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Cost-Benefit Analysis: The Lowdown on Closed-Loop Circularity in Material Innovation

The fashion industry has faced a reckoning for its role in waste-making overproduction.

While brands on the front lines attempt to assuage shoppers’ concerns about environmental impact, materials manufacturers are working behind the scenes to make change happen.

At Fashiondex’s Fashion and Sustainability Summit on Thursday, industry experts spoke about how the adoption of of 21st-century circular and closed-loop materials can move the sector forward.

The challenge of adopting more sustainable materials comes down to innovation and collaboration, according to Ryan Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Algix and Bloom, which converts naturally occurring algae biomass found in bodies of water into closed-cell performance foam for footwear soles.

The shift can be a tough one, but it starts with “integrating new technologies and materials into the existing supply chain,” he said. “This is the roadblock that we all face as innovators and entrepreneurs in this market.”

Hunt suggested that brands interested in adopting more sustainable inputs should perform waste audits that assess the types of output generated by their operations. “We produce, as humans, an enormous amount of pollution, and some of its visible and some of its not.”

That impact could come in the form of putting more plastics out into the world, wasting water, releasing chemicals into waterways, and creating products that ultimately end up in landfills. But Hunt urged brands to also look at their invisible output, in the form of emissions like CO2, nitrogen and phosphorous, which contribute to climate change.

While suppliers might be averse to adopting new techniques and materials, it’s up to brands to demand the change, Hunt added. Once they can quantify the impact of their products, they often become more motivated to have the tough conversations with factory partners.

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“It’s taken four years, but now we have almost 200 factories now with agreements with Bloom,” he said. “They’re using our product as a sustainable ingredient in over 100 different brands of product lines.”

“It really takes and requires intent from leadership to be willing to absorb the initial costs, the time, the effort to push supply chains to push procurement,” echoed Parley for the Oceans’ director of partnerships, Tony Verutti. “They need to understand that this is going to be an additional investment.”

The ocean plastics recycling body has worked most notably with athletic titan Adidas on lines of sneakers and workout apparel made from upcycled post-consumer plastic bottles and fishing nets sourced from across the globe. But the organization has also partnered with luxury fabric producers and material technology innovators on specialized products for other areas of the industry.

“Ocean plastic material is gathered from remote beaches and coastlines in the most foreign places in the world,” he explained, citing locales like the Maldives. “For us, it’s about elevating socioeconomic standards for the people who are actually collecting the material, just as much as it is an environmental issue.”

This translates to Parley paying laborers above-standard wages and covers needed insurance. This ultimately leads to additional costs for materials that were once considered trash, he said, and that’s a hard pill for some brands to swallow.

“At the end of the day, brands are going to benefit from commercial value because the consumers are going to see them as being a champion for willing to absorb some of these costs,” he said. “They’re going to market with something that’s going to ultimately have a positive environmental impact, as opposed to maintaining the status quo.”

Andrea Ferris, co-founder of Intrinsic Textiles Group, said integrating closed-loop materials into products “can be overwhelming” for suppliers.

When Intrinsic set out to help a large uniform manufacturing company utilize more sustainable fabrics, Ferris saw firsthand how difficult it was to implement new technologies or raw materials on a mass scale. Constraints related to volume, cost, supply chain and performance can hinder progress, she said.

Ferris recommended that brands work with their suppliers on a step-by-step basis, introducing new elements into the production process slowly and deliberately. They should also work collaboratively with their partners to explore options, giving them an opportunity to weigh in, and refer to third-party groups like Cradle to Cradle and the Textile Exchange for expertise on the most relevant materials.

There’s a “huge opportunity” for brands to scale up the use of recycled materials, said Textile Exchange director of standards Ashley Gill. Currently, the group’s data shows that about 14 percent of all polyester used in apparel is recycled, representing an area for growth in the industry. Wool and nylon are other materials that can also be recycled with favorable results, and brands should explore these options with their partners.

Gill also recommended that brands look to increase efficiency and reduce the overall amount of materials used by recycling pre-consumer waste, like factory scraps and unsold goods, back into their supply chains. “Those are the places that we would love to see more investment more attention more commitments being made from the industry,” she said.

Jorge Mataix, director of fiber mill Belda Llorens, agreed that there are several ways for companies to use closed-loop materials, and one important avenue is to upcycle pre-consumer supply chain waste. Even if suppliers are unable to utilize pre- or post-consumer waste in products of their own creation, they can help route these waste materials to other industries like the automotive sector.

The company’s Eco-Life yarns convert sustainable materials and scraps into high-quality yarns for the fashion and home goods industries, he said. The group has formed agreements with manufacturers that any unused material or even fully-completed product can be sent back to Belda Llorens and re-spun.