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How Circularity and Material Innovation Can ‘Heal Our Planet’

The textile-apparel supply chain has come a long way on the path to sustainability, beginning with acknowledgement and research and development into small-scale innovation and implementation. From collaboration has sprung some scalability, but many feel the fashion world has just seen the tip of the iceberg in trying to achieve full circularity.

“Without material innovation, I don’t know if we’re going to get to this point of circularity and that we’re going to be able to truly heal our planet in a meaningful way,” Megan Stoneburner Azim, director of sustainability and sourcing for Outerknown, said during a Textile Exchange virtual conference panel on “How to Drive the Adoption of Circular Materials.”

“Without clear and thoughtful action, we will continue to spin,” she added.

Sasha Radovich, executive director of Fashion Positive, stressed what she called, “the fashion industry’s problem”–that it is “one of the most toxic and wasteful industries in the world.”

Radovich said each year 13 million tons of textile waste is dumped globally, 95 percent of which could be reused, repurposed or recycled. She noted that dumped clothes emit methane, and pollute soil and waters with chemicals and plastics. On top of that, an estimated $500 billion in value is lost every year.

There is some good news, however, such as Fashion Positive’s first Circular Materials Guidelines that “enables innovators, manufacturers and brands to design for the scale of safer, cleaner materials that build a more resilient fashion industry,” Radovick said. “But there needs to be a connection to circular systems.”

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The guidelines emphasize that circular materials are critical to designing apparel and footwear for the highest value and long-lasting use, enabling clothing to be reused, remade and recycled or composted for a new life.

“We need safe materials that are managed in ways that respect humans, the environment and all living things,” Radovich said. “Circular materials retain their full value material through multiple use-cycles enabled by systems that support recovery and continuous cycling.”

Fashion Positive focuses its efforts on a scalable approach and continuous improvement so that waste and pollution are designed out, she said. Fibers and materials are designed for longevity, resource efficiency, nontoxicity, compostability and recyclability. Products and materials are kept in use at maximum value and material choices should align with the available options for recycling after use.

The circular guidelines also note that companies should know the chemical ingredients of every material in a product and optimize toward safer materials. In addition, clean water needs to be managed as a precious resource and an essential human right, and companies should strive for all manufacturing to be powered by clean, renewable energy.

Valerie Langer, fiber solutions strategist for Canopy, dissected the forest preservation group’s “Next Generation Action Plan,” of how to take 50 percent of the wood out of the pulp supply of products such as cellulosic fibers and paper. The plan has a target investment for 2030 of $64.8 billion to build the mills and approximately $4.2 billion to plant new plantations, for a total of $69 billion.

The next-generation repurposing and repositioning of global pulp composition includes incorporating recycled cotton and microbial-cellulose dissolving pulp mills for production of viscose and other man-made cellulosic fibers and fabrics.

“The role of reduction in maintaining biodiversity and species habitats will have to have multiple components to it,” Langer said. “A strategy will have to have technology to find alternatives, but it also has to have how to reduce consumption so that we come back down from the overshoot.”

She said guidelines such as Canopy’s or Fashion Positive’s not only help supply chain companies establish their own criteria by educating them on proper processes, but also help brands choose which suppliers to work with based on their adherence and participation in these programs.

Canopy Style now has more than 320 fashion brands that have partnered in developing and implementing policies that commit them eliminating the use of ancient and endangered forests in their viscose fabrics and packaging.

The Road to Apparel Industry Circularity Must Begin at the Raw Material Stage
A slide from Tyton’s presentation. Tyton

Peter Majeranowski, CEO of Tyton BioSciences, said his company aims to “power the clean closet” by re-sourcing nature’s raw ingredients from textile waste to make the building blocks of new textile fiber.

Tyton’s chemical process breaks down, through a patented hydrothermal water-based reaction, clothes made from polyester and cotton fabrics and blends, and post-industrial waste from those materials into recycled pure white cotton that takes the place of wood pulp in fiber production, while turning the polyester into a usable byproduct.

“We have very bold ambitions,” Majeranowski said. “By 2030, we will have wanted to have recycled 10 billion garments, which represents 10 percent of annual production, which save about 100 million trees.”

Azim outlined Outerknown’s five-year sustainability goals that include making 75 percent of fabrics and 50 percent of products circular, while designing “timeless garments for product life extension.”

In addition, the company wants to design all new products for increased utility, recyclability and disassembly, and deploy end-of-life solutions with the strongest potential to mitigate impact. Outerknown also aims to launch a renewed category and platform, which will include resale, repair and recycling that’s brand-specific, industry-serving or both.

Ruth Farrell, marketing director of textiles for Eastman, explained that the company developed Naia cellulosic yarn as a sustainable fiber, proactively addressing key industry issues.

“But it’s not enough,” Farrell said. “Our goal for Naia Renew is to bring fashion full circle through circular innovation at scale, without compromise.”

The Naia Renew production process integrates circular content into to cellulosic fiber. Naia Renew combines renewable wood pulp with acetic acid sourced from recycled plastic waste to make filament and spun yarns, so the fiber contains 60 percent wood pulp and 40 percent recycled content.

Eastman has collaborated Naia with fiber and fabric firms in the supply chain as a marketing tool, but also as a means of sharing sustainability goals.

“Collaboration is happening in the textile world because we all feel there is collective responsibility to really fix the future of fashion,” she said. “For Eastman, we feel we’re part of the solution, as well, and we’ve all got our part to play.”