Inditex, the parent company of Zara, and Swedish company H&M are developing greener textiles to reduce the environmental cost of throwaway clothes.
The $3tn fashion industry uses vast amounts of cotton, water and power to make 100 billion clothing items and accessories each year. According to McKinsey & Co., 60% of manufactured clothing is thrown away within a year and less than 1% ends up recycled.
According to Jill Standish, a retailing consultant at Accenture, highlighting sustainability initiatives and efforts to use greener materials can win customers. She believes that a ‘bag that’s made with grapes or a dress made of orange peels tells a story’.
H&M plans to make all of its products from recycled and sustainable materials by 2030. Such materials currently account for only 35% of the retailer’s products.
Since 2015, H&M has sponsored an annual contest in which start-ups developing technologies to make fashion greener compete for a share of a $1.2m grant.
This year winners included Smart Stitch, a company which developed a thread that dissolves at high temperatures. This could simplify recycling to make it easier to remove zippers and buttons. Another winner was Crop-A-Porter, which spins yarn out of field waste from flax, banana, and pineapple plantations, while others work on separating fibres from blended fabrics and making textiles from mushrooms and algae.
Vikram Widge, head of climate policy at International Finance Corp said that if those initiatives ‘succeed at a commercial scale, it would be pretty disruptive’. He believes that ‘anything anyone can do is critical’
H&M CEO Karj-Johan Parsson said: “One of the biggest challenges is how to continue to provide fashion for a growing population while improving the impact on the environment.”
Until last year, Inditex’s unsold clothes were shipped off to landfills or repurposed. Now those clothes are chemically reduced to cellulose, which is mixed with wood fibres and turned into a textile called Refibra that is used in clothing.
Last Winter, Inditex started taking apart old clothing to produce ‘garments with a past’. The company has grouped many of its sustainability efforts, including clothes from organic cotton, Refibra, and other repurposed fabric, into a sub-brand called Join Life. The line currently only accounts for less than 1 in 10 of the garments the company sells.
In order to boost this number, the company is funding research programmes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and universities in Spain. One initiative is seeking to use 3D printing to make textiles using by-products from timber operations. Another is looking for ways to separate cotton from polyester in blended fabrics.
Both Inditex and H&M say they are absorbing the extra costs of using recycled or reconstituted textiles.
H&M head of Sustainability Anna Gedda said: “We take it as a long-term investment instead of charging it to our customers.
“We believe sustainable fashion should be affordable for all.”
Other brands joining the sustainability trend include Gap and Uniqlo.
Gap promises that by 2021 it will take cotton only from organic farms or other producers it believes to be sustainable.
Japanese Fast Retailing, an owner of Uniqlo, is currently experimenting with lasers to create distressed jeans using less water and chemicals.