Not so many years ago we hit the 100 billion mark for the number of garments produced worldwide annually.
Back in 2000 when the concept of ‘fast’ fashion first took off, the industry produced 50 billion garments per year. With streamlined supply chains and greatly reduced production timelines, fashion companies on average went from offering two collections a year to five. H&M offers at least twelve and Zara now produces 24 collections a year - that’s two a month!
In just four years those 50 billion garments doubled.
The numbers are almost impossible to process, but what’s truly disturbing is that 85% of all textiles produced globally still end up in landfill.
When we discovered that the textile industry is the second largest polluter of the planet behind the coal industry and that it’s also a massive user of precious natural resources like land and water, we were shocked.
Then we discovered that the favourite cotton t-shirt that we all have in our wardrobes needs an astonishing 3000 litres of water to make. We thought there had to be a better way.
So we developed our own fabrics - we combined technology and plants to create four unique sustainable fabrics, and then we made a t-shirt. The Greenest T-shirt on the Planet was successfully funded via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in 2015.
Our Greenest Tee uses just 22 litres of water to produce - that’s less than 1% of the 3000 litres needed for a regular cotton tee … and with minimal chemicals. It’s also biodegradable, so at the end of its life cycle the Greenest Tee doesn’t become landfill, it returns to the earth.
The waste statistics in fashion are frightening: Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing - a loss of more than USD $100 billion worth of materials each year.
Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.
Think about that for a moment.
Like many industries, the fashion industry must reimagine the way it does business. The way it’s structured today is not set up to solve the problems we have created for ourselves as a society. We can no longer afford to be passive bystanders.
We all know there’s no easy solution and we can’t expect a quick fix from individual governments or rich philanthropists … we need to collaborate and solve this together.
In industries with problems like enormous waste, huge use of natural materials and negative impact on the environment, operating a linear supply chain makes no sense. A circular economy is the blueprint to connect up the global ecosystem … one that thrives on connectivity, transparency, social purpose and sustainability. It’s the ideal approach to solve problems as big as those we face in fashion.
And technology is the tool that can unlock the circular economy.
I’m not talking about the technology we call wearables, those clever materials and garments that can monitor our body’s activity - heart rate, breath, sweat rate and sleep or even those odd shirts that use ‘Color Change Technology’. I wonder what happened to them?
The time is now for industry and consumers alike to call for truly ‘moonshot’ innovations, ideas and products that spring from free thinking and harness technology that will give rise to the fashion industry 2.0 and beyond … where future products have minimal impact on the environment, where an industry operates with reuse and recycle, and where materials return to earth.
Where did we get lost? Polyester, the world’s most used material, hasn’t changed much since it was patented way back in the 1950s.
Thankfully, there are individuals and companies leading industry change, unlocking new approaches to old methods, combining our current day and future technologies with nature.
Footwear company Vivobarefoot wanted to tackle the harmful Synthetic & Petrochemical foams that form part of many shoes, so they teamed up with US company Bloom to create a shoe that’s made from algae biomass.
German company Algalife also saw the beauty in algae and realised its innovative and sustainable applications through biotechnology to develop pigments and fibres from the tiny microorganisms.
Old world materials can also breathe new life, technology is helping the Infinited Fiber Company make new cotton-like fibres from recovered cotton cellulose and other biomaterials.
There is no doubt technology is clever and a whole lot more interesting than textile waste management but let's not undervalue the very important role recycling has to play, especially while the industry continues to rely on planet-damaging materials and over supply.
We can no longer afford to be passive bystanders.
In the short term, recycling means a focus on closing the loop on waste, if consumers continue to feed the machine that is fast fashion, then attitudes to post-consumer waste must evolve and evolve quickly.
In the time it takes to read this article, another 6,000kg of Australian textiles has been dumped in landfill.
In the mid term, the quest for textile professionals and the consumers who buy our products is to find new ways to evolve what the term ‘recycling’ means to us today.
Current textile recovery methods are clunky and damaging to materials that could maintain their high quality state. This is driven by not looking for a better end product, rather settling for a market opportunity that doesn’t advance an industry’s directive.
Chemical recycling offers plenty of advantages, recovering fibres at a higher quality than mechanical means but this process is challenged by chemical and energy usage. Both methods must play their part in closing the loop, the opportunity for technology is to support their uptake by making them more efficient and greener.
EU-funded research project Resyntex is leading the way for current and future textile recyclers, by using industrial symbiosis to make new raw materials derived from unusable textile waste. The technology releases the valuable resources that would otherwise be discarded.
We can no longer afford to be passive bystanders.
Adopting a circular economy will begin to reverse environmental damage and change attitudes, but like Vivobarefoot, Algalife and Infinited Fiber Company, the future fashion industry will require bolder thinking that finds and releases connections between man-made genius and the planet that gives us life.