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Fast Fashion Isn’t Going Anywhere. This Startup Wants to Upgrade It

Akshay Sethi is convinced that by 2030 all clothes will be made from recycled materials.

The recent UC Davis grad is the founder of Moral Fiber, a ragtag band of scientists, engineers, designers and “all around crazy people” that claims to have created the world’s first textile product made entirely from old clothing.

Based in California, Moral Fiber wants to create a world where the production of apparel is not only 100 percent circular but also “100 percent infinite.”

Its technology, which is being piloted in a plant in Los Angeles, revolves around an “elegant” three-step chemical process that extracts polyester from mixed-blend materials to generate new yarn.

“We take a mixed material, which has some cotton and polyester, and extract the polyester at the molecular level to produce a new yarn,” Sethi told the United Nations Environment Programme blog on Thursday.

All the necessary equipment fits into a small shipping container—a so-called “box” that can be easily deployed to countries with burgeoning middle classes and high levels of consumption and waste.

Leftover material is incinerated to power the pilot plant, but Sethi says the final box could also draw power from solar panels placed on its roof. The entire transformation process requires between 45 to 50 amps of power at peak consumption.

Beyond textiles, Moral Fiber’s technique can be adapted for other materials, too.

“We’ll start with fabric but it can process packaging, bottles, containers, films, multilayer packaging,” Sethi said. “We see this box as the box that is tailor-made for textiles but in the future, we want to make a box for packaging, a box for carpets and for all sorts of different materials.”

The pilot facility processes around 220 pounds of clothing scraps from local outlets every day. The next step? To scale things up, perhaps even launch a Moral Fiber collection with a major brand. In the grander scheme, Moral Fiber wants to develop a polyester fiber that doesn’t shed and compound the problem of  microplastic pollution in the oceans.

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“What we’ve seen so far is you can make a polyester fibre that doesn’t shed. You can do it, it’s just a question of making it in such a way that it’s scalable,” he said. “We are working on ways to do that right now. You can’t have materials that go into the oceans and biodegrade there and turn into microfibers.”

The company will receive some help in that department: In November, Moral Fiber joined Fashion for Good’s Scaling Programme, an 18-month incubator designed to “drive the growth and adoption rate” of companies with innovative, world-changing solutions. Sethi also has the backing of Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs, and some as-yet-unnamed apparel-chain stakeholders and venture investors.

Sethi says he knows fast fashion isn’t going anywhere, which is why he hopes Moral Fiber can offer a closed-loop solution that keeps raw materials in circulation for as long as possible. 

“All clothing made with Moral Fiber can be infinitely recycled,” he said. “When it comes to product life cycles, we must return to infinity. It is the only way.”