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In Sustainability, Educating the Consumer is Half the Battle

When talking about sustainability and circularity, the overriding concept of “collaboration” is usually a part of the conversation. Transforming into an eco-friendly organization is expensive, the story goes, and standalone companies can’t shoulder the burden alone.

For Lenzing, one step in its ongoing endeavor to leave a lesser impact on the environment, has been repurposing post-industrial cutting-room scraps as part of its Tencel Lyocell with Refibra technology, which blends cotton with tree fibers to create an environmentally-friendly fiber.

“We see this as a first step in the journey of going towards post-consumer,” Lenzing’s Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim, said at the WEAR 2018 conference in New York City Tuesday. “The type of money you need to do these investments is something you don’t realize. In the industry we need to come together.”

Industry-wide collaboration would advance many of the fledgling, fragmented efforts currently underway. Carey pointed to systemic challenges like collecting and sorting garments, and the laborious process of separating, not just fibers in multi-blend fabrics, but also trims and other add-ons. Plus, there’s the substantial costs of bringing new ideas like Refibra to market, Carey said, noting the seven or eight years of R&D it took to discover a way to scale the new fiber, which is created through nanotechnology and a closed-loop production process.

Many companies are still wrestling with how to execute on sustainability. “A lot of retailers and brands have goals around circularity and recycling, but they don’t have a roadmap to get there,” Carey said. Here, and with consumers, a lack of education is at least partly to blame. Retailers might ask for a sustainable material, Carey explained, but they want it at the same cost as conventional fabrics.

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Eileen Fisher’s facilitating manager of fabric R&D Inka Apter said consumers often maintain a distorted perception of what “recycled” means with fabric and apparel, failing to understand the technology, work and labor that goes into these materials. Brands have their work cut out in educating shoppers on both the immediate and the long-term value that recycled clothing and fabrics create. Plus, she said, it’s tough communicating how many interconnected pieces there are to the puzzle of circularity.

Even the slightest progress would make a remarkable impact across the industry, Apter noted. “If we can move the needle on 1 percent of textile recycling, it would be great achievement,” she said.

For its part, Patagonia adopts the perspective that repurposing is superior to making a completely brand-new product. “It’s not necessarily the most efficient use of materials to make a shirt into a shirt,” Claudia Richardson, materials innovation team leader, said. Sometimes it’s smarter to be creative about circular solutions and upcycle one product into another, such as how Patagonia turns recycled duvet covers into down jackets.

“The single best case in sustainability is keeping something a little bit longer,” Richardson explained. “Even nine months longer radically reduces the impact.”

Apter emphasized the importance of teaching consumers about why sustainability matters, that the materials that form our clothing have value and shouldn’t automatically be thrown out when apparel reaches its perceived end of life. “If we could make ‘resource management’ sound sexy to the consumer, that would be great,” she said.