Style trends may come and go but the apparel industry is increasingly accepting that sustainability will always be in fashion.
“We have the chance to shift the environment to a cleaner, more non-toxic place,” says Greg Altman, co-founder and CEO of Silk, a Boston-area maker of a proprietary liquid silk. “That’s really our goal.”
To that end, Silk announced last week that it raised $30 million from investors to deploy the company’s silk technology into the apparel market as a replacement for chemical coatings or dyes to improve fabric appearance or wear. The lead investor in the funding round was Jeff Vinik, former manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund and current owner of the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Founded in 2013, Silk first used the liquid silk in cosmetic formulations for its own branded skin care line.
“We’re trying to remove the toxic ingredients in the in the creams we apply and, in the clothing we wear, there are too many for us to ignore,” he says. “That’s what really led us into the pursuit of exploring our chemistry for textiles.”
Silk says its technology is made from non-GMO polymer threads of silkworm cocoons and is produced without petrochemical feedstock. Altman says the company will use the investment to expand production capabilities in order to meet apparel manufacturers’ demand. “We see huge opportunities in the luxury space: cashmere, wool, leather, the finest cotton,” he says. “I do believe any brand would make the switch if it’s economical and equal to chemicals.”
The industry is starting to respond. “One of the biggest challenges is how to continue to provide fashion for a growing population while improving the impact on the environment,” Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of retailer H&M (OCTMKTS: HNNMY), told Bloomberg in May. “We need to speed the shift toward waste-free models.”
H&M and other stores have helped to fuel the popularity of fast fashion—relatively inexpensive clothing that’s worn only a few times before being discarded. Due in part to the spread of fast fashion retailers, 20 new garments are manufactured per person each year, according to a 2017 World Resources Council report. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates that we are now buying 60 percent more clothing than we did in 2000 and using garments for half as long. Part of the reason also has to do with the convenience of e-commerce and ability to shop around for deals online, McKinsey says.
All of that consumption affects the environment. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Simply washing all of that clothing releases the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles into the ocean every year.
The London-based foundation is focused on developing a “circular economy” in textiles, ones that promotes more reuse and recycling. Among the foundation’s retail partners include H&M, which itself manages a three-year-old grant program called the Global Change Awards, which are designed to support innovations that make the fashion industry more sustainable.
American designer Eileen Fisher has created a new clothing line, called Renew, which makes new merchandise out of old Eileen Fisher garments that the company buys back from customers for $5. The company says it has recycled about 800,000 products since 2009.
In the startup world, companies like Aday and Circular Systems are developing technologies to produce textiles made from more sustainable fibers and technique. In addition to working with manufacturers that use renewables—think mills powered by solar energy—clothing line Aday developed patterns designed to reduce waste to a minimum, and it saves what scraps that are left for future garments. The New York startup has raised $3.1 million from investors such as H&M CO:LAB, H&M’s venture capital arm, and ADG, a consumer tech-focused fund. Aday has also developed a fabric made from 41 plastic water bottles, from which it makes its “Waste Nothing” jacket.
“We decided to call these experiments because we wanted to try things out on a small scale,” Aday co-founder Meg He said in a Fast Company article in July. “But, in the end, it will help us think about how to push the industry to have higher standards.”
(Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia has for decades recycled plastic bottles into polyester garments. The company’s shirts, jackets, and other items cost more than those sold by H&M and other fast fashion stores, though Patagonia intends for its products to be worn dozens or hundreds of times.)
In April, Circular Systems, a material sciences startup that is focused on converting agricultural, industrial, and consumer waste into textile fibers, received a $350,000 grant from the H&M Foundation. Among the technologies it’s developing is what Circular Systems calls the Agraloop Bio-Refinery, which can convert food crop wastes into fiber from banana trunks, pineapple leaves, sugarcane bark, and stems from oilseed hemp and flax plants.
In 1960, 97 percent of clothing fibers came from plants and animals. Today, it’s about 35 percent, with most clothing being made from petrochemical-derived textiles. The impact will not only adversely impact the environment, but ultimately, the industry itself, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states: “If nothing is done, these severe weaknesses are expected to grow exponentially with dramatic environmental, societal, and economic consequences, ultimately putting industry profitability at risk.”