Millennials have been accused of ruining a great number of things from dinner dates to napkins and relationships. Whilst the recent renaissance of Juicy Couture, chokers or the Y2K aesthetic may have raised an eyebrow or two, there is a silver lining in the Millennial-led revival of noughties’ vintage.
This generation has also led the charge to cut through the environmental straitjacket of the fashion industry, rewarding companies committed to circular design, as well as easiness and transparency through digital tools.
The pandemic has brought about a day of reckoning for business as usual, reinforcing and expediting existing fashion industry trends. According to McKinsey, the disruption will provide lucrative investment opportunities, call to question the degree of physical-digital store divide, and force a rethink of value chains and hence a search for deeper partnerships and collaborative efforts.
Imagining a sustainable value chain
The EU-funded New Cotton Project (NCP) is an effort to redesign the fashion ecosystem and to prove the commercial feasibility of circular garment production. The twelve participants will carry out different functions for the collection, sorting and regeneration of textile waste from 2020 to 2023. The consortium leader, Infinited Fiber Company, will act as the machine that keeps the circle in perpetual motion with its pioneering regeneration technology.
“Infinited Fiber’s technology is not dependent on a single raw material but offers a way to create value out of multiple waste streams while reducing pressure on natural resources, land and water,” told Petri Alava, co-founder and CEO.
“The technology can be fed with a range of cellulose-rich raw materials to create unique textile fibres with the natural look and feel of cotton and superior properties. The created fibers have natural antimicrobial properties, are biodegradable, contain no microplastics, and can be recycled together with other textile waste.”
Fellow Finns Aalto University and XAMK will respectively oversee the analysis of the ecosystem and business models, and dig into solutions for the pre-treatment of textile waste. H&M Group and adidas will make use of their market heft to bring the sustainable end products to customers and develop their take-back programmes of textiles accordingly.
You need blue to make green
The NCP has the potential to spill over into the industry at large, whose most unbecoming apparel is its annual 92 million tonnes of textile waste, of which the majority is dumped into landfills or burned. Moreover, a recent study by Aalto University estimated the industry is the second biggest industrial polluter after aviation and responsible for 10 per cent of global pollution.
In addition to Infinited Fiber, several other Finnish companies are a cut above the status quo. Driven by broader momentum for bio-based solutions in Finland, Spinnova has cultivated the idea of wood-based clothing to bring to life a sustainable textile fibre that contains no chemicals or microplastics in addition to producing minimal carbon emissions and water waste. Notable international awards suggest that the company is well clad to stitch up the industry’s ecological blind spots.
“We want to help fill the textile industry’s sustainability deficit by making cellulose-based materials cost-efficient, environmentally friendly and the preferred option for brands,” told head of communications Emmi Berlin. “Replacing cotton with the patented SPINNOVA fibre could have a significant impact on the whole value chain by reducing the emissions and use of water.”
Supplying these two with refined fibre from textile waste could be newcomer Rester, which is setting up its textile refinement plant in Southwest Finland. With an initial capacity to handle 12 000 tonnes of waste annually and a plan to double it in the future, the plant could make the life cycle of textiles circular.
“Our vision is to build an eco-community, Green Field Hub, in Paimio, and create a closed-loop system that enables the reuse and recycling of textiles at scale, together with the other actors in the ecosystem,” said Outi Luukko, CEO.
All second-hands on deck
Further down the value chain, consumers are playing their part in nudging the industry toward a circular dynamic. With more and more second-hand stores going online, pre-loved clothes are getting new lives and individuals are perhaps more conscientious about excess in the wardrobe.
Whereas flea markets are on the up and up, digital stores are making second-hand more personalised and more mainstream.
“In our four years of existence, we’ve really seen that the industry is taking steps in a better direction, with brands becoming increasingly interested in the resale value of their products and consumers considering it as part of their purchase decision,” told Hanna Autio, co-founder of Emmy, an online marketplace for premium second-hand clothing.
Whoever said that personal choices can’t make a big splash should consult the half a million users of digital marketplace Zadaa, who saved 1.7 billion litres of water and 1.2 million kilos of CO2 emissions in 2020 by using its app to buy and sell second-hand clothing.
“It is Zadaa’s goal to turn the fashion industry into a more sustainable one,” the company wrote earlier this year. “We want to see nature bright and shining, not dried out and exploited. We are proud but mostly honestly happy that our platform can contribute to the circular economy.”