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Sustainable Textile Innovation Is Good Business

Developing and championing sustainable textiles has become a mainstream—rather than sideline—effort for the apparel industry.

And it’s about time.

“The industry produces 150 billion garments a year and one fifth of them will be incinerated or end up in landfills,” said Kate Black, founder of Magnifeco, an online publication that covers all things eco fashion. “Buying isn’t the problem. Making isn’t the problem. Innovation is our way out.”

At the “Smart Materials, A Step Forward in Innovation” seminar during the first day of Premiere Vision New York Tuesday, the emphasis was on collaboration. The panelists agreed that everyone along the supply chain needs to work together and make sustainability an intrinsic part of their processes, thoughts and messaging—for a better planet as well as better businesses.

“Differentiation is something we need, and materials is one of the things that can help do that,” said moderator Giusy Bettoni, CEO of C.L.A.S.S., a sustainable innovation consultancy.

From the beginning, Patagonia has differientiated itself based on its devotion to protecting the planet. It’s not often that you hear an apparel company advise fans not to buy, but that’s exactly what the label espouses, purchasing quality products and hanging onto them.

This holiday season the brand donated all of its Black Friday sales to ecologically focused nonprofits. The announcement sent shoppers into its stores and online site in droves. The result was $10 million dollars in sales, which far surpassed the company’s $2 million-dollar goal.

Clearly Patagonia has tapped into something.

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And the commitment extends all the way through product development. Whereas the retailer used to champion recycling in the 90s, today sustainability is about innovation. Claudia Richardson, Patagonia’s materials innovation manager, is most excited about the company’s push into unexpected materials.

“We’re looking at synthetic spider silk,” she said. “There’s a company in the Bay area called Bolt Threads. They’ve cracked the code on making the beautiful material that spiders can weave. It has really great tune-able properties, and it’s elastic, high tenacity, lightweight.”

Partnerships like these are what’s enabled the company to break ground with exciting, eco products. Another of her favorites is the wet suits Patagonia brought to market that use FSC-certified natural rubber found in the highlands of Guatemala rather than neoprene, which is non-renewable, petroleum-based and energy intensive to produce.

“We focus on real involvement and transparency in all aspects of the supply chain. We believe openness causes opportunities,” Richardson said. “We have a lot of eager suppliers who are really interested in working on sustainable solutions. We like to be innovators in the space and hope that others will follow, and often suppliers are willing to be on the front end of that.”

The Council of Fashion Designers of Ameria is working with its members as well as emerging design talent to instill the same level of passion and enthusiasm. Through the organization’s work with partners like Lexus and Eileen Fisher, the CFDA is able to provide talent with hands-on experience working through design and business challenges with an eye toward sustainability.

“When we talk about systems, it’s about designing not only clothes, it’s about naturally, intuitively thinking about lifecycle and having smart decision-making processes not only about how a product is used but its afterlife and the impact,” said Sara Kozlowsi, director of education and professional development at the CFDA.

For example, the CFDA recently facilitated a residency program for Parsons graduates at Eileen Fisher, during which they tackled systems thinking and ultimately created a capsule collection that is 97 percent zero waste. Kozlowski also applauded CFDA members who are applying critical thought to their businesses like footwear brand Brother Vellies which is “working with global artisans and reconfiguring a very creative but ethical supply chain”

Inspired by the speed with which the public embraced organic food, Kate Black set out to propel the adoption of smart apparel along a similar trajectory. In addition to Magnifeco, she also launched EcoSessions, a discussion series which brings designers, industry and consumers together.

For her, consumer education is a big piece of the puzzle. She argues shoppers need to understand the benefits in order to make smart decisions before they hit the register.

“One of the issues with smart textiles, they’re so exciting and they’re so revolutionary and they’re really going to change the industry for good but I think consumers have a hard time picturing the model,” Black said. “We’re past the days where consumers think of ethical or eco fashion as something like hemp that’s scratchy, but to think of innovative, smart textile as sexy or wearable is something we still need to work on.”