An industry known to be greenhouse gas-intensive from unsustainable use of natural resources and excessive water waste, the primary source of pollutants in fashion predominantly lies in the make. The World Resources Institute states that 96% of a fashion brand’s footprint originates from the manufacturing stage. Throughout the supply chain, fiber production, yarn preparation, fabric dyeing, and finishing account for 15%, 28%, and 36% of carbon dioxide emissions respectively. Amongst these, the production of yarn and textiles holds the largest share of emissions, therefore developing cleaner production strategies, material and process innovation is imperative in reducing damage. Garment assembly and transportation bear lesser weight in emissions, though are still contributing factors.
Upon inspecting the life cycle of a garment, its impact on the environment and carbon footprint indicates problematic and high consumption areas that need to be fixed. Fortunately, digitalization and biotechnology solutions have provided answers to reducing carbon emissions — whether it’s using AI to trim down textile waste or by replacing harmful chemical processes with nature’s own bacteria, the textile supply chain can be improved upon whilst benefiting the environment.
The implementation of blockchain is also beginning to be widely adopted within the industry to provide traceability and transparency across the supply chain, providing records to verify sustainable claims. Government legislation and industry regulations have also issued mandates to hold fashion houses accountable for their carbon emissions to pressure the larger players into sustainable supply chain commitments.
The root cause identified however is predominately attributed to textile companies and garment manufacturers reliance on fossil fuels and high energy consumption within its processes and production that largely contribute to fashion’s carbon footprint. These are mainly set off by cut-and-sew factories, dye houses, fabric mills, and farms. Given that many businesses do not own a vertical supply chain, these outputs are beyond their direct control, thus difficult to address.
The industry must work together on decarbonizing its supply chain to have a wider impact on the environment and achieve a low-carbon future. From farm to factories, brands and retailers, consumers and policymakers — all agents within the ecosystem are responsible for proactively limiting their carbon emissions.
“FROM FARM TO FACTORIES, BRANDS AND RETAILERS, CONSUMERS AND
POLICYMAKERS — ALL AGENTS WITHIN THE ECOSYSTEM ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR PROACTIVELY LIMITING THEIR CARBON EMISSIONS.”
One of the most polluting products in the world is a pair of denim jeans – which has one of the most devastating impacts on the environment. From cotton production to its end-of-life, the standard manufacturing process needs to be redesigned to clean up denim’s dirty reputation. It takes an average of 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton fabric, from the growing of cotton to garment making. Apart from cotton’s high water need, high amounts of high amounts of pesticides are also used, which have adverse health effects if humans are exposed to it. The mechanical processes of spinning and weaving denim is also energy intensive. Aside from water pollution, harmful chemicals are also present in the bleaching, sandblasting and dyeing stages polluting. Furthermore, the synthetic elastane used to create stretchiness in jeans is difficult to break down and releases toxic fumes if it’s incinerated at the end of its product life cycle.
What’s more, poor construction of denim leading to ill-fitting jeans has built up excessive inventory. This is where techstyle brand Unspun steps in, transforming the jeans industry with an on-demand made-to-order model. With the aid of robotics, the company creates bespoke jeans for each consumer, tackling the industry’s waste problem by eliminating surplus inventory, excess fabric and ill-fittingjeans. The company aims to reduce global carbon emissions by 1% through its automated and localized manufacturing system.
Where typically polyester and elastane are used in creating the stretch, Unspun uses biodegradable lycra, roica or eco-lycra and has completely phased out on all use of virgin polyester. More than 98% of its material components are cellulose-based where even its stitching threads are dissolvable, as supplied by Belgian startup Resortec. Its buttons are made from non-electroplated raw zinc alloy, easily removable for recycling or reuse, zippers from non-electroplated brass, and its zip tape from post-consumer recycled polyester. Sending jeans back to Unspun to be dissembled can also reduce carbon impact by 70%.
To order a pair of Unspun jeans, customers can visit its retail store or pop-up to get measured by its 3D body scanner. At the pandemic, in-store operations halted. Unspun has accelerated its business' digital transformation plan and developed its own technology to operate within an iPhone. So that consumers can conduct their own scanning at home. Currently in beta mode, the smart device projects over 300,000 dots of infrared light on the body. As the consumer rotates, the sensor stitches all depth maps together to create a hyper-accurate 3D model body.
Unspun ’s on-demand process dramatically reduces waste through its AI and 3D technology, in addition to sourcing and crafting from low-impact fabrics. The techstyle startup developed a 3D scanning and weaving machine where the garment is woven straight from yarn to product, skipping traditional weaving steps and getting rid of scrap fabric wastage.
Bringing bespoke clothing to the mainstream market is a challenge when competing with the speed and cost of fast fashion. However, Unspun believe they have tackled the obstacle with a highly profitable, made-to-order model that can be widely adopted by the industry. In digitalizing on-demand manufacturing, Unspun has developed an economically viable model that is also environmentally impactful for the industry. The company also outsources its technology to third-party brands such as H&M’s Weekday and sustainable brand PANGAIA, enabling their audience to design their own custom-fit jeans that can be delivered to them within two to three weeks.
The creation of fabrics have a detrimental effect on landfills, water consumption, and chemical pollution. The demand for more natural raw materials like cellulosic fibers may lead to deforestation and recycled fabrics are not entirely sustainable. Garments at their end-of-life either clog landfills or intoxicate the planet with more greenhouse gas emissions when burned. And when it comes to recycling textiles, even though other companies can dissolve most materials, traces of polymers are preserved, and the quality of cotton fibers are degraded to the point of being unsalvageable.
Powered by renewable energy and resources, Circ combines water, pressure, heat, and chemicals to break down and purify textile fibers, and in the process to get rid of toxins and microfibers. The process can recover up to 90% of the material’s original state. The technology can be applied to a broad spectrum of materials such as cotton, polyester, and polycotton without compromising on quality, at a cost equal to that of new materials.
Circ is a pioneer in the field of apparel recycling turning old clothes, through hydrothermal processes, to new raw materials. This eliminates the need for raw ingredients and enables creating new clothes out of old ones, with a material quality that's comparable to fabrics derived from virgin materials.
By designing this closed-loop system, its solution prompts manufacturers to purchase circular fibers in place of virgin materials, in doing so helping to curb carbon footprint. The startup aims to help recycle 10 billion garments, representing 10% of the global apparel market, and to save more than 10 million trees by 2030.
From natural pigments to industrial age dyes, the dyeing sector has evolved to become the most toxic and polluting step in addition to leaving the largest water footprint. Conventional dyeing is composed of high doses of harsh chemicals, such as arsenic metals and salts to create a permanent bond between color and fiber. Up to 200,000 tons of dye are lost to effluents every year, bleeding into rivers and polluting drinking water for many in a region.
Colorifix is a biotech company that revolutionizes the dyeing process through synthetic biology using microorganisms to grow and transfer color onto textiles. Harnessing the ability of microbes, they can create non-polluting dyes that provide the same vibrant outcome as commercial dyes and are non-toxic, hypoallergenic, and free from any hazardous chemicals. By replacing chemistry with biological processes, a cleaner input and output in dyeing have been achieved while minimizing environmental impact.
The laboratory first identifies DNA codes from naturally occurring pigments — in animals, plants, or insects – to pinpoint and copy the exact genetic code of the pigment before transferring into a microbe. The bacteria replicate the DNA code of the color found in nature and splits itself every 20 minutes to produce a pigmented color and copious amounts of dye liquor. The dyes are grown on-site at dyehouses with renewable feedstock (sugar, yeast and plant byproducts) to continue growing color through fermentation. Colorifix can send as few as 50ml of color-packed bacteria to the dyehouse which will multiply itself in ten days, producing up to 50 tons of dye solution a day. The output can be placed directly into standard dye machines (e.g. jet machine), requiring only a low-cost, bespoke fermenter that can easily plug into the existing infrastructure of dyehouses. This semi-distributed model reduces carbon dioxide emissions associated with the current supply chain of 20-tonne tankers typically used to transport synthetic dyes to dyehouses around the world. However, each mill must apply for a biological license before they can handle the microorganisms on-site, an onboarding process the Colorifix team of specialists will aid with.
Colorifix’s solution has proven to be non-toxic and cost-competitive, on par with synthetic dyes while meeting industry standards. The bacteriaproduced dyeing procedure uses 49% less water and 39% less energy in comparison to using petrochemicals. Colorifix has reduced at least 31% of carbon emissions at every step in the dyeing process. So far, the biotech company has worked with brands and manufacturers that resonate with its sustainability values and incorporated its revolutionary dyeing technique into their manufacturing stages. From partnering with retail giants such as H&M to sustainable indie brand Pangaia, Colorifix has successfully proven its colorfastness without compromising on quality and is more kind to the/ better for the environment. Although its cost currently sits at 20% more than conventional processes, the start-up is actively decreasing the price gap.
By 2050, the world will need to feed 10 billion people, requiring food resources to increase by 56%. The food system already represents one-third of global greenhouse-gas emissions with livestock production being one of the top contributors to greenhouse-gas emission, at 7.1 gigatones annually. Worryingly, global emission is expected to rise by 60% by 2050.
Unlike other alternative meat companies, Air Protein has created a sustainable protein made from elements in the air without compromising on taste, nutrition, and the climate. Inspired by NASA’s culinary fermentation technique, AirProtein has manufactured a meat alternative from air that can be farmed at any climate, geography, and any time of day — resulting in a new protein being made within a few short hours. The result is a nutritious, mineral and vitamin-rich meat with more protein per kilogram than regular meat — yet does not emit as much greenhouse gas and only requires minimal resources and land.
By using elements of the air — carbon dioxide, nitrogen — whisked together with their cultures, proteins are produced in a process powered by renewable energy. The protein in the cultures are then harvested, purified, and dried to remove water, resulting in a protein-packed flour that is ready to be made into any meat. Culinary techniques are further applied to the flour to recreate the texture and flavor that is akin to animal protein. This carbon-negative product is naturally low in emissions as it only uses 0.8 liters of water per kg of protein — versus the 15,000 liters per kilo of beef usually needed.