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Rethinking Materials for a Circular Supply Chain and ‘Systemic Shift’

Before material innovation can save fashion, sustainability must save material innovation. And not just any broadly sweeping definition of sustainability: In today’s climate-sensitive milieu, cutting-edge and breakthrough materials made from agricultural waste, biodegradable plastic or mushroom roots must not only tread less heavily on the environment at the outset, but also avoid becoming landfill or incinerator fodder.

In short, they must be designed for the circular economy, where resources are constantly regenerated and nothing is wasted.

Still, material innovation in isolation won’t solve fashion’s systemic issues, said Annie Gullingsrud, chief strategy officer at Eon, a New York startup creating an industry-standard digital identity for authenticating products at every stage of the fashion supply chain. “Circularity should be a systemic shift in the way we do things,” she said. “If we’re isolating these pieces of the chain, we’re not going to the heart of the problems.”

Indeed, fashion’s problems are manifold. By some estimates, the industry produces up to 10 percent of global carbon emissions, consumes 79 trillion liters of water and generates 92 million metric tons of waste every year. Novel materials are designed to attack these pain points by using less water than their existing counterparts, curbing greenhouse gases or diverting cutting-floor castoffs, while providing the same or superior performance.

When Seattle’s Circular Systems created its Agraloop BioFibre, it was with the idea of using up the millions of fibrous crop residues—think banana trunks, pineapple leaves, sugarcane barks and oilseed hemp and flax stalk—that are discarded every harvest season worldwide. Because they’re inedible and therefore devoid of value, most are burned or left behind to rot on fields, fueling air pollution or ramping up greenhouse-gas emissions.

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“So if we can take that biomass off the field and find better applications for it, it’s tremendously important,” said Isaac Nichelson, co-founder and CEO of Circular Systems, which turns the waste into high-value textiles without the harsh chemicals and prodigious water and energy that more conventional viscose production demands.

When the material is ready for its next go-around, Circular Systems Texloop recycling process, which accepts pre- and post-consumer textile waste in myriad compositions and blends, can give it a head start. “Circularity as you could probably tell by the name of our company is inherent in everything we do,” Nichelson said. “We wouldn’t even call it end of life, we would call it endless life.”

Californians Phil Ross and Sophia Wang established MycoWorks, which creates clothing and accessories from fungi, because they saw sawdust from the logging industry as grist for growing new materials that could mimic animal byproducts or plastic. Reishi, the company’s mycelium material, is the “only non-animal, non-plastic material that performs like cowhide leather with respect to strength and durability,” said MycoWorks  CEO Matthew Scullin.

MycoWorks is still working on an end-of-life management plan for its material. “At the end of its life it can potentially be reused as a feedstock for new Reishi sheets,” Scullin said. “We are studying this currently.”

Sometimes end of life can serve as a material’s starting point. When PrimaLoft started developing its Bio fiber in 2014, it was with the goal of creating a recycled polyester fiber that microbes would break down in a landfill or ocean. But the Latham, N.Y. firm also found a way to chemically recycle the fibers with a 95 percent yield rate, setting them up to be “renewable in a circular economy,” according to communications director Ken Fisk.

“The material can be used in perpetuity because the plastic is completely depolymerized, purified and re-polymerized,” Fisk said. “This way, the quality will be always the same after undergoing the chemical recycling process.”

Aquafil, too, conceived of its Econyl fiber, a 100 percent “regenerated” nylon derived from recovered fishing nets, recycled carpeting and other bits of fabric waste, as a way to tackle the problem of burgeoning landfills and ocean pollution. High-street and luxury brands, from Speedo to Prada have embraced Econyl, which takes the view that waste isn’t really waste but an “abundant resource,” said Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil’s chairman and CEO. Econyl is made with a minimum of 50 percent post-consumer materials and can be recycled an “infinite number” of times without a loss in quality, he said.

“A circular economy is the foundation of a sustainable society—one which minimizes the use of virgin resources, does not pollute our environment, protects human health, is regenerative where we have done prior damage and brings us back to a more reasonable and sustainable use of our finite resources,” Bonazzi said.

To that end, Econyl is currently piloting several take-back programs with the express intention of reclaiming the material. “Waste is undoubtedly a useful resource and we should find a useful solution that brings the materials back into the production flow,” Bonazzi added.

Seattle startup Evrnu takes a similar tack with post-consumer cotton, polyester and elastane. It extracts the molecular building blocks of the original fibers so new ones can be recreated multiple times.

“All are designed to create higher quality raw materials from waste that are recyclable, improve product performance while simultaneously reducing impact to natural resources,” said Stacey Flynn, the company’s CEO. “We’ve been playing a low-cost game for the last 20 years by throwing things away and then trying to make products cheaper only to throw them away.  This cycle cannot sustain our industry or our planet. Our approach is designed to create balance between what we give and take on a fiber level.”

Lenzing is another company that’s sees treasure in trash. The Austrian viscose giant has been working on including more recycled content into its Tencel with Refibra fibers, including post-consumer cotton. Because its processes are chemical rather than mechanical, it can sidestep the issue of declining quality due to the shorter staple lengths of chopped-up fibers. But its lyocell fibers, made from sustainably harvested wood, is also certified biodegradable and compostable, which means in the absence of alternatives they can “return to nature,” said Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing. “We continue to research fiber separation technologies for future recycling opportunities.”

Eschewing virgin for recycled materials has benefits beyond diverting trash. In many instances, climate mitigation is the overarching goal.

Evrnu’s technology, for instance, reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent compared with conventional polyester production and reduces water usage by 98 percent compared with traditional cotton fiber. Per Bonazzi, every 10,000 tons of Econyl raw material saves 70,000 barrels of crude oil and avoids the equivalent of 57,100 tons of carbon dioxide.

Circular Systems wants to nip the problem in the bud, since burning in the United States and India alone emits 26 gigatons of carbon on an annual basis, according to Nichelson. And Lenzing touts many of its fibers as “net benefit” because they contribute to the company’s goal of becoming climate neutral by 2030.

This fall, PrimaLoft is poised to unveil a new insulation manufacturing process, called Produced Using Reduced Emissions, a.k.a. PURE, that it says will slash carbon emissions by 48 percent over current technologies.

Still, any material, no matter how novel, needs to be considered in total and not as a series of optional boxes to check off, said Christina Raab, vice president of strategy and development at the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, the San Francisco-based nonprofit behind the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard.

“Just because a material is innovative does not necessarily mean that it is safe and responsibly made,” she said. “Most discussions on circularity fall short of a holistic, contextualized sustainability view and the linkages with topics such as material health, climate or social fairness.”

Equally important, says Gullingsrud, is connecting those materials with a digital, cloud-based system, like Eon, so they can be recaptured and managed in the way they were designed.

“If materials are not identified and connected, it can’t tell people [such as textile recyclers or resellers] what to do with them,” she said. “They become invisible in the system, and they’re going to be treated like anything else.”

If a novel material is better than its forebears, it needs to be able to communicate those attributes in an accessible, easy-to-understand format. “We need a way to follow through with the intention,” Gullingsrud said.

Learn more about how the apparel industry is developing textiles to address sustainability, health and performance. Download Sourcing Journal’s Material Innovation 2020 Report here.