As consumers pile pressure on brands to ditch fast fashion and prioritise sustainability instead, a raft of technological advancements are emerging to smooth the transition. Here are four of the latest.
Converting waste into wearables
Around 4.7 million tonnes of clothes are thrown away across north-west Europe each year, says Interreg NWE, a body that grants European Union funds to projects in countries including the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and France. Most of it currently ends up in landfill, incinerated or downcycled to low-grade insulation material, but around 24% is fit for re-use.
This leaves the apparel sector sourcing virgin materials again and again, says Hilde van Duijn, the project manager of Fibersort. One of the many projects funded by Interreg NWE, as part of its efforts to create a circular economy for textiles, Fibersort is a consortium of textile recyclers, collectors and technologists. In March, it launched its first commercially ready solution to this textile waste: an artificial intelligence-powered fabric sorter that helps to turn textiles that would have been waste, into material fit for new clothing.
The Fibersort machine automates a crucial step in recycling post-consumer textiles, explains van Duijn: “To recycle you need to put cotton with cotton, wool with wool, polyester with polyester.”
Once sorted, textiles can be mechanically or chemically broken down and transformed into nearly-new materials. Currently, however, manual sorting these individual materials is a labour intensive and costly process, and prone to mistakes because of inaccurate labelling or human error. Fibersort, created after four years of research and €3.4m [£3m] of funding, hopes to change that.
The technological process begins with a robotic arm that singles out each garment one by one and places it on the sorter. The garment then travels underneath a scanner that uses infra-red rays to detect its materials’ characteristics and cross-references this with an extensive inbuilt library to determine what the material is and sorts it accordingly. It can currently sort through around 900kg of textiles per hour.
To have an impact, the technology will require apparel brands to create a market for the sorted textiles, adds van Duijn. It will initially be costlier than sourcing virgin materials, she admits, but says “we are seeing that more and more brands are seriously looking into recycled textiles for environmental reasons as consumers put more and more pressure on them.”
She say it is “heartbreaking” to think of the huge proportion of textiles wasted after a single use, adding that the Fibersort has the potential to break that vicious cycle.
Digital projection of material handling
The pivot to online shopping in apparel has brought with it an environmentally disastrous returns habit in the UK. Returns management platform Rebound Returns suggests online returns cost retailers £70bn per year. Moreover, non-profit organisation The Story of Stuff suggests these returns can potentially double the carbon footprint of a single garment as they require additional transport, packaging and processing.
A two-year project at Leeds University’s School of Design is seeking to digitally communicate how materials feel using immersive technologies and thus reduce returns of clothing bought online.
“It’s always been in the interests of the fashion industry to consider what garments feel like,” explains Sahar Arshi, a research fellow working on the technology. But ecommerce has so far failed to mimic that part of the shopping experience.
Arshi and her team began last year by using a mechanical handling device known as the Leeds University Fabric Handle Evaluation System, which mimics the way that shoppers compress, twist and touch materials to build up a catalogue of their characteristics. The hope is to mimic these characteristics digitally using ultrasound waves that generate the vibrations for each material on to a user’s hand.
The plan is first to target the technology at creative and manufacturing teams. It would avoid the need to physically touch fabric samples, allowing brands to make decisions without travel or excess postage.
The hope is then to create devices small enough, and affordable enough, that they could be used by online shoppers, too. In that way, customers would be able to “touch” a garment to decide if they want to buy it, without any need for packaging or postage, and limit the number of returns arising from shoppers disappointed with the feel of their purchase.
When outdoor clothing brand Patagonia unveils its autumn 20 collection, it will include its most sustainable outdoor jacket yet. Carbon emissions for the production of it “Nano Puff” thermal jackets will be up to 48% lower than standard garments, thanks to the adoption of new technology that swaps heat for air. The PURE (Produced Using Reduced Emissions) technology has been developed by microfibre manufacturer PrimaLoft, and launched this year after four years of research.
PrimaLoft says that, to create outdoor clothing that keeps you insulated against the cold, the clothing sector typically creates air pockets in its garments using binders: synthetic fibres that trap air in the fabric. These fibres are currently “cooked” and stabilised in hot ovens to create the millions of air pockets required, a process that produces a substantial volume of carbon.
But PrimaLoft’s vice-president for business development in fashion and global lifestyle, Wim Neels, says it has developed a technique that removes “the need to use heat to bond the fibres”: “Thanks to a special process, the fibres self-bond and self-cure through exposure to air alone, there is now no need for ovens. The result is a reduction of carbon emissions by nearly 50%.”
“The PURE Nano Puff is our most environmentally responsible version of the style to date,” says Kristo Torgersen, global marketing director for technical outdoor at Patagonia, adding that PrimaLoft “addressed the biggest culprit of carbon emissions in their manufacturing process and did so in a way that did not compromise the performance of the insulation”. Nano Puff pieces sit at the higher end of Patagonia’s price range.
Although Patagonia has one-year exclusivity on the innovation, it will then be open to the wider sector, says Neels: “Interest from other brands has been very high so far and we expect lots of adoptions for the autumn 21 season.”
On cost, he says the complexity and different resources required will be reflected in the price, but adds that as “the buying behaviour of the consumer is changing more and more towards responsible purchasing, this is a big selling point for brands.”
Biodegradable stretch denim
As many as 300 million pairs of jeans clog up landfill sites each year, says Alberto Candiani, owner of Italian manufacturer Candiani Denim. To make stretch denim, cotton is woven around petrol-based elastomers – threads that allow stretch, but are synthetic and do not biodegrade.
But with its “Coreva” technology, Candiani Denim says it has created the world’s first biodegradable alternative: stretch denim made using organic cotton wrapped around a custom-engineered natural rubber core. Coreva “replaces the common synthetic elastomer with a smart natural rubber elastomer that comes from natural and renewable sources.” It worked with its suppliers to make a fine rubber yarn that does not lose stretch.
Candiani says Coreva has 40% greater elasticity than conventional stretch denim, as well as good resistance and longevity: “People may superficially think that a biodegradable elastic would have lower resistance and less strength compared to a synthetic, but our technology is proving the exact opposite because of this customised engineering of the yarns.”
It costs about 25% more than conventional stretch denim, which means it is presently only suitable for the luxury market. The manufacturer has already partnered with with Hiut Denim for its spring 20 line, and Stella McCartney for autumn 20, and more partnerships are in the pipeline.
A technologically sustainable future
The era of fast fashion may be coming to an end. The 2019 Global Advisor poll by Ipsos Mori surveyed 1,100 UK shoppers. It found that 55% would be put off of buying clothes from a company that polluted the environment, three-quarters would feel positive about a brand actively looking to reduce its environmental impact, and 74% expect brands to take accountability for the sustainability of their supply chains.
In the years to come “sustainability will move from a brand differentiator to a basic expectation,” sums up Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at retail technology provider Aptos. “Consumers are constantly seeking more sustainable options in their lifestyles – from the food they eat, to the way they travel, to the clothes on their backs – and they expect to engage with companies who take the same care with their corporate responsibility initiatives.
“This is more than just packaging or materials – or corporate sponsorship of green initiatives. This is about brands taking an active role in making the environment better.”
It is clear that brands seeking to live up to these expectations must remain up to date on the technological advancements that could make that complex and costly transition a little easier.