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Why Ralph Lauren Invested in This Material-Science Startup

Ralph Lauren is furthering its sustainability push with a new minority investment in Natural Fiber Welding (NFW), a sustainable material science startup that reuses natural fibers such as cotton waste to create more durable, high-performance materials and goods.

As a part of the investment, Ralph Lauren will help scale NFW’s patented process and develop performance apparel made from natural, sustainable materials. With the funding, NFW expects to double its 47-employee staff to approximately 100 in the coming year. Ralph Lauren has not disclosed its investment total.

“We have evolved and progressed our business for more than 50 years because we constantly push ourselves to think openly and differently about how to approach challenges,” said David Lauren, vice chairman and chief innovation officer at Ralph Lauren. “Today, sustainability is an area where this is especially important, and investing with partners to scale innovative solutions is a key part of our sustainability strategy. We are excited to support the work of NFW, a pioneer in this field. Their technology has the power to not only advance our work at Ralph Lauren, but effect positive change across the entire industry.”

In June 2019, Ralph Lauren rolled out its Design the Change initiative to implement sustainable practices and promote a more inclusive company culture through 2025. The program focuses on three key areas: design, environmental protection and enriching lives.

Under the plan, Ralph Lauren aims to achieve 100 percent sustainability in materials, including cotton, by 2025. Through the NFW investment, Ralph Lauren looks to expand its use of recycled post-consumer cotton, helping to advance the progress in this area, while integrating zero-waste principles across its business. The rationale from Ralph Lauren is that recycled cotton is often unsuitable for use in new cotton apparel due to the short fibers created during recycling.

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Over time, the NFW partnership will enable Ralph Lauren to replace and reduce its reliance on non-biodegradable synthetics, such as polyester and nylon, while scaling the use of more sustainable and upcycled materials. By 2025, Ralph Lauren aims to stop using virgin polyester entirely, pledging to remove at least 170 million plastic bottles from landfills and oceans.

Founded in 2015, NFW created a process to weld short fibers into longer fibers to create high-performance cotton yarns, which can incorporate cotton and other plant-based waste fibers like flax, silk, and wool. This patented process can create an opportunity to reuse post-consumer cotton waste and impart performance characteristics into the fiber. The resulting upcycled material is designed to outperform synthetic fabrics while still retaining the comfortable feel of cotton. ​

The material is called Clarus, which can be made from any natural fiber be it recycled, virgin or virgin organic. Using green-chemistry principles and closed-loop processes, NFW is able to revitalize recycled fibers and engineer performance cotton textiles. It is accomplished by the manipulation of molecular bonding.

Durability in materials is becoming an important factor in the apparel sector’s move to sustainability. According to a 2012 Waste & Resources Action Programme study, using a piece of clothing nine months longer can reduce its associated carbon emissions by 27 percent, water use by 33 percent and waste by 22 percent.

The average overproduction of apparel, McKinsey estimates, clocks in at 20 percent. While manufacturers recycle roughly 75 percent of their pre-consumer textile waste, the remaining 25 percent largely winds up in landfills or incinerators.

As part of the Design the Change initiative, Ralph Lauren also set a goal to train its product development and merchant teams on circularity, cultural awareness and inclusivity by 2020.  Ralph Lauren also made plans to set its own “science-based” goals for greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.

In December, the apparel company added another aspect to the initiative by officially committing to converting its business, including offices, stores and distribution centers, to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2025.

As part of its pledge to support sustainability, Ralph Lauren signed the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which places an emphasis on sourcing raw materials with a low impact on the environment along with the pursuit of renewable energy usage.

To meet its renewable energy goals, Ralph Lauren said it will begin to pay for virtual power purchase agreements (VPPAs) in North America and assess a select number of its U.S. facilities for possible solar power installations.