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From Marketing Ploy to Mainstream Players, Sustainable Fabrics Come Into Their Own

Feel free to leave your quips about hemp-clad hippies at the door: If sustainable fashion is still viewed as a niche product, it won’t be for much longer.

Once the purview of independent designers, “green” clothing has muscled into the mainstream.

There are the industry North Stars who have made tackling fashion’s less telegenic issues part of their DNA, of course, like Patagonia, whose stated mission is building the best product without causing unnecessary harm, or Eileen Fisher, another certified B Corp. that relates to sustainability as a defining character of its ethos.

They’re particularly sensitive to charges of “greenwashing,” the derisory term for marketing spin that paints a company as more environmentally friendly than it actually is. For them, authenticity is king.

“We do not pursue our sustainability goals as a marketing strategy or to gain an ‘edge,’” said Inka Apter, designer for fabric R&D at Eileen Fisher, which plies its wares with organic and recycled fibers, Bluesign-dyed silks and wool produced according to the Responsible Wool Standard. “We believe in sharing the stories behind our materials because the consumers have a right to know more about where those materials come from and we feel that by sharing our values we are also inspiring not only our customers but our peers in the industry.”

High Street highlights

With an overwhelming consensus about climate change, environmentalism’s appeal has never been broader. Even the central cogs of “fast fashion”—not typically regarded as paragons of environmental zeal—are dabbling with fabrics that are deemed better for the planet.

In fact you’d be hard-pressed to find a high-street retailer that hasn’t taken a stab at the zeitgeist in one form or another, even as the sector continues to grapple with labor-rights issues in its dogged pursuit of producing clothes more quickly and cheaply.

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H&M arguably jump-started the trend—if you can call it that—when it first feted textiles made from organic cotton, which is grown without pesticides, and Tencel, a fiber derived from farmed eucalyptus trees, through its Conscious collection in 2011.

The Dutch chain C&A, frequently the world’s top buyer of organic cotton, is poised this summer to become the first international retailer to roll out an apparel collection that is Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold, meaning the pieces are so biologically safe, you can compost them at home.

Topshop sporadically produces a Reclaim line using repurposed fabric offcuts, and Mango just released Committed, a range of natural and recycled clothing dyed with environmentally friendly inks.

In September, Zara, the tentpole brand of Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer, launched Join Life, a brand-within-a-brand of womenswear that employs organic cotton, recycled polyester and recycled cotton, as well as finishing techniques that consume less water.

The collection also saw the debut of Refibra, the “first cellulose fiber featuring recycled material on a commercial scale,” according to Inditex’s Communication and Corporate Affairs Division. Work on Refibra occurred mostly behind the scenes, with Inditex collaborating with Lenzing, the textile producer that makes Tencel, to blend its sustainably sourced wood pulp with cotton cuttings generated by Inditex operations.

Eventually, Inditex says it plans to incorporate cotton from garments collected through Zara’s clothing-takeback program as a way to “close the loop” on fashion.

The strategy is part of what Inditex and a growing chorus of fashion businesses refer to as the “circular economy,” where products are made to be recycled rather than thrown away.

Innovative introductions

It’s all par for the course for an industry where image is everything and the pressure to innovate runs high.

But just as technology has evolved, so has our ability to redefine what a “sustainable” material might be.

H&M, the world’s No. 2 apparel retailer after Inditex, appears especially keen to shape this new paradigm. Its nonprofit Conscious Foundation holds an annual 1 million euro ($1.09 million) competition to suss out innovations that could hasten this new regenerative economy.

Winning concepts have included fibers made from algae, textiles teased out from cow manure, and “leather” reconstituted from the pulp left over from winemaking. Groundbreaking? Yes. Ready to be scaled up? Not quite yet.

That’s not to say that H&M plays it safe. The Swedish chain sometimes uses its Conscious collection as a proving ground for its more avant-garde choices.

“We are always on the lookout for innovative materials and processes that can help us towards circular and renewable fashion,” said Patrick Shaner, a communication specialist at H&M.

Last year, the company adapted Denimite, a marble-like material that combines post-industrial denim scraps with a bio-based resin, to make jewelry. In February, H&M worked with Bionic, a textile firm co-founded by singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams, to create a pleated gown composed of polyester spun from recovered shoreline trash, including plastic bottles and grocery bags.

Indeed, ocean waste is, to use the sartorial parlance, having a moment.

Adidas, to give an example, is tag-teaming with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental group, to manufacture 1 million pairs of sneakers from reclaimed ocean plastic and illegal deep-sea gillnets by year’s end—a fashion first.

The partnership also created the first sports jersey “coming 100 percent out of the ocean,” Eric Liedtke, Adidas group executive board member responsible for global brands, said, before noting that the sportswear giant’s “ultimate ambition” is to eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain.

It’s with a similar concern for ocean conservation that Volcom, a subsidiary of the ethically minded Kering luxury conglomerate, debuted a line of swimsuits composed of Econyl, a regenerated yarn derived from abandoned fishing nets and other pieces of castoff nylon.

Outerknown, also part of the Kering group, uses Econyl to make its jackets, swim trunks, and boardshorts.

G-Star Raw has its denim-centric Raw for the Oceans range, which incorporates fibers plucked from salvaged ocean plastic. In Madrid, Ecoalf, which traffics in 100 percent recycled bags and outerwear, is looking to add trawled seabed plastic to its textiles library, which already boasts everything from decommissioned fishing nets to discarded coffee grounds.

In Los Angeles, Bureo touts the world’s first—and so far only—range of sunglasses made entirely from old fishing nets.

Fashion, as Giusy Bettoni, CEO of eco-textile consultancy C.L.A.S.S, puts it, needs to be “beautiful, innovation, and responsible; offering something more, not less.”

Supply chain connections

Integrating new, sustainable materials can take some finagling, particularly for larger corporations with byzantine supply chains.

Levi Strauss & Co., which pioneered a denim-finishing technique that uses up to 96 percent less water than conventional methods, admits that managing all the moving parts requires no small amount of planning.

“We meet regularly as a cross-functional team that includes members of our product development, innovation, and sustainability teams to ensure a smooth process to market,” said Liza Schillo, a sustainability manager at the jean juggernaut. “If it is a process requiring third-party verification, we engage with the certifier and connect them with the lead of that particular fiber project. Our goal is to connect with our product development team as early in the process as possible.”

The strength of existing supply-chain relationships can help, if to a certain extent, said Derek Sabori, sustainability director at Volcom.

“Any time the concept of introducing a new component, or a new source into an existing, and often-efficient system comes up, it can cause hesitation,” he said. “There’s cost, lead time, quality and reliability to consider, and it’s not always a quick and easy decision. The team takes time to research, test, sample and test again, new concepts—even those with the highest sustainability credentials.”

Another approach, one favored by Eileen Fisher, is making textiles the focus from the get-go.

“We do not have a special process or path for introduction of new sustainable materials perhaps because sustainability is now embedded in our sourcing and development practices,” Apter said. “For many seasons now we have been engaged with our mill partners to develop new fabrics and yarns in sustainable fibers, and even redevelop with them the versions of our tried and true fabrics with a renewed sustainability focus.”

Something like that necessitates a deep insight of Eileen Fisher’s innermost workings, Apter said. “Sometimes this means truly understanding the supply chain, from the raw fiber to the finished material, in order to help make connections between various stakeholders, such as fiber producers, spinners and weavers,” she added.

Sustainable materials can cost more or be scarcer in supply, but brands don’t need to dig deep for reasons to use them. Beyond the feel-good narrative they provide, brands say their customers are increasingly clamoring for responsible clothing.

“Generally, we see increased costs with sustainable fibers,” said Schillo from Levi’s. “[But] we’re [also] seeing more and more that consumers care about the value of a product and the values of a company.”

H&M, which says it absorbs the extra costs, rather than pass them on to its customers, concurs. Altruism aside, sustainability is a way brands can stay competitive in a tempestuous market.

“Many of our customers are asking for these products, and we believe it is our responsibility to offer a product range in sustainable materials,” Shaner said.