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Sustainability, while fashionable, is a challenge for the industry

A craftwoman passes by pieces of leather on October 12, 2018 at the Louis Vuitton leather work factory in Juilley, western France. Fashion giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton has signed a five-year biodiversity partnership with UNESCO, committing to an ambitious set of environmental goals. LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

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Plastic water bottles are being transformed into jackets, old carpets are being spun into couture dresses and marine waste has a second life in the form of sunglasses.

From H&M to mom-and-pop fabric companies, big and small players in the textiles industry seem to be making conscientious efforts to reduce the 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste filling our landfills each year.

And it goes right to the top. This week, luxury fashion giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, following its Rihanna announcement, signed a five-year biodiversity partnership with UNESCO, committing to an ambitious set of environmental goals.

But a study released earlier this month indicates that, in vogue as sustainability might be, adoption of systems and practices that make an appreciable difference can be challenging.

According to the annual “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report, while progress is being made in environmental sustainability, the rate of improvement has slowed due to economic and technological hurdles. The global market for apparel, meanwhile, is continuing to grow aggressively.

“Unfortunately, there is still a significant part of the global fashion industry (10-15%) that has not yet embarked on any advances towards more responsible practices,” the report said.

Recycled fabrics

Outdoor clothing makers were the first to champion sustainability, according to Nate Herman, vice president of the supply chain at the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA).

“Now, it’s spread to pretty much every part of the industry,” Herman said. “They’ve learned ways to reuse their product. But there’s no easy answer when it comes to recycling clothes.”

One recent obstacle for U.S. recycling, as a whole, has been China’s restriction on imports of American recyclable materials.

But some textiles manufacturers are fortunate to have recycling carried out a little closer to home. Unifi, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of synthetic yarns, launched a recycled polyester yarn, Repreve, in 2007. Since, the product has come into vogue.

Unifi opened its own recycling center in Yadkinville, North Carolina, in 2010. In 2014, it expanded the operation, citing increased “demand from new customer adoptions with companies such as Ford, The North Face, Nike, Volcom and Patagonia.”

In 2016, Unifi opened a Repreve-dedicated bottle processing center, a $28 million investment. “We have limited supplies on this earth. We can take bottles, blankets, and clothing back and make them into something new and exciting,” said Helen Sahi, vice president of global sustainability at Unifi.

Fashion brands are not alone in making an effort. In 2018, the company partnered with the Mercedes Benz Stadium, Georgia Aquarium, and Atlanta International Airport to recycle bottles. With 60,000 plastic bottles collected, Unifi was able to make 10,000 volunteer jackets.

To date, 14 billion plastic bottles have been made into Repreve. Plastic bottles are washed, converted into a flake, and melted into yarn. It’s a yarn Unifi claims doesn’t sacrifice on “beauty, color, or other attributes,” and has been used by brands from Mara Hoffmann to Quiksilver.

Supply and demand

Since 2015, H&M, the second-largest fashion retailer in sales (after Inditex, the parent of Zara and many others), has conducted “garment collecting” drives, enabling the collection of tens of thousands of tons of clothing from customers.

The yield is sorted into three categories: “rewear”, clothing that can be sold as second-hand; “reuse,” clothing converted into products like cleaning cloths; and “recycle,” clothing turned into textile fiber, used for insulation and other materials.

“In 2018, we collected more than three million pounds of garments to give them a second life,” an H&M spokesperson told Marketplace. Recycled or other sustainably sourced materials currently make up 57% of H&M Group’s total material use.

Textile manufacturers are basing expansion plans on global demand for recycled or repurposed materials. One such manufacturer, Aquafil, an international textiles producer with headquarters in Italy, makes and markets Econyl, a nylon yarn made from industrial and household waste.

Econyl, which is manufactured from materials as diverse as fishing nets and discarded carpets, has been used by more than 600 fashion brands, including high-end designers like Gucci and Stella McCartney.

“Last year, Aquafil recycled five million pounds of nylon and other materials,” said chief executive, Giulio Bonazzi.

Bonazzi wants to double that quantity by 2021. “We will not be here if we don’t change something,” he said.

Green chemistry

Fashion companies are also reducing their reliance on harmful chemicals like mercury dyes and formaldehyde finishes, which studies have shown to contribute to health problems like asthma and cancer.

When it comes to chemical use in the creation of textiles and fabrics, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s green chemistry program funds research by third parties and shares its own research with manufacturers and customers using a variety of agreements and licensing arrangements.

While some companies recycle and reuse petroleum-based products such as polyester fabrics, “green chemistry” pursues the replacement of these chemicals with those derived from renewable agricultural, marine and forestry materials.

In 2007, Patty Grossman partnered with her sister, Leigh Ann Van Dusen, to develop Two Sisters Ecotextiles, an eco-friendly textiles manufacturing company based in Seattle. Green chemistry is central to their business plan.

“We only produce using natural and cellulosic fibres,” Grossman said. “We have to make sure that our certified dyes don’t have too much copper in them — copper is extremely toxic to fish. You can bury our fabrics in your backyard and grow tomatoes out of them, because we don’t use synthetics,” she said.

The AAFA published the 20th edition of its restricted substance list earlier this year, which features 250 chemicals. Coming up with a list of good chemicals to replace the restricted ones, however, has been more difficult. Herman said that many alternatives hadn’t been tested yet.

Even so, he said there had been an appreciable push to remove harmful chemicals from American manufacturing in the past 10 or 15 years.

Grossman, whose company was born out of frustration at a lack of eco-friendly and chemical-free materials, took a more pessimistic view. “The efforts at trying to decrease the environmental footprint around synthetics have been extraordinarily weak so far,” she said.

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