The outbreak of fashion giants into sustainability has accelerated the research and development of new materials, but for many companies to enter that universe is still a utopia.
“This season, for the first time, we have started making garments with sustainable materials,” explains a Spanish manufacturer located in the outskirts of Madrid. “Stores come to place their orders, take a good look, but the articles that they purchase are the same as always,” states. For the time being, it has only developed part of a collection with recycled cotton and polyester made of recycled plastic. Seeing ones against the others, the difference is as noticeable as that of the first recycled paper with the regular one. The businessman points out with resignation that no matter how much interest you have in entering this segment, it still has its limitations: pricing, availability and supply.
Sustainability is increasingly gaining more acceptance in fashion business. Whether because of the growing social pressure or to anticipate a future with less access to the current raw materials, the fashion industry has begun to increase the demand for new sustainable fibres. The interest in this issue is such that research in textile innovation has left smart fabrics or wearables aside in order to focus exclusively on new eco materials.
Fashion giants outbreak into sustainability has accelerated research and innovation in ecological materials to the point that today it is possible to develop a collection equally through traditional methods and sustainable ones. The access barriers of sustainable materials are related to techniques, processes and finishings, but especially, to the business model.
One of the main limitations of recycled cotton is that the fibre is very short and needs to be mixed with polyester to give the fabric resistance
Being small, in the universe of sustainability, is also a disadvantage. The survival of a start up in the traditional fashion system is even higher than in a sustainable one. So it is for fast fashion and low cost retailer business models that purchase goods in volume.
The model matters because the first stage to work using a sustainable system goes through the designer. “It is not only important to know the materials that exist in the market, but also how to use them,” explains Anna Cañadell, co-founder of the Bcome consultancy, specialized in sustainable fashion.
“It is important that the designer knows which materials to use to make the collection sustainable, that is, even if a garment is made of recycled cotton, if it has been mixed with elastomer, it has been dyed black and decorated with sequins, it is far from being sustainable,” claims Cañadell. On the technical aspect, there are still some restrictions.
“Even if a garment is made of recycled cotton, if it has been mixed with elastomer, it has been dyed black and decorated with sequins, it is far from being sustainable,” according to Anna Cañadell.
One of the most common technical limitations are, for example, the short fibres of recycled cotton. This disadvantage forces to mix it with polyester to give the fabric more resistance. Another one of the drawbacks are some colours, such as the range of fluoros, as well as more conventional ones such as black or red, which generate more waste that the others.
Recycled cotton, on the other hand, has a limited range of colour, which comes from the separation of textile waste by colours before being processed. If you want a particular tone that is outside the colour palette, it should be dyed separately.
Beyond the technical aspect, another barrier to get into this universe is the availability of materials. Sustainable cotton is more exposed to inclement weather and plagues, while it is grown on smaller areas and by small farmers. The special characteristics of these plantations generate greater uncertainty associated to supply.
In the system of sustainability there is no stock, neither of fabric nor of natural raw materials
However, that is perhaps the limitation that is most rapidly being addressed. The accessibility of sustainable raw materials has skyrocketed in recent years with the entrance of fashion retail giants. “Sustainability is not an individual matter, but a collective one, otherwise, it will not be possible to develop,” explains Gabriel Farías, expert in supply.
For the market to have sustainable raw materials available and at a good price, it is necessary to be able to create economies of scale to make its production profitable. Hence, access barriers to sustainability by start-ups or companies that work under the fast fashion model are even higher than in the traditional system.
“It is not common to work with stocks made of sustainable fabrics yet, there are not textile brokers in this field,” explains Mikel Feijoo, founder of Skunkfunk. “The most typical situation is to have the brand collaborate in the process of tissue development,” affirms.
To guarantee the access to sustainable materials it is necessary to work hand in hand with weaver and manufacturer
In this respect, while the traditional system purchases fabrics from China, a sustainable one goes hand in hand with the garment manufacturer to Portugal in search of materials. The value chain, therefore, narrows. Nevertheless, to cover the burden of size, some platforms, such as B2Fabric are starting to emerge, which group together the demand of small companies to make purchases.
The price of being sustainable is also higher. Not only the raw material itself, but everything that implies its use. The take-off of sustainability is still too incipient: it is difficult to work with large volumes, we do not work with stocks, most of them have to be imported and some materials require extra processes.
Finally, in the recycling process of the garment, the last stage of the life cycle of a product, we must also consider that the greater the complexity of the architecture is, the lower the degree of sustainability. “The more zippers, buttons, and sequins a garment has, the more complex the recycling process will be,” explains Cañadell.
In this sense, Farías adds that a system that separates textile fibres without damaging them is still to be developed. For now, the British Worn Again, participated by H&M, is one of the pioneers in this field. Nowadays, recycling continues to be the same as before: pressing textile waste and spinning it again, but the future of circularity is based on not having to produce thread again for the industry.