Steven Asiala, Senior Business Development Coordinator, has been finding out how the fashion and textiles industry is addressing sustainability challenges, and what biotechnology can contribute.

Sustainable practice, from raw materials through product end of life, is an essential consideration now for everyone. This was the clear message at the recent meeting of the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industries (ASBCI), titled “Time for Change: Facing up to Fashion’s Sustainability and Ethical Challenges”.

This truth raises many questions, such as; what would an industrial biotech innovation centre like IBioIC be doing in this room, and more importantly, what does sustainability look like in the context of fashion and textiles production?

So why were we there?

I attended this event to learn more about the sustainability and ethical challenges that the fashion and textiles industries face. This is a new area of attention for IBioIC, so there is a significant learning opportunity for us.

As we learn more about these challenges, we can start to understand the role that revolutionary biotechnologies already play in this sector, and start to consider what the future might hold for biotech application.

What are the sustainability and ethical issues for the fashion and textiles industry?

Highlights start, as the conference did, with a clip from the film True Cost. This set the tone for the day that the room was going to speak honestly and openly about the challenges of the industry.

Lucy Murphy of Shirley Technologies, a testing house for the industry, provided a concise image for how her organization approaches sustainable practice. They envisage sustainability touching each part of textiles production, from raw materials, in production, in added chemicals, and through end of life of garments.

Vanessa Wakefield, General Secretary at Recyclatex Group, challenged the room to consider ‘waste’ generated in textiles, including post-consumer, not as an afterthought, but as a resource.

Vanessa gave a wonderful talk, highlight some astonishing facts about the industry, and what work is being is being performed around sustainable alternatives for raw materials and textile recycling.

First some facts:

• The average UK shopper buys 27kg of clothes/year.
• 140M tonnes of clothes end up in landfills every year, not including those which are incinerated.
• 50% of all textiles are oil-based.

Whoa. Vanessa followed up by highlighting a handful of companies who are looking at both recycled and recyclable materials (follow the links to read more on each):

Evrnu— Purification of post-consumer textiles into new, sustainable fibres
RE:NewCell—Cotton and viscose recycled into a biodegradable pulp, fibres, yarn, and fabrics
Patagonia—Utilizing recycled polyester in jackets (since ’93!)
Hong Kong Research Institute for Textile and Apparel (HKRITA)—This organization has many irons in the fire around garment recycling development, including a garment-to-garment (G2G) recycling demonstrator, wherein you can bring in an item and have a new one in 2-3 days. They are developing mechanical (with Novetex), hydrothermal, and fungal enzymatic recycling schemes. The latter is particularly exciting from an IB perspective, as it produces both recycled solid polyester fibres and a soluble glucose stream for further conversion.
BlockTexx— Working to close the loop via their Separation of Fibre Technology (S.O.F.T.), distinguishing between polyester and cotton in blends, and generating cellulosic powders.

Moving forward, Jackie Lewis, a consultant with Alvanon, caught many off guard by asking a seemingly simple question, one that I’ve now been turning over in my head for days: “Is sustainability just another, or a new, word for efficiency?”

Andrew Morgan, who is responsible for corporate responsibility for Coats, gave us a run-down on his company’s five pillars of responsibility—1) water, 2) energy, 3) effluent and emissions, 4) social, and 5) living sustainably. As importantly, he highlighted the importance of not working on these problems in isolation, which was a useful insight.

GreenEarth Sustainability Director Gary Knox noted an exciting truth—sometimes the ‘green alternative’ to a traditional material or process is actually better in a number of ways! His company’s more environmentally friendly, silicone-based dry cleaning methods are less harsh on fabrics than the traditional perchloroethylene (PERC).

Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Design at the University of Leeds, posed another great question—are informed customers green customers?
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest this is true, and may come down the fact that we consumers aren’t entirely rational when making many of life’s decisions. This has implications across MANY sectors (see the Freakonomics Radio podcast feed…), and calls into question the effectiveness of some of the work many of us have done to “inform the public about” the topic du jour.

Overall, the day was a great learning experience. I got to dip my toe into the water in a new sector, beginning to understand its challenges and the thinking processes of some of its key players. I look forward to digging deeper into this space, and helping to identify opportunities for biotech application as the textiles sector becomes more engaged in the bio- and circular economies.

by Steven Asiala, Senior Business Development Coordinator