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Ocean Impact Investments - A Snapshot Into A More Circular Fashion Industry

By Patricia Chu, Yong Jie Ying | 25 November 2020

On the surface, fashion represents beauty and trendiness, but underneath lies a dirty, unappealing, and in some cases, an unethical industry. While there is a high general awareness of the social issues in developing countries associated with the textile industry, such as child labor, the ways in which this industry damages the environment is much less known:

  • It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt. That is enough drinking water for one person for three-and-a-half years.

  • 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the fashion industry, which is more than the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined. [1]

  • Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year— the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.[2]

The lifecycle of a typical piece of garment from beginning to end are areas that are ripe for major improvements: From the materials being used; to the manufacturing process; to the way that items are disposed of. Furthermore, there is also merit in a systematic rethinking of the entire process. Instead of the traditional linear and extractive process, a more circular and regenerative system can be designed to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the textile industry. In this blog post, we highlight specific issues in the textile industry and feature some enterprises that are redefining the industry by following a circular mindset for solving the environmental challenges.

(1) Research & Development of Sustainable Materials

Synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon represent about 60% of the clothing material worldwide. Most of these materials contain plastic particles, also known as microfibers, which are washed off from clothing and contribute to 35% of ocean plastic waste. Microfibers have been found in fish, plankton, chicken, sea salt, beer, honey, as well as in tap- and bottled water. We also breathe in these plastic particles due to fiber loss from our carpets, curtains, and other textiles.

Creating textiles or finished clothes that are sustainably sourced and made of toxic-free, biodegradable materials represents tremendous business opportunities. A few examples of companies that work to solve these issues include MiTerro, a company that turns spoilt milk into fiber; Algalife has developed pigments and fibers from algae to create alternative textiles; and Ananas Anam turns agricultural waste from pineapple leaves into fiber and natural leather alternatives.

(2) Manufacturing Process

The fashion industry accounts for one-fifth of water pollution globally due to irresponsible fabric scouring, bleaching, dyeing, and finishing processes. Policies and regulations on wastewater management, as well as technologies such as Zero Liquid Discharge that can treat the water before it is disposed into riverways, are important solutions to address this problem. At Mana, we find innovations that can improve the manufacturing process itself, so that it uses fewer chemicals and water more interesting.

Stony Creek Colors makes clean and safe natural indigo dyes for denim to replace the toxic synthetic dyes. DyeCoo has developed a dyeing process that uses CO2, instead of water, resulting in high energy efficiency, lower process costs, and reduction of water waste. Other innovations include companies such as Colorifix and Pili that have developed color dyes based on microbes and require no additional specialist equipment or toxic chemicals.

(3) Fashion Rental, Resale and Upcycling Business Models

The fashion industry produces and sells somewhere between 80 - 150 billion garments a year globally. Therefore, clothing rental models such as Style Theory, ThredUP, and YCloset or resale models such as R-Collective, which repurposes used textiles from luxury fashion brands and upcycles them into new clothes; or LooptWorks that repurposes and upcycles abandoned, pre-consumer and post-consumer materials into limited edition products; play an important role in reducing the amount of clothing production.

Another innovation disrupting the sector is the use of Artificial intelligence (AI) to better forecast demand, production, and inventory management, which can lead to a significant reduction of the production of unnecessary garments. Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service, uses machine learning algorithms to deliver better fit for customers and make their supply chain more efficient, hence reducing waste.

(4) End-of-life Garment Sorting and Recycling

Of the total fiber input used for clothing today, 87% of all clothes are either incinerated or disposed of in landfills. This is equivalent to burning one full refuse collection truck of textiles every second. A meager 13% of textiles are recycled after clothing use, 12% are downcycled into lower value uses that are often extremely difficult to recirculate, while only 1% gets recycled into new clothing.[3]

One potential solution lies in developing automated sorting technologies that enable non-renewable textiles to be processed into feedstock for textile-to-textile recycling. Fibersort has developed a Near Infrared (NIR)-based technology that automatically sorts large volumes of post-consumer textiles by fiber type.

Another textile recycling technology is Texloop™, a global platform by a California-based company - Circular Systems - which reclaims natural and synthetic fibers from textile waste. Similarly, Seattle-based company Evrnu® has developed NuCycl Technologies, which enables entirely new products to be made from discarded clothing not just once, but multiple times.

Mana’s Perspective

All of the issues and opportunities described in this blog post require significant investments both in terms of time and resources. On the upstream material side, research and development is a major pain point. The production and recycling side requires significant investments in CAPEX equipment such as machinery or new manufacturing lines. The consumer rental, resale, and upcycled model face the main hurdle of client acquisition costs, which entail costly branding and marketing.

Consumers have the power to influence how brands will create and produce products. We, therefore, need to take action by consuming responsibly. We at Mana are interested in companies that have innovative circular models and have a strong advocacy role. We look forward to the continued work in improving the general understanding of the necessities in the upstream textile sector, working with investors that would like to delve deeper into this exciting field, as well as working with companies that provide solutions for more environmentally-friendly new or recycled fibers.

[3] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion’s future (28th November 2017)



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