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7 Apparel Innovations & Innovators Driving the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ Movement Forward

Each day we learn more and more about how wasteful the fashion industry really is. Headlines reveal “x” brand incinerates  “x” tons of their unsold stock a year. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation confirms that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is sent to landfills or incinerated every second. Fashion Revolution states that 60 billion square meters of unused fabric immediately meet their fate as cutting-room floor waste.

Starting from the raw material, this concept of wastefulness can be traced all the way up the value chain. Cotton—one of the most important ingredients in the fashion industry—is a prime example. Every year, approximately 28.5 million metric tons of cotton is grown by 100 million farmers around the world, according to Paulina Szmydke-Cacciapalle’s “Making Jeans Green.”

Cotton cultivation has long been identified for its harmful impacts and wasteful tendencies. Szmydke-Cacciapalle concludes that roughly 5 percent of pesticide and between 16 percent to 18 percent of insecticide use globally is dedicated to cotton crops, much of which ends up as runoff ultimately impacting waterways. Likewise, she writes that cotton is actually quite drought resistant and has only been pegged as a “thirsty crop” due to inefficient water-management practices. Meanwhile, the byproducts of cotton harvesting and ginning (straw, sticks, leaves, burs, immature bolls) can equal up to 3 million tons annually across the globe.

Then there is the cotton waste associated with fabric and garment manufacturing. Take denim production, for example: The waste collected from the spinning, dyeing, weaving and finishing departments can add up to approximately 10 percent of the total production. This may not seem like much, but for a company producing millions of meters of fabric a year, it can add up. During garment production, the pattern-cutting stage results in immense amounts of waste in the form of fabric scraps and defects.

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Beyond reducing the perpetual waste generated by the fashion industry, it is imperative to find a new life for waste too—if not from a moral perspective, then at the very least for efficiency’s sake. Luckily, there are many who are outraged at the throw-away society in which we live and they are doing something about it. Here are a few examples from a typical denim supply chain.

1. At farm level, there are interventions and innovations helping to make a difference. For example, starting with the seed, some hybrid varieties are offering real solutions to reducing water needs while offering greater yields and superior fiber quality. Unlike GMO varieties, hybrids are cross-bred in a controlled setting as opposed to direct modification to the plant’s DNA in a laboratory. Hazera cotton is an example of a hybrid which, when trialed, showed a 15 percent reduction in water use with no impact on yields.

2. For an example of finding an innovative use for materials that would otherwise be discarded, one can look to Archroma’s EarthColors. EarthColors is dyestuff made from elements found in nature. These high-performance dyes are extracted from unused natural waste such as nutshells, orange peels, rosemary and even cotton scraps. Just think: dyeing cotton with cotton scraps—ingenious!

3. Looking closer at the fabric-production processes, a straightforward way to eliminate waste is to simply collect it and use it for something new. This suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, but these measures haven’t always been standard practice. For example, at Candiani Denim, cotton waste from the spinning is recovered and re-spun while waste from the dyeing and weaving processes are turned into insulation materials for the housing and automobile industries.

Candiani denim stacks

4. Another waste-reducing measure is known as the Selvedge Saver. When weaving fabrics on a full-width loom, this technology allows for the elimination of the auxiliary selvedge. Typically, this longer selvedge edge is necessary to keep the fabric tense while cutting the weft yarns during the weaving process. However, the Selvedge Saver allows for the selvedge to be significantly reduced while still maintaining the fabric tension by using a vacuum technology. Approximately, 967 kg of cotton yarn per machine can be reduced annually thanks to this innovation.

5. An interesting innovation looking to address cutting-room waste is a technology engineered by Lenzing. The cellulosic fiber producer’s TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ Lyocell fibers use a circular approach to upcycle scraps of cotton fabric into new Lyocell cellulosic fibers. Their closed-loop production process allows for the recycling of water and the recovery of 99 percent of chemical components used. Quite revolutionary indeed!

6. An increasing number of innovative business models focusing on re-use are popping up in an attempt to decrease the appalling amount of perfectly good clothing ending up in landfills or burned in incinerators around the world. Los Angeles-based company Atelier & Repairs is founded on the commitment to “re-imagine what already exists” through the re-engineering and re-design of reclaimed textiles, clothing and trims, with a focus on denim and other natural fibered textiles. Its ultimate aim is moving the industry closer toward circularity.

7. Blue of a Kind, also with a focus on denim, is another innovative brand with a similar approach. Based outside Milan, Blue of a Kind is (re)made in Italy by tapping into the rich sartorial heritage of Italian design and craftsmanship by teaming with local artisans to re-craft vintage garments. These pieces are completely deconstructed at the seams and then fitted and re-sewn with a contemporary twist.

These initiatives are just a snippet of the creative and innovative energy taking the fashion industry by storm. They are each playing their part in the greater revolution toward a more sustainable and circular industry, leading by example to make waste something of the past.

Click to learn about Candiani Denim.