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Responsible Sourcing Gets Buttoned up With Sustainable Findings

Fabric. Fabric. Fabric. If textiles are the Marcia Brady of the garment industry, then buttons, zippers, fasteners, and trims are the Jan.

They may not be sexy, but they’re certainly indispensable. Divested of zippers, coats would be ineffectual buffers against the cold. Without buttons, pants would puddle on the floor. If hooks and eyes suddenly vanished overnight, we’d have to contend with a lifetime of stretch knits we must shimmy over our heads.

Even in the sustainable sector, where provenance is king, findings and notions are rarely spoken of in the same rapt tones as, say, cruelty-free organic silk or regenerated fishnet nylon. Notions offer few of the same tactile delights, nor do they typically make for compelling spiels.

But times, as they say, may be a-changing.

Demand for more sustainable trims is rising

Laurin Guthrie, a textiles manager with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute in Oakland, California, has seen requests for eco-friendlier trims and findings soar in the past couple of years.

“We’ve seen so much improvement in materials such as fabrics and yarns that now we have lots of people asking us about zippers or buttons because they’re realizing that there are a lot of other components,” she said. “People are asking, ‘OK, what’s the next step? How do we take this further?’”

With lace, ribbons, and fabric trims more or less textile-adjacent, it falls to hardware makers to break new ground.

And new, it appears, is what brands and designers prefer.

Though abundant, surplus findings come with their own baggage. Luxury houses like to brand their buttons and zippers, which makes them tricky to repurpose. Secondhand accessories, ripped from used clothing, are disquietingly unknown quantities.

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“Generally, there is a low demand for sourcing ‘waste’ trims and certainly secondhand trims, most notably zippers, into collections,” said Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Redress, a Hong Kong not-for-profit that promotes the reduction of textile waste through an annual design competition. “An important sustainability consideration boils down to whether they’re good quality and durable. It’s completely counterproductive to scavenge around for secondhand zippers that might fail. You risk sending the well-intentioned garment into early retirement in a landfill.”

Italy’s Lanfranchi, whose clients include Stella McCartney, knows a thing or two about zippers.

For the past 10 years, Lanfranchi’s zippers have been certified Standard 100 Class I by Oeko-Tex, meaning that they’re free from a litany of banned and controlled substances like formaldehyde, heavy metals, and potentially toxic dyestuffs.

It fetes ribbons made from better-for-the-planet materials such as organic cotton, dyed using a Global Organic Textiles Standard–approved process, and Newlife, a recycled polyester derived from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles.

But more than a sum of its products, Lanfranchi is a well-honed supply chain designed to slash greenhouse gases, minimize water use and reduce waste. The company’s weaving facility, for instance, runs on solar power. Production waste, from cotton offcuts to brass remnants, gets doled out to a network of companies for reuse. And like in the rest of Europe, worker welfare adheres to rigid standards.

“We don’t make environmentally friendly products only,” said Gaetano Lanfranchi, CEO of Lanfranchi. “The whole company and its production cycle aim at reducing waste and giving value to its following use. We believe that sustainability and innovation are keys for a market-competitive offer able to respect today’s values.”

New materials and processes enter the fray

For YKK, perhaps the world’s largest manufacturer of zippers, sustainability is also an opportunity to tell better stories.

Its North and Central American Group offers a zipper tape made with Pakistan-sourced organic cotton, as well as a “perpetually recyclable” coil zipper fabricated from recycled plastic bottles.

There are also snaps and buttons with water- and chemical-saving finishes that eschew the energy-intensive electroplating process. Last year, YKK received a Good Design Award from the Institute of Design Promotion in its native Japan for pioneering a new technique for dyeing zippers using very little water.

Coming down the pipeline: a series of fasteners composed of bioplastic, a catchall term used to describe any kind of polymer that uses plant-based biomass in lieu of petroleum.

“Though these products are still under development, we are excited about the new story they could bring to YKK’s sustainable products and activities,” said Mike Maekawa, account executive at YKK U.S.A.

Plastics that take weeks, rather than centuries, to break down under the right conditions are an economical alternative to so-called natural materials like corozo nut, bone and shell, which telegraph a more upmarket vibe.

But biodegradable plastics don’t have to be organic in origin. Germany’s Lauffenmühle has developed a non–polylactic acid—that is to say, synthetic—polymer it has incorporated into a “tool kit” that includes sewing yarns, elastic bands, ribbons, cords, buttons and interlinings. The process is proprietary, so specifics remain very hush-hush.

“Some of the stuff this company is doing, I haven’t seen anything else like it,” said Guthrie, whose employer now counts Lauffenmühle’s Infinito line, rated Silver, among its burgeoning materials library for apparel.

“We’re really hoping to find more of these small innovative companies that are pushing those boundaries so we can figure out how we can scale that technology,” she added.

It all comes down to scale

It’s the comparatively niche nature of some of these products that can make them more expensive, whether they’re being offered by a boutique outfit like Lanfranchi or an industry juggernaut like YKK.

“Generally, recycled materials, such as PET from empty beverage bottles, are more expensive than new materials,” said Beth Whelchel, communications specialist at YKK U.S.A. “Organic cotton is also sold at a slightly higher price than non-organic, though cost can fluctuate based on supply and demand.”

Guthrie sees it as less a materials issue than one of scale, at least for smaller businesses.

“Small companies aren’t necessarily working with volumes that give them the same economies of scale as someone who’s dealing with billions of units,” she said. “But as soon as people start to adopt them, you’ll see the price go down pretty quickly.”

But first, a few bold-faced names need to take a leap.

Outdoor-apparel firms, synonymous with technical innovation, yet deeply rooted in the natural world, face a unique pressure. We look to them to create products that make us feel invincible against the elements but not at the expense of the environment.

Recycled materials take a lead

In December, Columbia debuted what it dubbed the “ultimate sustainable breathable solution for extreme conditions”: a rain jacket that boasted 100 percent recycled content, from the dye-free outer shell to the labels, trims, toggles, zippers and eyelets.

Around the same time, Patagonia launched its “Re///Collection,” a capsule-cum-“design experiment” that contained the clothing company’s highest recycled content yet.

Like its rival, Patagonia decided to sweat the details by highlighting its recycled zippers, buttons and drawcords alongside its regenerated wool and PET-fleece fabrics.

In time, recycled findings could be the norm instead of the exception.

“We have been working on recycled trim conversions from virgin materials to recycled for years,” said Sarah Hayes, senior manager of materials innovation and development at the Ventura, Calif.-based company. “But we have to make sure they meet our performance, quality, and durability standards before we switch. Trims can often be the most widely used working parts on garments, so we need to be confident they are built to last.”

And if functional components have been overlooked in the sustainability stakes thus far, they may not be for much longer.

“We’re seeing more suppliers offering eco trim offerings in their line, whether recycled materials or organic cotton tapes,” Hayes said. “Other brands have begun incorporating the recycled findings that we have seen in the outdoor market, so hopefully the momentum continues to build.”

And in characterizing Patagonia, Hayes might as well have spoken for the entire industry.

“We know it’s a journey but we are working towards long-term solutions,” she said.