When we first founded GRN Sportswear in 2014 there were a small handful of “sustainable” fabrics on the market that were suitable for our cycling clothing, and not many suppliers were engaged in the development of new fabrics, or innovating in this space. Fast-forward 5 years and it’s amazing to see such a huge range of companies developing and displaying sustainable fabrics. It’s a mark of how much consumer demand has risen for “eco-friendly” products that a whole textile fair is now dedicated to sustainability.
It’s a hugely positive first step, and according to the Chinese Philosopher Lao-Tze "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". But as Dr Rudiger Fox (CEO of Sympatex) put it “we need to radicalise sustainability”.
For a clothing company that is as much about technological innovation as it is about changing the questions that we ask. Should we develop a new recycling system capable of handling even the most complex mix of fibres in a garment, or should we consider instead whether that new complex fibre combination is really needed? Perhaps we should consider educating customers in the environmental impacts of products, and allowing them to decide whether they really need that 1% extra performance when they consider the environmental cost of complex fabric design. We aren’t all climbing 8000m peaks or racing at a pro-level every day so do all of our clothes need to be ready for this all of the time, making them much harder to recycle at the end of their life?
As Anne Prahl (Sustainability Consultant) said in a fascinating Q&A about monomaterial manufacture, we may need to “De-innovate” in order to make garments more recyclable in future. But that may not need to be at the cost of performance. Dr Fox recalls that in their quest to develop more sustainable fabrics they have limited themselves to searching for 100% polyester fabric/laminate combinations, which in turn has driven the development of their technology to yield real performance gains from monomaterial fabrics.
I had a great talk with Stephen Hobday from Polygiene, who have introduced a highly effective combination of fabric finishes to embed both bacterial control and odour control into fabrics for life. Imagine a gym kit that doesn’t smell. Ever. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ever wash it, but if you can reduce the amount of washing by half then you can drastically reduce energy and water consumption of the ‘in-use’ stage, you can increase longevity of your garment, and reduce microfibre shedding too.
What about the innovations happening at the end of the life of a garment? There was a lot of discussion about whether this should be the responsibility of the brand to take back and recycle garments, or whether this should be done through existing municipal recycling collections. The former makes it a lot easier to separate garments by fabric, but is very difficult to scale, the latter achieves instant scale but poses a technological challenge of how to separate the myriad of fibres present in your the recycling bin. The "brand recycles" approach is a great way of engaging consumers but I can't see that every being a global solution.
The company that can unlock the mixed-fibre challenge are sitting on a gold-mine of resources that would otherwise go to landfill or be incinerated (optimistically called "thermal recycling ..."). Organisations like Worn Again and Ambercycle are doing amazing work to solve specific challenges in textile recycling, but broad-spectrum recycling capable of handling a wide mix of fibres is a way off yet. My bet is that we’re about 5 years away from commercialisation of that type of textile recycling technology, I hope I’m proved pessimistic in this.
Am I happy that the industry sees the potential in sustainable fabrics? 100% ... Recycled and ever-recyclable fabrics are one of the key ways that we can start to limit the obscene resource use and environmental impacts of the fashion industry. It’s a great first step but we have some way to go until we reach genuine circularity, on a global scale. With the help of the innovators and industry leaders attending Performance Days this month I'm optimistic that we'll get there.