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Perspectives: Fashion and textile companies and sustainability

The New Cool

Plant-based leather, natural dyes, recycled materials and the likes. More and more brands are launching environmentally friendly collections and are advertising their sustainable efforts. How is this changing the market? What kind of new partnerships are there? And which promising innovations will shape the industry in the coming years? Here is an overview.

May 2021

Social injustice, unstable supply chains and huge mountains of waste – it is no longer a secret that the fashion industry is a dirty industry. During the past year, these shortcomings became even more evident because of the Coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, consumers had enough time to clean out their wardrobes and reconsider their consumption habits. There has been a general rethink and growing interest in sustainable alternatives and people have started to use resources more consciously. Now fashion suppliers have picked up on the change. Today there is hardly a company not addressing the issue, whether it is by using recycled fabrics and natural materials or shifting to carbon-neutral shipping. A rethink is going on in the industry.

Sustainable innovations

Leather made from mushrooms, non-toxic dyes and recycled nylon yarn are only three of the increasing number of resource-friendly materials and processes entering the market. Since 2009, US biotechnology company Bolt Threads has been working on a plant-based alternative to leather, which is free from animal products. Mylo, the leather that is not leather, is obtained from mycelium, or fungal cells. Bolt Threads produces the material in its laboratories with mulch, air and water. The result is a material that not only looks like real leather it is also as robust as real leather and has a similar structure. It is used for shoes, sportswear and bags. As soon as this summer, German sports brand Adidas will launch sneakers made from the mushroom leather as part of the group's "Own The Game" sustainability strategy. “We feel that with Mylo and the way we brought Mylo to life in a shoe, we are really innovating in leather,” said David Quass, Adidas global director for brand sustainability. Yoga brand Lululemon, luxury goods group Kering and designer Stella McCartney have also started using Mylo.

A blue innovation – more than one billion pairs of jeans are produced worldwide every year. The manufacturing and dyeing of a single pair of jeans consumes 6,000 to 10,000 litres of water and uses countless toxic chemicals. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every year, roughly 20,000 people die from the impact chemicals have on their health. For years, Austrian fibre producer and Texprocess exhibitor Lenzing has been working on making production processes more sustainable. The group’s new Indigo Color Technology makes it possible to dye denim fabrics without chemicals and uses less water.  The technology integrates the blue colour pigments directly into the fibres. “The Indigo Color technology has set new standards for the use of indigo and for sustainability in the denim industry by revolutionising traditional production processes and implementing our forward-thinking technology in combination with renewable and environmentally friendly materials,” says Florian Heubrandner, Vice President Global Textiles Business at Lenzing AG. Under the mottos “Sustainability at Techtextil” and “Sustainability at Texprocess”, Lenzing presented its innovations at the past editions of leading trade shows Techtextil and Texprocess. Since 2019, the events have been focusing explicitly on their exhibitors’ sustainability approaches.

While industry leaders are looking for more sustainable alternatives, more and more big fast fashion brands are also showing interest. Whether it is “H&M Science Story Collection”, “Zara Join Life Line” or “Small steps. Big impact. By Zalando”, many well- known brands, retailers and catalogue companies are making sustainability statements.  This year, for instance, H&M will start a digital information initiative represented by British actress Maisie Williams in her role of Global Sustainability Ambassador. In animated video games, customers can talk to Williams’s avatar and learn more about recycling and circularity. For its Science Story Collection, H&M uses Desserto, a plant-based leather obtained from cactus, and EVO by Fulgar, an environmentally friendly yarn made from castor oil.

Sustainability or greenwashing?

With all that is going on in the industry, it has become increasingly difficult for consumers to judge the brands’ sustainability activities correctly. Many brands advertise sustainability in their campaigns, but what really happens in production is not really transparent. To better understand the interests of customers and react in the best way to their interests, international fashion platform Zalando has surveyed 2,500 consumers in the UK, Sweden, Italy, France and Germany on the issue. The resulting report “It Takes Two” shows that for two-thirds of customers transparency is important when shopping but only 20% actively seek information. For more than 50% of respondents, ethical working conditions are relevant but less than half actually know anything about them. To make it possible for consumers to shop more consciously, Zalando is introducing search filters such as animal protection, reuse of materials, water protection and reduced emissions, that now allow interested customers to sort fashion digitally in a way to be able to shop in a more conscious and sustainable way. “Our role as a platform is to enable ourselves, our brand partners, and our customers to make more sustainable choices, inspire collaborative action and long-lasting change,” says Kate Heiny, Director Sustainability at Zalando.

From old to new

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Another trend that many brands are now picking up is the recycling of materials. US outdoor brand The North Face has committed to the exclusive use of recycled or renewable materials in its production by 2025. As part of that goal, the brand will launch the re-commerce platform “The North Face Renewed” in May. Customers can buy repaired and refurbished products at low prices on the platform. Another pioneer in terms of recycling is Dutch jeans producer and Neonyt exhibitor MUD Jeans. The company uses 100% organic cotton and recycled organic cotton to produce its jeans. Only a few weeks ago, MUD Jeans teamed up with Swedish furniture specialist Ikea. The unusual couple have designed two new designer denim covers for an Ikea couch, made 60% of organic cotton and 40% of recycled jeans. The furniture retailer had already presented sustainable home and contract textiles solutions at Heimtextil in Frankfurt in 2020. During the panel discussion “Securing the future of coming generations – sustainable strategies for producers and retailers”, industry experts talked about the challenges producers are facing as part of the shift towards sustainability and which innovations can help in the process. For the next Heimtextil in 2022, Trend Council has already announced first trends including New Work, Sustainability and Future Materials. In the future, sustainable materials and production processes will play a primary role at trade shows.

Sustainability is the new cool. Whether it is recycling, environmentally friendly materials or less water consumption, the industry is facing an upheaval and is becoming increasingly aware of its responsibility. As part of the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations, 193 countries have committed to more sustainability. The agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which can be achieved only if the fashion and textile industries pull in the same direction. In its function as a global marketplace for textile products, Messe Frankfurt has been cooperating with the United Nations Office for Partnerships (UNOP) since 2019, with the intention to make a real contribution. Texpertise Network, the Messe Frankfurt platform covering 60 leading textile events worldwide, has wholly committed itself to the SDGs by integrating the 17 goals into events across the world. For upcoming Frankfurt Fashion Week, for instance, exhibitors, buyers and stakeholders must pledge to follow the SDGs by 2023 at the latest. “Change is in the air, the past years have made that clear. Even before Covid-19. To create a new system, however, we need a macrosocial rethink, a long-term and sustainable rethink, a ‘New Normal’, so to say,” says Olaf Schmidt, Vice President Textiles & Textile Technologies at Messe Frankfurt. “How that works? It works when everybody in the value chain is appreciated and resources are used carefully,” he concludes.

Sarah Malik


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