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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Achieving Sustainability Requires a Paradigm Shift, Says Kering’s Marie-Claire Daveu

As the driver of Kering’s global sustainability strategy, Marie-Claire Daveu is the company’s spokesperson on what amounts to a mammoth mandate to effect global change management across supply chains and drive education of students and designers to mindfully choose sustainable materials when making creative decisions.  Following the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, I spoke to her about how Kering is identifying, adopting and funding sustainable fashion solutions to mitigate environmental and ethical disasters within the industry.

The subject of sustainability in fashion is complex in that to understand its meaning and implications, designers must understand the technicalities of raw materials and the processes that grow and cultivate them – for example the links between climate change and cattle farming – in order to fully understand the role and importance of sustainable materials.  In luxury fashion, designers make the ultimate decisions about materials usage, so communicating the mechanics of sustainability to them is key.  During an enlightening and in-depth conversation with Marie-Claire Daveu, the complexity of the task became clear, as did the multi-pronged approach that Kering is taking to diagnose, develop and fund sustainable materials solutions.  It also became clear that in order to communicate this topic, Daveu’s engineering credentials (declaring herself an unlikely fashion person) are essential in making the connections between the mechanics and technicalities of the supply chain and the aesthetic and sensibilities of the design teams.

There were several key takeaways from the discussion with Daveu, during which she and I bonded over mutual previous careers in engineering and science respectively, before undertaking careers in the fashion industry.  Perhaps most potent was her assertion that a “with incremental progress you will not change a paradigm” and that disruption through innovation is needed in order to achieve transformation of supply chains to circular systems.  Specifically, she declared that incremental improvements (like using recycled textiles in capsule collections or isolated products, for example) were not sufficient.  Kering is firmly focused on finding disruptive technologies, and to do that they need to identify startups creating game-changing solutions.  Enter their Fashion For Good initiative in partnership with Plug and Play and the C&A Foundation, based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Plug and Play incubates ideation and growth-stage startups in various industries – previous success stories include Dropbox and Paypal – to research, develop and test potential sustainable solutions for the fashion industry.  In partnering with C&A, Kering is demonstrating its belief that in terms of raw materials, a collaborative effort is required to create an industry-wide shift to more sustainable textiles.  Fashion brands spanning the high street and luxury sectors use cotton, for example, so a collaborative approach between brands increases buying power and provides the scale and volume to support the cost and change management required to transform materials supply chains into circular ones.

The key aim for Kering is to introduce sustainable materials and processes within the supply chain.  Marie-Claire Daveu is clear in her assertion that designers cannot add sustainability at the design stage – it has to be inherent in the raw materials and textiles.  She mentions current Fashion For Good incubee startups Pili-Bio, which uses micro-organisms to embed dye into materials in place of toxic and water-intensive dyeing processes, and Amadou mushroom leather, already product-tested by Irene-Marie Seelig and covered here in depth on the blog last year, when she was a recipient of the Kering Award for Sustainability.

Marie-Claire Daveu at the Kering Award for Sustainability, London College of Fashion – Image: Dave Bennett

Amadou is a potentially viable alternative to animal leathers and Daveu mentioned its promising development a number of times throughout our conversation, along with external innovators Bolt Threads, who have created a synthetic spider silk that she confirms is already a material being explored within the Kering group brands.  Given that Stella McCartney does not use animal skins, developments like Amadou mushroom leather have a clear opportunity to fulfil the brand ethos while maintaining the required levels of luxury and quality.

Irene-Marie Seelig’s Amadou mushroom leather shoe – Image:  Irene-Marie Seelig

Underlining Kering’s Sustainability drive are three pillars:  Care (reduce environmental impact by 40% and greenhouse gas by 50%); Collaborate (working with companies within the supply chain and other brands) and Create (launch disruptive innovations and link sustainability to a circular economy).  Innovation is the point pushed most heavily during our discussion, and it’s clear that the game-changing sustainable solutions will come from outside the brands themselves – most likely from startups (which Kering are investing in) and manufacturers within the supply chain.  Daveu explained that Kering are working very hard with NGOs in Mongolia, for example, to establish sustainable cashmere farming which respects biodiversity and supports animal welfare.  The foundation of this is transparency and traceability, as it is with all sustainable materials development.  Kering have also established programmes with suppliers in Italy and China to have a clear diagnosis of the usage of energy, water and other natural resources in order to analyse their consumption and begin to develop sustainable alternatives.  It’s when considering the complexity of changing entire factory manufacturing and processing systems in order to reduce natural resource consumption that the magnitude of this task to achieve sustainability becomes clear – we are not simply talking about choosing organic cotton in favour regular cotton – this is a deep, expensive and technical change needed to drastically reduce the demands the fashion industry is placing on the planet, across the entire industry. 

Sustainability in Motion – Kering.com

In addition to looking outside of their company for innovation, Kering has developed an in-house materials innovation lab based in Milan, headed up by Cecilia Takayama, who spoke at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit as part of the panel discussion on circular design.  Kering’s lab has been particularly successful in creating sustainable materials for its Gucci and Bottega Veneta brands, and Daveu reveals that they now want to apply this same focus to creating materials for their watch and jewellery brands.

Kering’s Cecilia Takayama on circular design – Image: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Kering’s commitment to sustainability comes from the top – led by François Henri Pinault, who is active in the implementation of the sustainability strategy for each brand in the Kering stable.  He meets with executives and design teams across all brands to demonstrate the prioritisation of sustainability and the level of seriousness with which it is taken at Kering.  Marie-Claire Daveu also explained that formal KPI’s are in effect to ensure that sustainability remains a focus and targets are met.  

François-Henri Pinault receives the GCC Global Leaders of Change Awards 2015 at UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) – Image: Kering.com

Via Daveu, Kering’s message is that it wants to set the global standard in sustainable luxury by 2025, by delivering on targets within its three pillars.  Underlining their commitment, she said “the new generation will make the future”, and that Kering has a “360 degree approach” including sustainability education via university initiatives at London College of Fashion, Parsons, Central Saint Martins and Tsinghua, along with investments in startups and game-changing innovations.  This, combined with its EP&L and supply-chain efforts aimed at identifying and overhauling environmentally harmful processes, mean Kering are attacking sustainability challenges from all angles.  Keep an eye on Plug and Play Amsterdam and Kering’s Sustainability news to see how it all unfolds. 

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