Sustainability, can be a complex term to define, but it is usually applied to two different fields of study: environmental sustainability and social sustainability.
In fashion, it is Environmental Sustainability that takes center stage in conversations around the “race to replace plastics” and reduce the impact that fast fashion has on our world today. We are seeing tremendous initiatives sponsored by governments around the globe that limit harmful chemicals, focus on renewable energy sources, invent biodegradable fibres and implement new ideas to take charge of our rate of self-destruction. In this blog, we plan to expand on the unique nature of solving environmental sustainability issues, how they come to be and the things to look out for as designers and brands of fashion. We also have linked to the companies, organizations, and brands we mention so you can continue to research on your own!
Brand Shout Out – Taiwan-based footwear brand WXY featured their innovative wood-based heels with real live algae insert at Premiere Classe Show organized by WSN, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Natural Materials.
Right off the bat one of the coolest developments in sustainable fashion has been the work done in the field of plant-based yarns and natural materials. The movement toward seaweed fibre and eucalyptus fibre is popular as eucalyptus and seaweed are renewable resources that require less water and pesticides compared to other crops like cotton. Additionally, the production of eucalyptus fibre (TENCEL™ Lyocell) and seaweed fibre (SeaCell™ by SMARTFIBER) use closed-loop manufacturing processes that recycle and reuse solvents, reducing waste and pollution.
Seaweed fibre has natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that can be beneficial for the skin. Additionally, eucalyptus fibre is hypoallergenic and gentle on the skin, making it a suitable option for those with sensitive skin. There are also new innovations emerging with Banana leaf and Pineapple leaf fibres.
One of the latest developments in plant-based materials is the use of recycled plant-based materials such as REFIBRA™ which is a yarn made from upcycled cotton scraps and post-consumer cotton waste. These recycled cotton scraps are left over from the production process of Tencel and Modal. These are broken down into cellulose fibres, which are then blended with wood pulp to create a new fibre that is both sustainable and eco-friendly and is made by Lenzing Group, an Austrian company known for its innovative and sustainable textile fibres, including Tencel and Modal.
Brand Shout Out – Ganni showcased the Bou bag which is made from 48% orange and cacti waste combined with recycled plastic. The leather alternative demonstrates the brand’s commitment to phasing out virgin leather by 2023.
Let’s talk about another cool initiative happening in the world of sustainable material research and that is bio-based materials. Bio-based materials are derived from renewable resources and can have a lower carbon footprint than traditional petroleum-based materials. Biodegradable plastics, for example, can break down naturally in the environment, reducing waste and pollution.
Brand Shout Out – Notpla (UK) and Sway (US) have developed algae-based clear flexible plastics which outperform conventional plastics and run on existing machinery. Notpla also won Grand Prize in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Contest with their innovation in seaweed-based plastics.
When it comes to apparel brands, there is a race toward replacing synthetics and major players are investing significant dollars into chemical companies (Lululemon invested in Geno for example). This leaves limited options for smaller brands trying to be sustainability competitive. There are some new innovations available on the open market. These alternatives use feedstocks like castor beans, corn, cassava, wheat, or sugar instead of oil, resulting in yarns with a lower carbon footprint. We would recommend EVO® Nylon by Fulgar as it’s derived from castor beans and supplied by a reputable supplier available to smaller brands.
It can be very confusing in the “bio yarn” space when choosing yarns as some “bio yarns” are not from renewable sources but instead, use petroleum-based materials with an additive that enhances their biodegradability despite being made from non-bio petroleum-based materials. Here are a few to watch for: CiCLO® Textiles, Amni Soul Eco® by Solvay, GreenOne by Nan Ya Plastics, and EcoPure by Lenzing Group.
Brand Shout Out – äktiiv (US) is setting out to produce plant-powered, carbon-neutral and biodegradable activewear, made from castor beans, eucalyptus and seaweed. Two years in development, the new brand is showing a commitment to sustainability by innovating their entire supply chain right down to the biodegradable packaging and biodegradable Spandex.
When customers request “sustainably produced” items, it’s essential to recognize that this is a broad term that requires breakdown into specific categories like social and environmental sustainability, which can then be assessed accordingly. To measure social sustainability, choosing to work with a Fairtrade-certified factory ensures that the workers involved in producing the goods are treated ethically, paid a fair wage, and work in safe and humane conditions. This helps to prevent any instances of exploitation, forced labour, or discrimination in the workplace. Other equally acceptable certifications that reputable suppliers are likely to carry are WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) or Social Accountability International System 8000, which all promote sustainable social practices.
For environmental sustainability at the factory level, only a few certifications provide comprehensive regulations, and it’s rare to see them implemented. The ISO – International Organization for Standardization’s ISO14001 is the highest environmental standard that a factory can attain, aimed at monitoring and improving natural resource disposal, use of renewable energy sources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to ensure environmental compliance. The factory must also meet the lower ISO9001 quality management system standard as a step towards achieving the ISO14001 certification by improving internal workflows and systems. Additionally, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute certification considers the factory’s environmental impact throughout the supply chain and is considered the gold standard of all certifications available.
Factory Shout Out – Pictured here is the factory we work with in India who is a Cradle to Cradle certified factory. They offer the highest level of production in the world, and they have even gone as far as installing solar panels for renewable energy sources and use rainwater feedbacks in the production process, which is an impressive feat!
Using recycled polyester or nylon helps to reduce waste as it repurposes plastic bottles and other plastic waste materials that would otherwise end up in landfills or oceans. Additionally, the production of recycled polyester typically uses less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases than the production of virgin polyester, making it a more sustainable option. There are several certifications that help to determine if the polyester or nylon is in fact derived from recycled materials.
The Global Recycled Standard or the Recycled Claim Standard can help verify the percentage of recycled content. Keep in mind these standards are lower than the public realizes with 50% recycled content being enough recycled content to carry the certification. The OEKO-TEX® standard is even lower with only 20% recycled content required for the standard. The scary part is that these are the yarns with certifications and many un-branded yarns would have less.
Despite this, there are some branded recycled yarns available with high levels of recycled content such as REPREVE® polyester or nylon with 100% recycled content, ECONYL® Nylon which is 100% recycled Nylon from waste materials, and CYCLEAD from Toray Industries Inc. is a brand that uses 100% recycled materials.
Yarn Shout Out – Repreve U-Trust system and Fulgar Q-Nova fibre have implemented tracking systems into the yarn to be able to certify claims of recycled origin to give customers peace of mind about their sustainability claims.
Why all this talk of PFAs? This February, a call from five EU national authorities to ban perfluoroalkyl and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAs) was published by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). This would be one of the largest chemical bans in Europe if passed. PFAs are used to make items non-stick, water-resistant, and stain-resistant and are found in goods such as mobile phones, cooking pans, nail polish and raincoats.
Leading the ban of PFAs in fashion retail, US-based outdoor wear company REI has committed to stop selling products containing PFAs by autumn 2024, ahead of California’s ban on the substances, set to take effect on January 1, 2025.
Many brands have taken action on this mandate even years ago with Polartec committing to eliminate all PFAs in the DWR treatments across its line of products back in 2021.
Some speculate that citizens are taking advantage of new regulations and suing companies for claiming “PFA free” but finding PFA’s on their products. It’s possible that PFAs travel to products during the retail sales process, so it’s important to claim where the testing has been established not to overexpose the claim. Avoiding the term PFC-free altogether would be a good start, and claiming that all materials passed a PFC testing, where documentation could be prided is a safe way to make the claim.
As a designer or brand, it’s important to know which items are at risk and how to avoid them. Looking for certifications such as Bluesign Technologies or OEKO-TEX® 100 certification means that the textile passes all regulations on harmful substances from the supply chain. The regulation is updated yearly and is managed globally to pass all countries’ restrictions for harmful chemicals, so it’s a good one to look out for on all synthetic yarns, 3-layer fabrics, and non-woven’s. If there isn’t a certification already listed on the textile or finished brand you are using, the testing can be done by a third-party, such as Intertek’s PFC testing package, which is comprehensive and up-to-date.
Contact us if you need more information on anything sustainable!