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Sustainability Must Become ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ for Textile Makers—Here’s Why

The behaviors and appetites of shoppers will ultimately drive the movement toward a more environmentally friendly fashion industry, experts say.

But according to material innovators at the Functional Fabrics Fair’s sustainability panel in Portland Tuesday, it’s up to brands and their suppliers to bring value back to garments, eliminating the culture of disposability that has infected consumer consciousness.

Promoting sustainability will be a process of shifting the consumer outlook on clothing as a whole, panelists agreed. “We need to change how people perceive textiles,” Emily Walzer, managing editor of Textile Insight magazine and the event’s moderator, said.

The discussion highlighted the industry’s persistent challenges as well as its latest victories. For some companies, sustainable innovation has been bubbling beneath the surface, even if the topic seems to be hitting with full force only in recent seasons.

For Swiss fabric company Schoeller, sustainability has been a focus for the better part of 20 years, and executive Christine Huebner believes it will soon become “standard operating procedure” for all brands moving forward.

After two years of research and development, the company recently launched its first biodegradable recycled polyester. Dubbed Pro Earth, the revolutionary fabric is Bluesign approved and performs in a manner nearly identical to other analogous blends on the market. Except, Huebner said, for the fact that it will completely decompose when disposed of in a landfill.

Still, the end-of-life advantage of Pro Earth isn’t its salient selling point. Huebner said that Schoeller aimed to create a material that would be long-lasting and durable. The machine-washable fabric is crafted from a polyester blend, reintegrating some of the industry’s most polluting materials into circulation for further wear.

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Elizabeth LeMay, founder of Studio 317, agreed that creating garments with the capacity for longevity, or giving them a “second life,” is an important part of eliminating waste. Rather than condemning clothes to a landfill fate, brands should be building clothing with the capacity to be repaired and updated, she said.

“Sustainability is a state of mind. It has to be embedded in creativity, design, make and manufacturing,” she said. “It’s easy to count on fabric makers, but brands need to take some responsibility and design product with sustainability in mind from the beginning.”

LeMay asserted that today’s consumer is more ready and willing to shell out for sustainable goods than ever before, and brands should stop shying away from investing in innovative new designs that incorporate thoughtful and responsible materials.

“The consumer these days is more aware of the damage that’s been done. They want to be part of the solution,” she said. The “less-is-more” mentality is weighing out over fast fashion, she said, and younger generations of shoppers are willing to pay for product that lasts longer and doesn’t harm the planet.

At leading cellulosic fabric firm Lenzing, massive investments have been made into the company’s production infrastructure and material innovations. Head of business development Andreas Gurtler agreed that the low value of fast fashion and the fabrics used to create it have been detrimental to attitudes at retail.

“Thirty years ago textiles were much more expensive. They need to become higher value again,” he said.

Costly investments in innovation have not only catapulted the company to success, but they’ve bettered the environment, Gurtler asserted. Lenzing’s impressive roster of materials has been adopted by brands across the globe, despite price points higher than average.

Lenzing began its exploration of man-made cellulosic fibers with Tencel Lyocell eight years ago. Since then, the company has revolutionized modal dyeing with a water- and energy-reducing dye process, and introduced Refibra, a fabric that combines post-industrial waste to the company’s signature Lyocell.

Though the 80-year-old company “wasn’t always as clean as it is now,” Gurtler said, today Lenzing touts itself as the most environmentally beneficial man-made cellulosic fiber producer.

“Lenzing can be considered a solar-driven power plant because the trees are growing with sunlight and CO2,” Gurtler explained.

The leftover bark and resin from the trees are used to create energy, and the mill does not rely at all on fossil fuels, he said. There’s even a surplus of energy that powers the community surrounding the mill’s location in Austria.

Charles Ross, who lectures on sustainable design at the Royal College of Art in London lauded textile manufacturers that are pushing large-scale sustainability tactics instead of getting hung up on industry buzzwords.

“We’re meant to be working toward a circular economy, but a regenerative economy is the bigger picture,” he said. While “looping,” or creating products that can be recycled over again, is a positive move, he argued that most recycled products are actually made from articles of food waste, like water bottles, instead of waste from the fashion industry. That means they’re not truly circular, he said.

But instead of focusing on the concept of circularity, innovators should be intent on creating products from truly renewable sources that allow them to put beneficial resources back into the environment, as Lenzing is doing.

“The fashion industry is more polluting than transport—sea, aviation and land,” he explained. While all should aspire to greatness, he said, it’s not possible for every brand to be a Patagonia. Instead, the industry should focus on “pulling up the laggards” that are poor environmental stewards.

“Our goal is to inspire our customers to do better,” he said. “Selling one more jacket is never going to save the world. If we can change their line of thought, though, they may change their modes of transport or their power sources.”

Those incremental changes across the industry could be game-changing, he said.