ROME, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From using custom-made, biodegradable fabrics and photosynthetic ‘live’ clothing to polyester made from planet-warming carbon dioxide, European startups are on their way to transform one the world’s most polluting industry: fashion.
These businesses are responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and ocean shipments combined during the pre-pandemic period, said the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Most of fashion’s emissions – up to 40% – come from making polyester, the most widely used fabric, says Benoit Illy, co-founder and CEO of French start-up Fairbrics.
“If we can bring emissions from polyester down to zero or a negative value, we can significantly reduce industrial emissions,” he said in a telephone interview.
Illy and co-founder of Tawfiq Nasr Allah, both chemists, aim to replace the existing polyester production process, which uses fossil fuels, with their new technology.
It uses electricity and a catalyst to convert carbon dioxide – emitted when fossil fuels are burned and a key driver of climate change – into synthetic fiber, Illy said.
In some ways, the process is similar to a tree capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using sunlight and natural enzymes to produce fiber, he said.
Early next year, Fairbrics – its name refers to a “fairer” way of producing fabrics – hopes to produce one kilogram of polyester yarn a day, he said.
The company’s goal is to pursue an industrial scale by early 2024, he said.
The room for improvement is clear: The fashion industry currently consumes more than 60 million tonnes of polyester a year, says Illy.
INSPIRED BY NATURE
Under pressure from increasingly environmentally conscious shoppers, brands from luxury fashion houses to street names are also taking steps to reduce waste.
This month, H&M, the world’s second-largest fashion retailer, said it will showcase a recycling machine that can turn old jumpers into new sweaters or scarves on-site at a store in Stockholm.
Every second, textiles worth of garbage trucks are hoarded or burned, a costly waste of resources, according to a foundation founded by retired British screen star Ellen MacArthur.
However, if Aniela Hoitink, founder of the Dutch company MycoTEX, had its way, people’s wardrobes would adopt a more biological life cycle, with clothes growing and then rotting like the way trees grow and drop leaves.
He works with mycelium – the thread that eats mushrooms – to produce on-demand, on-demand clothing that reduces waste and reduces chemical use. At the end of their useful life – at least two years – the clothing will be biodegradable.
The production cycle – growing the mycelium, harvesting it, 3D printing it, drying it and then finishing the final product – currently takes about two to three weeks, said Hoitink, who has worked in fashion for more than a decade.
3D modeling also allows seamless clothes that are comfortable and fit, says Hoitink.
“When you have clothes tailored, it’s (a) luxurious. But we are sure that with this production system we can do it en masse, “he said.
In particular, these materials can facilitate the formation of garments for various body types and markets, he added.
“At the moment, everything is based on Western standards. But African agencies are very different. Asia’s body is very different. If we could design with all those different body types in mind, it would be much better for everyone. “
CLIMATE POSITIVE CLOTHING?
The London-based Post Carbon Lab wants to take emission reductions even further, ensuring fashion and design have a positive effect on the climate by turning fabrics into carbon-absorbing surfaces.
Designers and researchers Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert did this by using photosynthetic coating technology that inserts microorganisms, such as algae, onto fabrics.
The resulting textiles, with living organisms, can then absorb carbon dioxide that changes the climate, said Lin.
Having ‘live’ clothing does require different care, says Lin, and users need to provide it with access to humidity – such as windows that open on a rainy day – as well as ventilation and light.
Fairbrics, MycoTEX and Post Carbon Lab are three of the 10 finalists for the 2020 European Social Innovation Competition, which focuses on fashion and is run by the European Commission.
Other finalists, selected from more than 760 applicants, included Germany’s Kleiderly, which recycles textile waste into new materials, and Resortecs’ soluble stitches based in Belgium which allows for easy recycling and reuse.
The competition, now in its eighth year, seeks practical solutions to major environmental and social problems and has focused in recent years on issues such as cutting plastic waste and better integrating refugees, said Sonya Gospodinova, spokesperson for the European Union.
Three winners are expected to be announced on November 26, with each receiving 50,000 euros ($ 59,000) in prize money, organizers said.
“What is the ecological role of fashion?” asked Lin from the Post Carbon Lab. “If we don’t have the environment, where we basically all live, there’s nothing. There is no society, no happy community to build. And … the clock is ticking. “