Material production accounts for the highest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions across a product’s lifecycle. For retailers to achieve their net zero goals by 2050, sustainable ranges need to transcend recycled polyester and organic cotton.
Using EDITED data, we unpack the growth of conscious materials and the innovations from sustainably-minded retailers to help reverse fashion’s detrimental impact on the planet. As the climate crisis accelerates, sourcing more responsible fabrics should be on every retailer’s radar.
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With microplastic shedding and investment in recycled polyester surging, consider incorporating this material in products that don’t need to be washed, like handbags or footwear.
Retailers are relinquishing their reliance on cotton as prices inflate, reflecting the growing demand for other plant-based materials and energy-efficient fibers like hemp, bamboo, flax and jute.
Innovations in mushroom, apple, grape and cactus materials have dominated headlines. However, the bulk of vegan products in the market contain synthetics, indicating there is still work to be done scaling zero-plastic sustainable leather.
Regenerative farming and responsible agriculture need to be on retailers’ radars to promote biodiversity. Look to incorporate certified, traceable and sustainably-farmed wool and cellulose fibers.
Trailblazers are reimagining the future of sustainable fabrics with squid DNA to combat microplastic pollution and cross-industry recycling to repurpose fossil raw materials.
The Polyester Paradox
Fashion’s most popular and problematic fabric, polyester, accounted for 57% of global fiber production in 2020 and is projected to reach 67% by 2030. To offset its environmental impact, retailers including adidas and Stella McCartney, have pledged to phase out virgin polyester by 2024-2025 in favor of more carbon-friendly recycled polyester. This is the most widely-adopted component, with 37% of products described as “sustainable” containing some level of recycled polyester.
Of the polyester products in the market, 11% is described as recycled, up from 5% a year ago. Despite the levels of overproduction and textile waste, most recycled polyester in the market comes from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, not recycled garments. These can’t be recycled at scale and still cause microplastic shedding, damaging waterways and marine life, and have been recently detected in the human bloodstream for the first time.
Athleta Homepage US – Mar 24, 2022
Where to Invest
Conventional Cotton Alternatives
The water and energy use associated with conventional cotton has led retailers to seek more conscious alternatives. Products described with organic cotton components have seen a 17% growth YoY, mostly found in T-Shirts. Recycled cotton is not yet as widely adopted but has seen an even more significant increase of 125% YoY. While some brands like Ganni prioritize it, others like Original Favorites avoid it. Recycled cotton often needs to be blended with other fibers to improve the quality, making it harder to recycle at a later stage.
Despite still being the go-to fiber, retailers are diversifying their assortments with other natural alternatives to neutralize inflated cotton prices. Hemp has seen an upswing of 15% YoY, with retailers including Levi’s, PANGAIA, Everlane, Madewell and Eileen Fisher experimenting with it for denim, tees and workwear. The use of bamboo in material compositions has grown 5% YoY, with retailers capitalizing on its softness and absorbency for sportswear, underwear and babywear. Jute is already a stalwart material in homeware and footwear and is poised for significant growth in 2027 for apparel and handbags.
Leather has experienced a plant-based overhaul, driven by retailers investing in animal-free options to minimize their footprint. In-house alternatives have been launched with Gucci’s Demetra material made from sustainable, renewable, and bio-based sources. Vegea, a material made with grape waste from the wine industry, is favored at Ganni and PANGAIA. Apple leather is a popular alternative for footwear, as noted at Vivienne Westwood, VIRÓN, Coperni, Zilver and Dorothee Schumacher.
Cactus leather has been incorporated at Kurt Geiger, SAYE and SENTIENT, while Stella McCartney and Lululemon have pioneered mushroom alternatives. The market hasn’t widely adopted bio-based leathers despite these investments. Products described as vegan are still dominated by synthetics, further adding to plastic pollution. The Fall 2022 runways also made a case for recycled and traceable leather, which should also be considered to help offset the methane emissions and soil degradation of livestock farming.
Breaking down a product into its original fibers to create a new textile has been dubbed the holy grail of circular fashion processes. However, due to the complex blends of fibers, yarns and dyes within modern garments, this process only accounts for 1% of apparel recycled. Promising chemical techniques that can give regenerated threads the same characteristics as virgin polyester exist yet require significant investment from retailers to scale. PANGAIA has signed a multi-year deal with Infinited Fiber Company to dissolve textile waste to a molecular level to reuse the cellulose into new products that can be recycled infinitely. PUMA has piloted a material-to-material recycling process to make new football kits out of old ones.
Water-saving techniques for denim manufacturing have seen a considerable investment, with these styles up 32% YoY. Retailers spanning Levi’s, UNIQLO, John Elliott, and Banana Republic are all favoring this approach. Alongside water reduction, denim buyers also need to consider more eco finishes, such as alternatives to pumice stone washes that generate high carbon emissions and cut out harsh chemicals like PP (potassium permanganate) in favor of neutral enzymes in cold recycled water.
Regenerative farming and agriculture are integral to the sustainability of the materials produced. Conscious and traceable wool has grown 38% YoY, with retailers certifying products with the Responsible Wool Standard and The Good Cashmere Standard to meet land management and people and animal welfare requirements. Though not yet as commonplace, recycled wool components have experienced a 113% increase YoY, with Chloé and Reformation favoring recycled cashmere.
With the water and solvents used in producing these fibers recycled through a closed-loop process, accounting for 95% less water than cotton, cellulosic materials are a popular sustainable alternative. The wood pulp must come from sustainably managed, certified and monitored forests. After 2021’s COP summit pledge to reduce deforestation, this needs to be high on retailers’ radars. Retailers can avoid greenwashing when investing in these fibers by specifying a certified brand such as TENCEL™ to ensure the fibers are produced responsibly.
Areas of Innovation
So what’s next? Here’s what forward-thinking brands are experimenting with.
Bubbling up within sustainable sneakers, Cole Haan has experimented with dandelion rubber, Louis Vuitton’s Charlie trainers contain corn fiber and Blueview launched biodegradable shoes with algae foam EVA soles.
Transforming unconventional materials into yarn is being explored at textile manufacturer Fulgar, reusing fossil raw materials at the end of their lifecycle. Its created Q-Cycle® yarn, a new nylon from tires destined for landfill.
Natural indigo and turmeric dyes are used at HARA, while Gabriela Hearst’s Fall collection was colored with recycled wood, citrine and watermelon. Fashion for Good is piloting low carbon black dye derived from waste feedstocks.
Louis Vuitton & HARA
Some innovations to help tackle the issue include Tandem Repeat Technologies’ self-healing, shedding-resistant fiber based on squid DNA and PANGAIA’s laser surface enhancement technology, so fibers don’t split off in the wash.
LifeLabs launched recycled bedding and sleepwear designed to keep people cool at night as decreasing the thermostat by two degrees is estimated to save 400 pounds of carbon per household per year.
Details & Trims
Sustainable fastenings and threads shouldn’t be overlooked, as their components will contribute to a garment’s ability to be recycled. UNLESS Collective innovates with buttons made from Corozo nuts.
LifeLabs & UNLESS Collective
Enjoyed this report? For more sustainability content, see our data unearth How Fast Fashion Can Slow Down.
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