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Six ways innovators are making fashion more sustainable

From adopting new manufacturing techniques to scouring the world of fungi for alternatives to leather, the clothing industry is looking hard at its environmental footprint.

Trends come and go, but the clothing industry’s environmental impacts endure. Textile production creates 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year — more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The industry uses 43 million tonnes of chemicals annually and generates nearly 20 per cent of global wastewater.

And, with consumers hooked on fast fashion having a seemingly insatiable desire for another hoodie, T-shirt or cute jumpsuit, global clothing sales are expected to increase by up to 65 per cent by 2030.

“The industry overproduces and, in turn, we over-consume,” says Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of environmental non-profit Fashion Takes Action (FTA).

But the industry may be turning a corner. Although progress has been slow since FTA was established in 2007, the pace of change is picking up. “The engagement we’ve had with brands in the last three to five years is off the charts,” she says.

New innovations are playing no small part in that shift. Here are six ways designers, entrepreneurs and retailers are working to green our closets.


Making stretchy pants sustainable

Activewear may help you live your best life, but it’s often packed with synthetic fibres that are made from fossil fuels. It’s estimated that 342 million barrels of oil are used to make fibres such as polyester, spandex and nylon every year — that’s equivalent to the entire annual oil consumption of the Netherlands.

But some activewear brands are starting to look elsewhere. Lululemon recently introduced two shirts that contain nylon created with plant sugars. While this new material only makes up 50 per cent of the stretchy fibres in these garments, the company hopes to increase that proportion. It aims to replace most of its oil-based nylon with plant-derived alternatives by 2030.

Toronto startup Evoco has also dived into the plant kingdom in search of sustainable materials for footwear. The company creates a plant-based foam insole for shoes that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 per cent compared to conventional oil-based polyurethane and is biodegradable at the end of its life.

Another Toronto startup, ALT TEX, has produced a radically sustainable polyester alternative. The company turns food waste into a bioplastic fibre that performs like a synthetic fabric — helping solve two problems in one.


Taking aim at carbon emissions

Recently, Holt Renfrew pledged that by 2040 it will become a net-zero business — reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to a level at which there is no net climate impact. “The climate crisis is real and upon us,” says Holt Renfrew president and CEO Sebastian Picardo. “We know that our customers and employees expect us to do something about it or they will do business elsewhere.” To reduce the company’s environmental footprint, Holt Renfrew has set targets across the three scopes of emissions and is looking at initiatives across its operations, from the vehicles they use to the electricity used in stores and even how customers use finished products.

The company managed to achieve a 5 per cent reduction in carbon emissions in 2021 compared to 2019, mostly thanks to retrofit projects such as converting fluorescent lights to LEDs, installing motion sensors in offices and stockrooms, and upgrading air conditioning systems in some stores to save energy. Indirect emissions associated with the company’s supply chain will be the most challenging to address, but it is working on the problem by encouraging suppliers to adopt science-based targets by 2025 (Holt Renfrew claims to be the first Canadian retailer to have taken up such goals itself). The company is also promoting products with low environmental impact through its Sustainable Edit program.


Reducing waste, one garment at a time

An astounding 87 per cent of clothing is either incinerated or winds up in landfills. In Canada, 500,000 tonnes of post-consumer clothing are thrown out each year. And donating unwanted clothes overseas can simply shift the problem elsewhere — 40 per cent of donations Ghana receives are unusable and end up in the trash.

One Canadian company is trying to reduce oversupply by creating clothing in small batches. At Frère du Nord in Oshawa, employees sew each piece in its loungewear range individually, with skilled artisans being responsible for the entire garment’s production. The method, called single piece flow, is a cornerstone of sustainable manufacturing. It improves quality and minimizes waste. Because the company owns its factory rather than outsourcing production, it’s able to cut different styles together to further reduce the amount of fabric that goes to waste.


Finding alternatives to leather

Leather is another top offender in the textile industry. Raising cattle is associated with deforestation and high emissions, and the tanning process has been shown to harm workers, pollute air and create hazardous wastewater. While there are vegan leather options made from plant-based materials (including cacti and pineapples), many of those materials are coated with petroleum-based polyvinyl chloride plastic.

Enter MycoFutures, a Canadian company that uses mycelium (the root system of mushrooms) to create accessories including wallets, purses and notebook covers. Co-founder Stephanie Lipp says that the company produces significantly fewer environmental impacts than conventional leather makers as it uses vertical farming and has developed a non-toxic alternative to the tanning process. “When we looked at the need for plastic-free alternatives, we thought we could do it at least as good, if not better,” she says. MycoFutures’ material is soft with a bumpy, textured surface that resembles leather and makes a gorgeous wallet. It is so flexible and strong that it doesn’t need to be coated for added durability.


Investing in textile recycling

A recent study from the University of Waterloo and Seneca College found that more than half of Canada’s textile waste could be reused and almost a quarter could be recycled. The good news is that brands are beginning to take note, Drennan says.

Fashion retailers such as Zara, Reformation and UNIQLO have introduced recycling programs that promise to put used clothing to good use. The latter works with the United Nations Refugee Agency to send some items to displaced people. It has also started creating new products using down and feathers from used apparel. Meanwhile, COS has introduced its Full Circle program that pledges to restore used clothing to become part of the Cos Resell collection or to repurpose items for other projects (which the retailer is still exploring).

Last year, FTA took textile recycling a step further by partnering with Canadian Tire to create a local recycling supply chain. Used clothing was collected from drop-off points at SportChek locations, sorted and cleaned by Goodwill, shredded by industrial partners and reused in new products. The result is a small collection of Canadian-made laundry hampers now available at Canadian Tire.


Getting out of the throw-away habit

There’s a growing push for people to reuse and repair their clothing. While some Canadian retailers such as RW&Co offer alteration services for their suits, there aren’t many other options for in-store repair services. The City of Toronto offers some sewing hubs that provide access to tools, equipment and supplies needed to repair clothing, but Drennan says that governments need to make these types of services more accessible.

Knowing basic skills like how to sew a button back on can extend the life of clothes. To introduce more youth to the concept of sustainability, FTA offers educational workshops and programming to help kids as young as eight learn to be more responsible consumers.

“We need to do a better job of slowing down our consumption and taking better care of what we buy,” Drennan says. There’s a lot of work to be done. “You can’t turn a ship overnight,” she says. “but we aim for progress over perfection.”

Learn more about how Canadian innovators are working to solve society’s greatest challenges at the Elevate Festival, which runs from September 26 to 28. For more information, visit elevate.ca.

Photo courtesy of Holt Renfrew

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