5 Ways That Tech Could Make Your Clothes More Sustainable

Fashion is one of the world's most polluting industries, second only to oil. How are tech innovations helping to shrink its ecological footprint?

Author Ana Galán Herranz, 07.03.18

Fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries, second only to oil. How are tech innovations helping to shrink its ecological footprint?

Every piece of clothing that you’re wearing now is the result of a huge number of different processes: from growing and producing the raw materials and processing and manufacturing the fabrics, to sewing and finishing the garments, and finally transporting and selling them. The life cycle of our clothing results in huge amounts of emissions, and waste, throughout the whole supply chain, not to mention the masses of water used in production and the microplastics that are released from our synthetic clothes when we do our laundry.

But where there are multiple problems, there are also multiple solutions. And tech innovation is offering more and more ways for producers and consumers to turn their wardrobes greener.

1. Making Manufacturing Less Toxic

© Jeanologia A Jeanologia worker testing some jeans produced using their water- and chemical-reducing laser technology.

One of the world’s favourite pieces of clothing – jeans – require not only huge amounts of water to produce, but also toxic dyes and chemicals to create the different-coloured finishes. Currently working with some of the biggest jeans producers in the world, Spanish company Jeanologia has come up with a method of colouring and finishing denim using lasers and air flow processes, massively reducing the water used and completely removing bleach from the process.

2. Transforming Waste Into (More) Sustainable Materials

Upcycling is one of the main trends in the sustainable fashion movement – reducing waste and saving resources by creating new clothes from old ones, or other recycled materials. One example of this is the brand Ecoalf, that is transforming a broad range of waste products – from discarded fishing nets, plastic bottles and even coffee grounds – into eco-friendly apparel.

Even major brands are getting in on the act, at least in part. For example, Adidas is developing a 3D-printed running shoe partially made from recycled ocean plastic, as part of a collaboration with Parley for the Oceans. According to the companies, every pair of sneakers is the equivalent of approximately 11 plastic bottles being removed from our oceans.

3. Reducing Microplastics

Microplastics – those tiny plastic fibres which are poisoning our soil, oceans and drinking water – are a growing problem, and the clothes we wear are thought to be one of the biggest causes. Researchers have found that fleece jackets on average release 1.7 grams of microfibers in each wash.

© Jeckybeng Natural in nature: unlike conventional outdoor wear, Jeckybeng’s “The Jacket” is made of waterproof cotton.

While innovations like the Guppy Bag and the Cora Ball can help remove microplastics from your laundry (and stop them ending up in the sea), German brand Jeckybeng goes one step further, offering outdoor gear that is made only of natural materials. Avoiding synthetic materials altogether (unusual for an outdoor brand) = no plastic, so no microplastic either.

4. Adopting the Concepts of the Circular Economy

Currently, the garment industry is a linear system – full of products not designed to be recycled, that end up as waste after just a few wears. What if it followed the principles of the circular economy instead? With products that can be reused and recycled long into the future? One of those trying to change the whole shape of the industry is Mud Jeans in the Netherlands. It offers a unique jeans rental service that lets you rent a pair of jeans rather than owning it outright. When it’s worn out, you send it back and receive a new pair, while the old pair is shredded and mixed with new organic contton to create new jeans.

In Berlin, the Design for Circularity platform is connecting garment manufacturers and material developers with circular product design, circular retail models and so-called “closed loop recycling technologies”, to help brands produce recyclable products – and help consumers find out how to recycle them. Each product manufactured with the help of this platform comes with a scannable QR code containing information about the product’s lifecycle and how and where it can be recycled.

5. Developing Leather-Free Alternatives

While leather is often sold as a sustainable material, a by-product of the meat industry which would otherwise go to waste, it’s – unsurprisingly – not actually that simple. Turning animal skins into leather requires large amounts of chemicals which are dangerous to human health and the environment: including formaldehyde, almunium salts and chromium. But there are many leather-free options in the works – like shoes and watch-straps made from mushroom fibres, handbags made from fruit waste and so-called “wine leather” made from the leftovers from the wine industry – grape stalks, seeds and skins.

Of course, sustainability applies to social issues as well as environmental, and clothing is no exception. Inhumane working conditions and a lack of transparency in the fashion industry have made headlines for years. Fortunately, there are also tech innovations that can help you trace the stories behind the products you buy, like the blockchain startup Provenance that tracks and records the supply chain of up to 200 different products, including clothes.

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