Do you think one day everyone will wear clothes made from waste?
I am often asked this question in my work on helping change up fashion’s material mix.
When I think of the answer, all the right ingredients seem to be there. Brands are setting ambitious targets on moving away from using unsustainable materials. Alternatives are starting to see the light of day. From innovations that convert food waste to fibres to those that create textiles from textile waste, the list goes on. We’ve also been following the development of these innovations through the work of our partners such as Fashion for Good and Canopy. So, this does seem like the opportune moment for the fashion industry to have made an exponential switch to circularity. But there’s something that’s got me quite puzzled - why does the fashion industry continue to rely on oil or wood from endangered forests?
At Laudes Foundation, we set out on a quest to uncover what’s really holding back innovations from scaling and what we could do to fast-track alternatives.
If we take a step back you will see how closely linked fashion’s materials are with food, fuel and forestry systems. 111 million metric tonnes of fibre goes into making our clothes today. Over 60% of this is made from oil, 7% from wood (most of which from ancient forests), and 30% from natural fibres such as cotton grown on the same fields as our food. Today, conversations around reducing climate emissions don’t call out this inter-connectedness. By solving for fashion in isolation we miss a big opportunity. Truly transitioning the industry will require us to support the scaling of targeted innovations, designed to foster regenerative natural systems and not harm people. The strategy of our materials programme is committed to supporting this transition.
Agriculture-residue based fibre is one pathway that seems to fit squarely within this framing. With the growing demand for food in years to come, we know there’s going to be a lot more crop waste left on the fields, so can we look at this excess residue as a resource for fashion? Scaling these alternatives will require huge investments. From what we understand from several industry estimates more than $60 billion is needed to support innovators and set up mills that can process the waste. Investments will most likely follow market signals, so brands need to first commit offtake from their manufacturers, and manufacturers in turn need to be able to access large-enough quantities of consistent quality agro-residue feedstock.
Taking the first steps
To understand the potential of agro-residues to be used as feedstock for fashion, we commissioned a piece of research from the Institute for Sustainable Communities, Wageningen University & Research, and the World Resources Institute. The group of researchers uncovered specific crops that have sufficient quantities of residue and outlined an initial plan to establish large-scale processing capacities that can convert agro-residues to textile fibre. Now we know this could work, the question we need to ask ourselves is:
How can we build a reimagined system that doesn’t leave us worse-off in the future?
The use of agriculture waste as a source for fashion materials is still in its infancy. It is critical that the system is designed with the science, the environmental sustainability, and the social impact it can have on the lives of producers in mind. Most often, these are smallholder communities who cannot be left out of the equation: there can be nothing about them, without them. Going forward, some of the things we need to keep in mind are:
How do we ensure the fashion industry’s use of agro-residues is complementary to the food system and does not exacerbate food insecurity?
How do we make sure producers are compensated fairly and the true cost is reflected in fibre pricing?
How do we ensure the soil is not stripped of its essential nutrients and incentivise for this?
I invite you to read the report and ask more questions that we can jointly answer as we build this new, regenerative material system.