Sustainability is Give and Take & Recycling Textiles is Flawed: What I’ve Learned in the First 2 Months Developing a Sustainability Startup
In September my life turned upside down when I won the Polimoda Talent Award. The annual award is granted to two alumni of Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design and Marketing and supports the development of their business. One moment I was working my 9–6 job at Zalando in Berlin, and the next I was on a flight back to the Tuscan capital, Florence.
For the next six months, I would be creating a company that would help make the fashion industry more sustainable. At the time I didn’t know what to expect, I had my idea and Polimoda was going to connect me with mentors to make it happen.
What was the idea that won me the award? Well, I can’t disclose everything, but it revolves around making a hub for designers and students to connect with sustainable textile suppliers, and learn about designing sustainably.
Now I am a little over two months into the project, and wow, I knew sustainability in the fashion industry was complex, but I had no idea of the true magnitude. Before starting the project I had very limited interaction with the material production side of the fashion industry, so I was starting from the ground up.
I have been diving headfirst into all things sustainability, materiality, production, and procurement. I am starting to understand the complexities of fashion’s difficult relationship with sustainability.
I would like to share my learnings because if there is one key takeaway from what I’ve learned so far it’s that if we want to see a change we need to share knowledge and promote collaborations across the industry.
That is what I have learned so far:
Sustainability is Give and Take
Embedding sustainability into the fashion system is not a straightforward topic, it’s not a simple black and white decision. It’s multifaceted and needs to be approached with a holistic view.
The truth is that each step of the value chain in fashion makes an impact, for example in Material Development and Production you have to consider:
- Pesticides used in growing natural fibers
- Water usage in cultivation and production
- GMO fibers
- Working conditions of farmers/factory workers
- Animal Welfare
- Use of oil in synthetics
- Energy Use in production
- Waste Materials
- Chemical usage in dying
- Toxic Runoff
As you can imagine where you save in one area, could have a direct effect on another impact area. For example, if you are recycling a textile, you will need to use toxic chemicals to break down the fiber to make a new one (synthetics) or you will have to use a machine to brush the fibers in the case of natural fibers, which has an energy impact. Making it essential to test the “shockwave” effects of your sustainability decision to weigh out the pros and cons.
Recycling Textiles is Flawed
Recycled textiles are the big hype at the moment, and I don’t mean to rain on the parade because it is a step in the right direction, but it can’t solve all of fashion’s problems, at least not in the way it’s being approached currently.
Recycling textiles as outlined in the example above can cause more energy or chemical usage within the value chain, however, that’s not the only problem. Other problems can come up stemming from how we currently produce textiles and design garments. As well as the quality issues output that comes with recycling natural fibers.
In textile production, it is common practice to blend materials to achieve certain usability or touch. This can be a big problem when it comes to recycling textiles. Specifically, if you mix across fiber families, for example, Wool (natural fiber) mixed with Polyester (synthetic fiber), it is near impossible to separate the fibers in the textile and break them down into their original fiber form.
Learning this left me with the question: If a fiber is a wool polyester blend, but the polyester is created from recycled plastic, is this still considered a sustainable textile?
This is a question I am still trying to answer because on one hand, it is sustainable in the use of a natural regenerative material (wool) and a synthetic that uses recycled plastic, therefore, saving the use of new oil, a raw nonrenewable resource (recycled polyester). However, this material cannot be recycled at the end of its life nor biodegrade. If you have thoughts on this, I would be happy to hear them. My current conclusion is like with most things in sustainable fashion at the moment, I feel like it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not the final answer to making fashion sustainable.
The other issue I would like to highlight with recycling textiles is specific to recycling natural fibers like cotton, wool, linen, etc. These fibers often lose quality when they are recycled. Each time a natural fiber is recycled it loses length, with natural fibers the longer the fiber the higher the quality in terms of strength and luster. Since the fibers are natural they are only as long as they are in nature, for example, the length of a sheep’s fur.
Since they lose length each time they are recycled they often need to be mixed with virgin material to maintain their level of quality. This is especially true with cotton which can be considered a short fiber to start. So you can be certain that a shirt is being marketed as recycled cotton only has a small percentage of recycled cotton, and if it says 100% recycled cotton, I would be wary of the quality.
The other option that is often done with recycling cotton is turning it into a cellulosic material and then making it into a synthetic fiber such as rayon. As always this has pros and cons associated with it, while it saves trees which are normally where cellulosic material is extracted from to create rayon, it does need to go through a chemical process to break the cotton down into cellulose, then, of course, it still needs to go through the process of becoming a synthetic material which can be done with another chemical process or preferably a mechanical process.
The Designer and Brands Responsibility
It’s essential that along with the textile production’s focus on recyclability, the designers and brands have a responsibility to play as well
The recyclability of a garment also comes down to how it was designed. Besides the textile that is used to create the garment, there are multiple materials used to craft a full garment such as metals, threads, and adornments. If a top is made with 900 sequins sewn onto it each one would need to be removed by hand before the textile could be recycled. If a textile uses multiple textiles like a jacket lining, they will need to be cut apart before they can be recycled.
Finally, to close the entire loop and recycle the garment, the end-user needs to know what to do with their article at the end of its life. Something I have found frustrating recently, especially with luxury brands, marketing their use of “circular” materials. This is concerning because the marketing screams circular or recyclable and nowhere in the communication do they inform the customer how/where to recycle the garment. It’s great that they are using a material that *can* be circular but if they don’t inform the final customer on how to close the loop, we are still in the same old linear fashion system of make, take, and dispose of.