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What the Industry’s Sustainability Leaders Are Actually Doing With Their Supply Chains

Sustainability has been the one space driving a race to the top in an apparel sector that has largely chased lowest costs all around the world at the expense of whatever needed expending in order to make margins—also known as the race to the bottom.

Now, however, companies are catching on to the notion that sustainability and cleaner supply chains aren’t just for brands built on that ethos, but for any that want to survive and save face with a consumer who increasingly cares about where and how their goods were made.

As part of its annual Preferred Fiber & Materials report, Textile Exchange has taken to celebrating sustainability leaders in its “Insider Series,” revealing what they’re doing and how they’re getting it done.

H&M has been at the forefront of sustainability efforts, making a recent commitment to only use recycled and other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

“We have a vision of being 100 percent circular which means that we will have a circular approach to how products are made and used, taking a holistic approach to circularity covering our whole value chain from design to end of use and recycling,” Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, H&M acting environmental sustainability manager and circular economy lead, said in the report.

[Read more about the Preferred Fiber report: Textile Exchange Shows Preferred Fiber Uptake is Greater Than Ever Before]

This new approach will govern how H&M designs its products, naturally, the raw materials it chooses, and production processes it adopts, which will have to consider less energy, water and chemical use. Beyond that, the company plans to expand the lifespan of its fast fashion product, so that it wears longer and ends up recycled rather than in landfills.

And that’s where companies like Ecoalf come in.

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The Spanish company dedicated to removing waste from the environment is making polyester from PET bottles and nylon from fishing nets found in the ocean. The company’s founder, Javier Goyeneche, thinks the fabrics and fashion of the new generation should tap into technology to make clothing wholly from recycled materials.

“Through the fishermen in Spain we are recovering the marine litter from all along the bed of the Mediterranean Sea (this is very important, no one is recovering it from the sea bed),” Ecoalf head of innovation and sustainability Carol Blázquez said. “Now we are working in 32 ports, with 440 boats and more than 2,000 fishermen. By the end of 2017, we will have recovered about 150 tons of marine debris.”

Innovation is rampant in sustainability right now, as a slew of brands and organizations and startups, are trying their hands at developing a product or process that does less damage to the environment.

Before long, recycled materials may be commonplace in product labels.

At Evrnu, it’s all about transforming post consumer cotton garment waste into a high quality cellulosic fiber using a state-of-the-art chemical regeneration technology.

“Evrnu fiber can be functionalized to perform like a natural or synthetic fiber, and has significantly improved dye properties compared to cotton, polyester and rayon alternatives,” the company’s CEO and co-founder Stacy Flynn said. “The implementation of the technology will help to preserve the textile supply chain by using minimal water and preventing greenhouse gas produced from garments waste going to landfills.”

Beyond recycling, bio-based products (those made of materials derived from living—or once living—organisms) are becoming the next big thing in sustainability.

Outdoor clothing brand Tierra is on a mission to develop tomorrow’s technical clothes, and its newly developed Deterra jacket is made of 100 percent bio-based material—things like castor beans, wool, corn, Tencel, cotton and corozo nuts.

“After specifying what functions and characteristics we wanted in the product, the challenge was to solve that only with bio based materials. Some details that we take for granted in garments we basically had to solve in other ways because no bio based alternative was available. For example, buttons instead of zippers and Velcro knots instead of plastic cord locks,” Tierra head of product development Erik Blomberg said. “For FW18 we are blending in 30 percent bio based synthetics into the linings we are using. Thirty percent bio based amounts to a lot less extracted oil when we talk about a fabric like lining that we buy a lot of.”

Also turning bio materials into preferred apparel products, newly founded Vegea is turning grape skins into a fabric akin to leather. The company won first prize in the H&M Foundation Global Change Award and the retailer is supporting Vegea in the development process and eventually bring it to scale.

The product is made from processing the oils and lignocellulose in grape excess left over in wine production.

“It was very hard to turn the idea into a real thing,” Vegea founder and CEO Gianpiero Tessitore said in the Preferred Fibers report Insider Series. “We carried out a scientific investigation on different agro-industrial plant-based matrices and after years of totally self-financed research we finally discovered that grape marc (that is to say the grape skins, stalks and seeds that remain after pressing the grapes in the wine making process) contains multifunctional components that are just perfect to be transformed into eco-sustainable technical fabrics.”