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ESG Outlook: Steve Stewart of The LYCRA Company on Scaling Circularity

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Steve Stewart, chief brand and innovation officer at The LYCRA Company, discusses the importance of transitioning to post-consumer waste fibers and utilizing garments at their end of life.

Name: Steve Stewart

Title: Chief brand and innovation officer

Company: The LYCRA Company

Steve Stewart, The Lycra Company
Steve Stewart, chief brand and innovation officer, The LYCRA Company. Sourcing Journal

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years?

We recently introduced COOLMAX® and THERMOLITE® Ecomade fibers made from 100-percent textile waste. This is a significant achievement because it lays the groundwork for a truly circular system with the capacity to scale. Today we’re using pre-consumer waste from garment cutting rooms to make these fibers, but our goal in the next few years is to transition to post-consumer waste and work with brand/retail partners to take clothing back at the end of life. This is just one product line, but we hope by closing this loop, our efforts will inspire others to do the same.

What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes? How do you try to minimize the environmental impact of the clothes you buy?

I look for garments that are made with preferred sustainable fibers but also those that I know will be durable. For example, in denim, I tend to seek out jeans made with the EcoMade (recycled version) of our LYCRA® dualFX® technology. This combines LYCRA® EcoMade fiber for high-quality stretch with LYCRA® T400® EcoMade fiber for excellent recovery.

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How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

We were one of the early members of The Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Organizations such as this, as well as the downstream brands and retailers that we interact with as part of our day-to-day business, have allowed us to be well acquainted with those companies that are truly dedicated to making a difference in sustainability. The good news is this group has grown significantly over the years and so today there are many brands and retailers from which I feel comfortable purchasing apparel.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?

In addition to our apparel fibers business, we also have an established personal care business where we sell LYCRA® fiber into diapers and adult incontinence products. We have just introduced LYCRA® EnviroFit™ fiber, a high-power product that allows manufacturers to use less spandex per diaper. This, in turn, results in reductions in raw materials and energy consumed for producing, shipping, storing and warehousing products. This offering is the first in a stable of new products focused on unique sustainability attributes.

What would you say is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

As we all know, sustainability is a complex topic that can be confusing to navigate as industry practices and consumer knowledge evolves. While some consumers are becoming more aware of the impacts resulting from overconsumption, there are still many who are surprised to find that the choices they make—in terms of what and how much they purchase, how they care for their clothing, and ultimately what they do with it at end of life—have an impact to our planet. Establishing that understanding is one of the first steps toward driving meaningful change.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

The Covid crisis put our industry into uncharted territory—never before had operations around the world scaled back or in some cases ceased operations on such a large scale. Certainly, the need to build resilient supply chains is key to keeping the business healthy under such circumstances. In terms of sustainability, the crisis only reinforced the need to act and act quickly.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

We are focused on implementing circular solutions that can be scaled for impact. As I mentioned earlier, we just introduced our first fibers made from 100-percent textile waste, laying the groundwork for a circular system. We are also working on circular solutions on the LYCRA® fiber side of our business, ultimately looking to reclaim LYCRA® fiber from garments and re-spin that into new fibers. This is a significant technical challenge but one we are confident we can meet.

What do you consider to be the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

As we all know, over the next 10 years, we need to significantly transform our industry to reduce the carbon footprint. This means acting with a true sense of urgency in terms of how we make products, what goes into them, and how we care for them at end of life. There’s a lot of good work going on, but we need to accelerate the pace of change to meet this significant challenge.