Denim and leather have helped style some of the most iconic fashion statements throughout history — so when taking apparel full circle, it makes sense to start with these types of classic materials that never seem to go out of vogue.
Gap, Thousand Fell and MycoWorks are three companies working on new ways to design out waste and build greater durability into what we wear, especially when it comes to jeans and footwear. They came together last week to share some of their insights via a Zoom conference about the potential for circular principles for the fashion industry, hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).
Gap is one of the core partners of EMF’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, which seeks to radically redesign the fashion industry. The Jeans Redesign is one of the projects taking flight under this initiative, as it looks to develop and share new guidelines to tackle the waste and pollution associated with jeans production.
Image credit: Gap
Rebecca Golden, Gap’s director of denim R&D, said that her company uses over 110 million yards of denim each year and is looking to scale up the amount of post-consumer recycled cotton it uses across its denim lines.
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“For our holiday 2019 assortments, we made a commitment to use at least 5 percent recycled cotton from old jeans,” she says.
Golden added that the percentage figure, which equates to more than 91,000 pounds of recycled cotton in weight, is very much the “starting point” for Gap.
“5 percent was cost-neutral for us and enabled us to maintain our quality standards … but we’re working on developing products that have a higher percentage of recycled cotton in them.”
The challenge of maintaining fibre quality and performance as more post-consumer cotton waste is added into denim designs is an ongoing one, but Golden says that new technologies and treatments continue to emerge and with that, greater options for sourcing recycled materials.
“We have much, much better choices today than 10 or 15 years ago,” she said, adding that conversations with vendors “have really changed” over the past five years.
“The industry has made amazing strides in terms of creating more opportunities or options for designers to choose from.”
Image credit: MycoWorks
Besides recycled fibres, many fashion brands are exploring the potential for using regenerative alternatives. Earlier this year, San Francisco-based startup MycoWorks raised US$17 million in funding to help scale up production of its Reishi textile — which claims to be the first non-plastic, non-animal material that performs like leather.
Reishi is basically made from mushrooms — from the mycelium root-like fibres in fungi, using agricultural waste products such as corncobs and hemp fibres to grow it. A low-tech solution, it can be cultured in different ways for various textures, patterns and colours — it can even have items such as fasteners grown directly into it, eliminating the need for glue or seaming. As MycoWorks CEO Matthew Scullin explained: “When mycelium grows into an interwoven structure, it becomes very strong. It performs like cow hide, which is pretty amazing.”
Scullin added that the product is completely natural, unlike a lot of vegan leather — which is petroleum-based, and will biodegrade at end of use; if added to fertilizer, for example, Reishi can improve the speed of crop growth. “It’s an incredibly circular process,” he asserted.
Image credit: Thousand Fell/Facebook
Meanwhile, New York-based Thousand Fell is shunning leather in favour of other materials such as natural recycled rubber, castor beans, coconut husks, sugar cane and quartz for its ‘full circle footwear’ designs — starting with white sneakers, which co-founder Stuart Ahlum says is the “perfect product to put on a closed-loop system.”
“The first user is usually the last user,” he explains, adding that sneakers rarely get a chance at a second life due to the fact that they’re worn or can have issues with odour. “We wanted to design and source materials that could be easily mechanically recycled; we looked to create a sneaker built for disassembly.”
Thousand Fell offers a takeback service for its used sneakers in exchange for a discount on any new purchase. Once separated out, the materials from old sneakers can either be composted, or recycled and reintegrated back into the footwear supply chain.
The company is also planning to build a backend digital platform to deliver an element of transparency, so it can show customers where the materials in their sneakers go.
Ahlum says a key advantage Thousand Fell has over larger footwear brands is in its ability to be nimble and responsive when it comes to designing out waste.
“Larger companies may have made fibre commitments with their supply chains five to ten years out,” he observed, adding that it could take that kind of timeframe before the footwear industry starts to make the big shifts needed to drive circularity at scale.