The way we consume fashion is harming our planet.
The fashion industry contributes between 8 – 10% of global CO2 emissions, uses 70 million barrels of oil every year to make polyester, and drives unsustainable logging practices in at-risk rainforests.
Many in the fashion world are looking for ways to change the way the industry does business, and the solutions are coming through scientific innovation. At CPI, our expertise and support is helping develop science-fashion collaborations that will build sustainability for this vital, vibrant industry.
Consumers are driving change
The global fashion industry is worth $2.5 trillion. In the UK, fashion contributes £21 billion to the economy and directly employs 816,000 people. But it’s also more than just business. Fashion is a crossover between art, politics, and culture, and a younger generation of fashion consumers are becoming more ethically conscious, demanding that the brands they wear show they care just as much about the world as they do about profits.
This discerning generation – 90% of Gen Z’ers believe brands have a responsibility to be more ethical and sustainable — have the attention of fashion giants. From Stella McCartney to H&M to Gucci, brands are looking at how they might be able to capture this market of young people willing to spend, but looking for greener options.
This is where science steps in. From materials production to waste recovery, we are seeing innovations created by scientists taken up by fashion houses.
Sourcing Ethical Materials
Our clothes require animal products, such as leather and wool; plant materials like cotton; and synthetics like polyester made from crude oil. But a growing vegan movement want clothes and accessories made from cruelty free materials, and climate conscious buyers want to see less environmental damage in the name of fashion.
Bioengineering could be the answer. Bioengineering takes the principles of design and problem-solving from engineering, and applies them to biological systems. This often means commandeering a biological process to produce something new — sometimes called biofabrication.
Take leather. All animals, including humans, have inbuilt instructions for making everything in and on our bodies: DNA. Cells ‘read’ the recipe and make the products. A cow’s cells read the recipe for skin – leather – and produce the necessary proteins: collagen and elastin. If we know the recipe, we can make something like leather in the lab using host cells.
Modern Meadows is a US based company doing just that. Their have genetically engineered yeast to produce collagen. This collagen is then used to build Zoa, a product that is near identical to leather in its appearance, texture, and durability.
Doing similar work is Bolt, creators and makers of lab-based silk. Bolt have partnered with huge fashion brands Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon to create outfits from Microsilk. The product, based on the properties of spider silk, was created in the lab from scratch. It can be used in place of polyesters that require the extraction of crude oil, and traditional silks, which require live silkworms.
From mushroom ‘leather’, to lab grown diamonds, the benefits of these lab-based materials are multiple: they remove the reliance on live animals, they don’t require huge amounts of agricultural land, and they can be scaled up with less energy input than traditional animal products.
CPI is finding ways to reduce waste
While bioengineering might help us conquer some of the environmental challenges at the raw materials stage, fashion production brings new problems.
The global fashion industry uses around 79 billion cubic metres of water every year, and this figure is set to increase by another 50% by 2030. Meanwhile, toxic materials from dyes, and microplastics from synthetic materials, can all end up in water systems – the fashion industry accounts for ~20% of industrial water pollution.
At CPI, we are working with scientists to see what we can do to prevent water waste. We are part of the EU Horizons 2020 funded project Waste2Fresh. It’s a consortium of 17 academic and industrial partners from across the EU, working together to develop a water recycling system for industry.
The system uses catalysts and heavy ion removal to remove contaminants from water used by textiles factories. Once it’s purified, it can enter back into the industrial process. It’s great to see that the Waste2Fresh project is getting recognition – it was recently announced as a finalist for the Fashion Innovation awards.
Creating a circular fashion industry
We’ve seen how scientific innovation can bring in zero waste, sustainable approaches to materials sourcing and industrial production, but fashion also causes damage at the end of its life: the UK alone sends about £140 million worth of clothing to landfill ever year.
Worn Again, a company founded in 2005, aims to capture and reuse the raw materials from textiles so they can be put back into production, a concept that can help the industry become net zero. Their polymer recycling technology breaks polyester and polycotton blended textiles into their constituent fibres, to be remade into new products. Reusing these materials prevents them ending up in landfill, or in the environment.
CPI’s wide range of technologies, facilities and expertise meant we could host Worn Again’s pilot plant. The plant ensured Worn Again had the space and support to develop their technologies and demonstrate their viability, with the goal of scaling up for commercialisation. Worn Again has raised €8 million in its most recent fundraising round, suggesting that the industry is keen to see green innovation.
The Future of Fashion
There is a long way to go before the fashion industry is truly net zero, but by combining scientific advances with fashion innovation, we can fundamentally alter the way we make fashion at every stage of the textiles life cycle.
The fashion industry has huge potential for change: it’s an exciting time to be working at its cutting edge.
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