Pioneering Collaboration Transforms Garments and Fashion Waste into Recyclable Materials

You would be hard-pressed to find a more frequently used buzz word in fashion than ‘sustainability’, right now.  Following its use, the obvious question is often, “but what do you mean by sustainable”.  Both a problem and a solution, sustainability runs a broad gamut including textile and garment manufacturing practices, to chemistry and materials science, then finally product sales, consumption and usage patterns.  Digging deeper, what underlies this urgent and growing focus on sustainability in the global fashion industry is the fact that is it the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas, but you probably know that by now.  Why does that suddenly matter to many fashion brands and companies?  Why are brands adopting “sustainability”.  Broadly speaking, it is because of threats to profit margins (caused by increasing cost of natural resources and materials which are in sharp decline) and potential backlash from consumers who are beginning to understand the fashion industry’s wasteful methods are damaging the planet and its people.

To understand the environmental implications of the current methods used in the fashion industry it is helpful to understand the volume of resources (including energy and water) we use to make our clothes and how much use we get out of those clothes.  Remembering that the planet’s resources are finite – we don’t have an endless supply of fossil fuels to burn to create electrical energy to power manufacturing and we don’t have endless access to clean water for growing cotton and dyeing processes), it follows that a circular way of manufacturing makes more sense than a linear one.   

To differentiate between circular and linear using the example of jeans – If it takes up to 10,000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans and we wear them for a matter of months then throw them in the bin, never to be used again, this linear process depletes resources catastrophically.  However, if those jeans could be turned into new materials (rather than thrown in the bin) that are themselves recyclable, then the resources used to manufacture those jeans provide products for a long and circular life – a perpetual one that is energy efficient and reduces the burden of future manufacturing and reduces the depletion of natural resources significantly.

This circularity was at the heart of the thinking behind the latest EU-funded project by the teams at BRIA and SABINNA, who created a fashion capsule collection of cotton and viscose garments which were then transformed into new, 100% recyclable and biodegradable materials that could be used for packaging and shop interiors.  The materials are circular in that they can then be recycled a large number of times in order to keep the core fibres of the materials ‘alive’ and in use – thereby avoiding landfill. 

BRIA x SABINNA garments, processes and new materials transformed into packaging

New materials in development in lab

New materials as garment swing tags

 

The processes BRIA x SABINNA used are based on simple organic chemistry – dissolving and reforming the cellulose molecules in the clothing into new 100% cellulose-based materials that were compressed into flexible sheets, in some cases like paper or a film, and in other cases like a thicker MDF-type ‘wood’ material.  The processes vary depending on the new material being created, and the initial experiments were done on a small scale in a London-lab as ‘proof-of-concept’ that it is possible to turn any clothes made of cotton or viscose into new materials using minimal chemicals (and sometimes no chemicals at all) in ways that are sustainable in terms of the amount of natural resources (energy and water) needed to perform the recycling process and also in terms of the material outcome.

BRIA x Sabinna viscose knitted jumper, cotton shirt and denim jeans – later transformed into new materials

Laminate-effect textured card created from BRIA x SABINNA viscose knitted jumper above

Processing of denim into new packaging materials

If we look at other narratives around sustainability in fashion that call for up-cycling and wearing clothes for longer, or buying less, we see a shift of responsibility for sustainability from the industry to the consumer.  Whilst this makes sense in terms of educating and informing consumers, it poses a huge problem in that it does not instigate change in the industry or challenge processes that are destroying the planet and harming people.  This is what is making the shift of focus to circularity and science and technology for the answers to our most burning questions and problems in the industry crucial.

Development of new material from denim

In my design and innovation role at BRIA, I was a member of the team that conducted this project with the support of EU-funding from WEAR Sustain.  The project was instigated following a trip to Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, during which my conversations with Marie-Clarie Daveu of Kering, Anna Gedda of H&M and Mira Duma of Future Tech Lab instigated a quest to understand just how big a challenge making sustainable products is for fashion brands, from the initial design process through to the end-of-life of the garment.  Could brands, small and large alike, design and produce collections in a circular manner?  What would it cost?  Would the designs be compromised?  What would the restrictions be?  During a conversation with Vanessa Friedman she told me she thought sustainability was inherent in good fashion design, rather than an ‘add-on’.  But how is it inherent?  Does choosing organic cotton make a garment ‘sustainable’.  Not if we consider circularity as the ultimate solution to the depletion and pollution caused by the fashion industry.  So it has to go further.  It has to be part of the way the collection is conceived, the materials are made, the construction methods used and the strategy for the ‘end-of-life’ of the garment – where does the garment go when it is no longer used?  These were the questions we at BRIA sought to answer along with our collaborator SABINNA. 

The result proves that any designer using 100% cotton and viscose is creating garments that are forever recyclable – any designer can use our processes to recycle their garments.  It also proves that cotton and viscose clothing can even be recovered from landfill and processed using our method in order to keep the fibres in the circular system.  One of the most exciting elements for us was to achieve new materials with garments including hand-knits, denim jeans and multi-yarn jacquard knits – showing that the thickness and form of the textile yields to the process equally well.  The chemistry checks-out, giving clean and biodegradable results every time.

BRIA x SABINNA jeans 

New materials created from 100% cotton jeans above

Bowl from recycled viscose process and swing tag and box from recycled denim process

The next step is to explore brand partnerships to allow companies to clean up their own supply chains – jeans offcuts used to make the shelving and flooring in-store?  There is no reason why not.  Branded silky cellophane-like film packaging made from recycled high-end viscose dresses?  Hell yeah!

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