Consumer demand for clothing made with conscientious materials has designers and big brands finding new methods of production sustainability.
Pick up a chain store T-shirt and it’s probably shrouded in mystery. The tags don’t give much away. Where exactly did this shirt come from, how many resources went into the production and who were the workers along the line?
Shoppers have started asking for answers, and that scrutiny is prompting change. Technological innovations throughout the garment industry are making it easier to introduce traceability, renewable energy, recycling and transparency to what used to be a hidden process. Fashion is finally getting a sustainable edge.
“It’s important to know where things come from and how they’re made, and if possible to find out what the ethical standards are,” said Rob Drake-Knight, co-founder of the U.K. eco-fashion brand Rapanui.
He and his brother Martin started the company on England’s Isle of Wight — with seed money from their summer savings, plus a couple boxes of T-shirts.
Martin studied renewable energy engineering so the duo applied that knowledge to their growing business.
The Rapanui factory in India sources energy directly from a wind farm, and its local factory works with the British energy management consultancy Good Energy, which sources from wind, solar and hydro-electric plants.
“We think it’s really important that we just tell the truth so we decided to create traceability maps,” Drake-Knight said. An interactive Google map on the Rapanui site shows where the wind farms are in India, the cutting and sewing facility and the shipping route.
The base clothes Rapanui uses for its designs are made from sustainable materials like recycled plastic and certified organic cotton. Switching to new printers has conserved resources as well. Now the company uses direct-to-garment technology that essentially prints orders on-demand.
“There’s no stock wastage,” Drake-Knight said.
When sustainability and clothing come up in conversation, so does Patagonia. The outdoor clothing company is viewed as a leader in environmental and social responsibility. Rather than duck complex challenges, the company tackles them head-on.
In early 2012, Patagonia ran an ad that read “Claim It: There Is No Green Wetsuit” about their decision not to use bamboo in wetsuits. But the search for a truly green alternative to neoprene made from petroleum or limestone was never called off.
Now the wetsuits contain unique material made by Yulex Corporation derived from a renewable, hardy desert shrub called guayule.
The company has also been working to bring transparency into its supply chain with efforts like Footprint Chronicles, which tracks the social and environmental impacts of Patagonia’s production line.
More recently, the clothier made the switch to 100-percent traceable down sourced from birds that were never force-fed or live-plucked. Audits start in facilities where birds are raised to lay eggs.
Last year Patagonia launched the $20 Million & Change fund to invest in like-minded startups working to benefit the environment. One of those startups is Denver-based tech company CO2Nexus, which created a waterless process called Tersus Solutions to clean textiles using liquid carbon dioxide.
Estimates on the amount of water that goes into making one piece of clothing vary greatly, but the World Wildlife Foundation reported that it can take 2,700 liters — more than 700 gallons — to produce a single cotton T-shirt. CO2Nexus wants to stem that tide.
Their process uses liquid carbon dioxide that runs through a filter and gets pumped into a chamber that resembles an enormous washing machine. Once inside, garments can be cleaned, dyed or waterproofed depending on the application needed, according to CO2Nexus marketing manager Brit Gibson.
The liquid carbon dioxide is then sucked out of the machine and any dirt, detergent or solution gets filtered.
“We recycle the carbon dioxide into holding tanks,” Gibson said. “It’s actually super simple.” Their engineering team is researching bio-based alternatives to industrial garment processing chemicals. Currently the startup is testing its technology and preparing for commercialization.
Now that she understands all the resources that typically go into making a pair of jeans or a shirt, Gibson views clothing in a new light.
“It’s been very eye-opening,” she said. “I look at my wardrobe very differently.”