles Source

Upcycling ‘Fast Fashion’ to Reduce Waste and Pollution

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Pollution created by making and dyeing clothes has pitted the fashion industry and environmentalists against each other. Now, the advent of “fast fashion” — trendy clothing affordable enough to be disposable — has strained that relationship even more. But what if we could recycle clothes like we recycle paper, or even upcycle them? Scientists report today new progress toward that goal.

The team will present the work at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Thursday. It features more than 14,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

“People don’t want to spend much money on textiles anymore, but poor-quality garments don’t last,” Simone Haslinger explains. “A small amount might be recycled as cleaning rags, but the rest ends up in landfills, where it degrades and releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Also, there isn’t much arable land anymore for cotton fields, as we also have to produce food for a growing population.”

All these reasons amount to a big incentive to recycle clothing, and some efforts are already underway, such as take-back programs. But even industry representatives admit in news reports that only a small percentage gets recycled. Other initiatives shred used clothing and incorporate the fibers into carpets or other products. But Haslinger, a doctoral candidate at Aalto University in Finland, notes that this approach isn’t ideal since the carpets will ultimately end up in landfills, too.

A better strategy, says Herbert Sixta, Ph.D., who heads the biorefineries research group at Aalto University, is to upcycle worn-out garments: “We want to not only recycle garments, but we want to really produce the best possible textiles, so that recycled fibers are even better than native fibers.” But achieving this goal isn’t simple. Cotton and other fibers are often blended with polyester in fabrics such as “cotton-polyester blends,” which complicates processing.

Previous research showed that many ionic liquids can dissolve cellulose. But the resulting material couldn’t then be re-used to make new fibers. Then about five years ago, Sixta’s team found an ionic liquid — 1,5-diazabicyclo[4.3.0]non-5-ene acetate — that could dissolve cellulose from wood pulp, producing a material that could be spun into fibers. Later testing showed that these fibers are stronger than commercially available viscose and feel similar to lyocell. Lyocell is also known by the brand name Tencel, which is a fiber favored by eco-conscious designers because it’s made of wood pulp.

Building on this process, the researchers wanted to see if they could apply the same ionic liquid to cotton-polyester blends. In this case, the different properties of polyester and cellulose worked in their favor, Haslinger says. They were able to dissolve the cotton into a cellulose solution without affecting the polyester.

“I could filter the polyester out after the cotton had dissolved,” Haslinger says. “Then it was possible without any more processing steps to spin fibers out of the cellulose solution, which could then be used to make clothes.”

To move their method closer to commercialization, Sixta’s team is testing whether the recovered polyester can also be spun back into usable fibers. In addition, the researchers are working to scale up the whole process and are investigating how to reuse dyes from discarded clothing.

But, Sixta notes, after a certain point, commercializing the process doesn’t just require chemical know-how. “We can handle the science, but we might not know what dye was used, for example, because it’s not labeled,” he says. “You can’t just feed all the material into the same process. Industry and policymakers have to work on the logistics. With all the rubbish piling up, it is in everyone’s best interest to find a solution.”

*This story first appeared on American Chemical Society

Levi’s Dreams Big to Lead Change in the Fashion Industry

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By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand will make all of its products from 100 per cent sustainable cotton as part of an ambitious plan to “close the loop” on its supply chain.

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Levi’s plans for 100,000 factory workers to be enrolled in its Worker Well-being programme in 11 countries, representing 60 per cent of its production volume. Image: Levis Strauss

Levi Strauss is dreaming big to close the loop on its manufacturing supply chain, and is looking to revolutionise the apparel sector with ideas that could shakeup the conventional notion of a fashion brand.

By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand plans to manufacture all of its products from sustainable cotton.

So in just eight years, the family-run US$4.5 billion firm will use less cotton sourced from cotton fields to make its famous 501s, relying instead on old clothes from people’s closets.

There is just one minor obstacle, though. The technology to turn worn cotton into a quality material that looks like denim hasn’t been invented yet.

But Michael Kobori, the vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, is the optimistic sort. “Anything is possible,” he tells Eco-Business.

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Michael Kobori, vice president, global sustainability, Levi Strauss

Currently, just a fraction of all the cotton Levi’s uses comes from recycled sources, with the rest coming from virgin cotton. To raise the ratio of recycled material will depend on innovations in science.

Recycling cotton involves first chopping up the unwanted clothes. This degrades the quality of the material, so only a limited amount can be used again to make new garments.

Levi’s is working with the technology sector to find a solution, and in May last year announced a venture with Seattle-based tech firm Evrnu to produce the first jeans made from regenerated post-consumer cotton waste.

A prototype was made from five discarded cotton t-shirts, and with 98 per cent less water than virgin cotton products.

Though some virgin cotton was used, Levi’s is claiming it is a breakthrough for a sector that, in the US alone, creates 13.1 million tonnes of textile waste a year, 11 million tonnes of which ends up in landfill.

Recycling old clothes may not be a perfect model for avoiding waste, but Levi’s nevertheless wants to get consumers into the habit.

Levis runs a programme in five major markets – Japan, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany – that gives customers a 15 per cent discount on a new Levi’s item if they donate any old clothes (they don’t have to be Levi’s) to be recycled.

The company is refining the initiative before rolling it out in other markets. “We’re trying to learn what works best for the consumer, and what our competitors are doing,” says Kobori.

Other apparel companies, such as H&M, the Swedish brand that pioneered the throwaway clothing culture known as “fast fashion”, run similar recycling schemes.

“We want to encourage consumers to recycle, but we also want to bring in a programme that is unique and differentiates us,” Kobori notes, adding that Levi’s sustainability initiatives are “open source,” so others can copy them.

The ROI of Healthy Factory Workers

Though it is not something the company shouts about in its advertising campaigns, sustainability has long been a point of difference for the 163 year-old brand.

Levi’s was not only the first apparel company, but the first multinational to introduce a labour code of conduct in 1991, to ensure that the workplace standards and business practices of its suppliers lived up to its own.

“When we developed the programme 25 years ago, it was a breakthrough,” says Kobori. “Before then, companies didn’t really think about the sustainability of their supply chains. It was thought to be the government’s job. Now protecting people’s rights is the bare minimum that companies should be doing.”

A quarter of a century on, as the global cotton industry supply chain has come under greater scrutiny, Levi’s is working to improve the lot of factory workers through its Worker Well-being programme.

The programme began in 2011 with a survey of factory workers in five key production bases, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti, to find out how their lives could be improved beyond the basic protection of their rights.

So what do factory workers, most of whom are women who have moved from the countryside to the city to work, want? Access to healthcare and financial services, according to the survey. These services are delivered through Levi’s vendors, with the help of NGOs.

The scheme started out as a pilot with five vendors and is now being expanded to 25 suppliers in 11 countries. This will mean better healthcare and financial support for 100,000 workers behind 60 per cent of the company’s production volume.

“By 2020, 80 per cent of our volume will be made through Worker Wellbeing vendors, and 100 percent by 2025,” says Kobori.

Benefits for workers makes good business sense, but factories often need convincing that the upfront cost is worth it, Kobori says.

“The business case has to be there if we’re asking vendors across the industry to do this,” he explains.

“Skilled workers are an increasingly precious commodity. Workers will move factories depending on who gives the best benefits. So vendors are looking for programmes that will help them reduce turnover and increase productivity,” he says.

Levi’s has been working with Harvard University to evaluate the Worker Well-being programme. Early findings show that for every dollar a vendor invests, they get three dollars backs in reduced turnover and increased productivity.

Beyond the Supply Chain

The supply chain has been the focus of Levi’s sustainability efforts, and the company also aims to expand its Water<Less programme, so that 40 per cent of its products are made using less water by 2020.

Now, it plans to move sustainability beyond the supply chain. “Brand, retail, marketing and operations – all are looking at ways to introduce a more sustainable approach,” says Kobori.

Levi’s is also looking to find business opportunities in sustainability. The company is planning to roll out its Levi’s Tailor Shops concept, where customers can get their old clothing repaired, altered or customised, beyond the United States and Japan.

“It’s not just about making garments last longer, but about opening up a potential new revenue stream for us,” Kobori explains.

Showing the business case for sustainability is key for a company that hasn’t had an easy ride in recent years, as increased competition from rival apparel brands now making denim, and currency fluctuation issues have hurt the bottom line.

But the sustainability function has remained intact despite a business overhaul, and return to revenue growth, led by president and chief executive officer Chip Bergh.

After five years of diligent work to turn around Levi’s economic issues, Levi’s finally saw an increase in revenue and profit. The company boasts three consecutive years of growth, many believe due to Bergh’s leadership.

“Our commitment to sustainability doesn’t change because the currency is fluctuating,” says Kobori, who adds that Levi’s sustainability budget has stayed “relatively constant” in recent years, and new initiatives continue to be added and existing programmes expanded.

Sustainability is key for a brand whose core target group and employee base are millennials – 50 per cent of Levi’s workforce belong to this young demographic, people who reached adulthood early this century. Millennials tends to care more about issues such as sustainably produced cotton, and less about Levi’s long heritage.

“For millennials, heritage may be less important, so brands need to stand for something,” says Kobori.

Sustainability is particularly important for Levi’s now, he says, given the change in government in the American brand’s home country and largest market, and also in key emerging markets such as China where millennials are increasingly discerning of how brands behave.

“Society is looking to the private sector to take the lead on the changes that people want to see in the world,” he says, pointing to an announcement from Bergh in support of the right of workers to migrate to the United States.

“He [Bergh] is not in favour of the travel ban that the [Trump] administration has issued, and employees responded with tremendous positivity to the stance he has taken. They’re looking for us to stand up for what’s right.”

“Sustainability is becoming more important for us,” adds Kobori. “Heritage is our bedrock, it’s who we are. But if we are able to articulate to the consumer that we also stand for the right causes and issues, we become much more contemporary and relevant.”

*This story first appeared on Eco-Business

End of Life vs. End of Use: Circular Economy, Getting More From the Clothes That We Wear

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by Leslie Johnston

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.

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Image: Still of the film Unravel, directed by Meghna Gupta

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.

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Image: Swishing Party, courtesy of swishing.com

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