The evolution of circular fashion

Last June, in occasion of the Circular Threads report release, we organised a presentation event with experts from the fashion and textile sector, including Giusy Cannone, CEO of Fashion Technology Accelerator. This accelerator was created to support innovative start-ups within the fashion industry. During her speech, Giusy Cannone talked about some possible applications, innovative case studies that seek to make the process and value chain of fashion more sustainable and circular.  

Challenges in sustainable fashion

First of all, both the fashion and the textile industry, she started, uses mainly non-renewable resources usually derived from oil, and synthetic fibers, chemicals and toxic products especially in the dyeing and the finishing phases. Moreover, this sector has a low rate use of the garments, sometimes a maximum of 5-6 times, and has a complicated relationship with recycling activities, which is still not enough widespread. Although at the moment the numbers are not reassuring and there is still a lot to do. There are many stakeholders who, through different steps, can make the fashion industry genuinely more circular.  

Innovators impact starting from recycled materials

Zooming on what innovation entrepreneurs do, also called innovators, they start from the input, since fabric is not the only important step in the fashion value chain, but it has a significant impact. In this respect, one of the solutions that has already been developed is fabric derived from recycled materials. For instance, recycled polyester, a fabric that is derived from recycled plastic and then reconstituted into polyester fibers. This operation can save around 59% energy compared to virgin polyester.  

Recycled nylon is in fashion

Moreover, widely used is also the recycled nylon, a product resulting from activities such as fishing. The well-known company Econyl has done an enormous amount of work to bring this solution to market. Even in the luxury segment, recycled nylon is beginning to be introduced, which can significantly save real resources and reduce oil usage.  

The rise of bio-based fabrics

Another macro-category of fabrics that can be considered sustainable are the bio-based fabrics, which are already in the market. They use organic starting material often derived from waste that would not be used otherwise. Differently from other sectors, the textile innovation sector can take several years before reaching an important level of technical quality. For instance, Piñatex uses waste from pineapple leaves to produce a plant-based material that resembles leather. To date they are able to produce garments that are already in the marketplace. Also the company Orange Fiber, which produces fibers and fabrics from citrus fruit waste.   

Quality in textile innovation

From a recycling point of view, in order to achieve circularity, the choice of a certain type of fabric is also linked to the type of fibres that can be put together. Usually, the mix of fibres is a problem for garment disposal, so having for example a mix of cotton and polyester fibres makes it more difficult for the recycling process. However, there are solutions to that, such as:

The Regenerator, a Swedish company whose technology manages to use a chemical-free solution to be able to separate different fibres;  

Resortecs, a Belgian company that has developed a yarn that dissolves along with thermal disassembly systems, making it easier to recycle textiles on an industrial scale, without requiring the use of chemicals.   

The rise of biomimicry

Besides this sector, but still in an experimental phase, there is the Biomimicry one in which textiles are created in the laboratory, using bio-engineering to try to create materials that imitate nature behaviour.  

Production innovations and sustainability towards circular fashion

Another key issue in the fashion and textile industries is the production. When talking about production there are some important variables that need to be considered. Such as the use of chemical and toxic products, which can harm both workers and the surrounding environment. The use of large amounts of water and energy and, finally, the use of very polluting dyes. However, there are potential solutions that suggest the use of natural dyes or even micro-organisms which present a certain natural pigmentation that can create the desired colouring on the fabric. That can save about 90% of water and energy.  

The problem of overproduction in fashion

Today, one of the most important issues related to the system of circularity and sustainability in fashion is that there is overproduction. Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum there is a 30% annual gap between what is produced and what is bought by the consumers, highligting the need for change.   

How can we modify the system? Innovative solutions

At the moment, for instance, there are new ways of production. 3D printing allows to produce on demand when the consumer has decided to make the purchase and the client can even costumise it. However, it is not a scalable and very cheap option yet, but a lot of work is being done in this direction to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Other solutions are those of Rodinia, which has an automated production system that makes the one-to-one production of pieces efficient and effective. They use an AI mechanism to aggregate the various products, even when different from one another, to make it economically sustainable.  

Fashion, rental and second-hand systems

Turning to distribution and use, a widespread theme today is rental. This has in fact become one of the new business models within the second hand and circularity sector. Very successful is the long-term rental where the item is kept for a season, instead of just 4 days, and then can be exchanged for another one. An example of this model is MUD Jeans, a company that has developed this system for jeans. In order to use it, people pay an annual subscription, with which they can keep the pair of jeans for a year and then whenever they want they can change them, while paying the subscription or redeeming them.   

The second hand market, on the other side, is growing steadily. Between only 2018 and 2019 it grew by 12% and today represents 9% of the entire luxury market.  

What are the drivers?  

The digital model has had a very important impact because, today, there are numerous platforms that can be used, there are new buyers who no longer want to own, but to use and, there is greater access to iconic products that few years ago could not be found in second-hand shops. Although sustainability has not resulted as the number one driver for owning a second hand item, a report by the Boston Consulting Group claims that 17% of those who resold items felt that this behaviour was truly sustainable.   

Virtual clothing and digital fashion

The speaker concluded by talking about digital fashion and in particular, about virtual clothing. Usually, storytelling says that since virtual clothing is virtual the garment is sustainable, because there is no production and it can be worn by various people. Nowadays, one in two luxury consumers claim to be aware of this phenomenon and 39% have already made a purchase of virtual garments, of which a very high percentage has then bought the physical item. This makes it a very intriguing marketing tool. However, virtual clothing sustainability still needs to be completely verified. 

For further details watch the speech in Italian here

Francesco Castellano

Francesco Castellano holds a Master degree in Business Administration, and he has gathered almost twenty years of experience in research, finance, consulting, and business management. During this time, he was engaged in different types of projects as a consultant at Bain & Company, launched Uber operations in Turin, and worked in the FP&A department at General Electric.Lately, he founded To... Read more

Francesco Castellano holds a Master degree in Business Administration, and he has gathered almost twenty years of experience in research, finance, consulting, and business management. During this time, he was engaged in different types of projects as a consultant at Bain & Company, launched Uber operations in Turin, and worked in the FP&A department at General Electric.

Lately, he founded Tondo, a cluster of organizations focusing on spreading Circular Economy approaches and concepts, and supporting companies in the transition to a clean and circular future. Francesco is also the ideator and coordinator of the Re-think Circular Economy Forum, a format of events organized in many different locations in Italy showcasing the most relevant Circular Economy solutions.

Francesco has been a guest speaker at different universities and events, like Federico II University, Bocconi University, LIUC - Cattaneo University, Pavia University, Padua University, Catholic University, IPE Business School, 24ORE Business School, Campus Party, Torino Stratosferica, Visionary Days.

Francesco is passionate about Circular Economy, Cleantech Innovations, Venture Building and Entrepreneurship.