What are the desired features today in the materials chosen by the fashion industry? Does sustainability impede or encourage creativity? Is certification a pillar of reliability for customers? How does technology transform the selection and use of materials? This past 28 April, these are just some of the interesting questions that were addressed by the Maison Sessions webinar, organised by Intertek, the centre par excellence dedicated to the luxury and fashion industry, which this past year inaugurated The Maison Center of Excellence in Florence, the new hyper-technological space for developing ideas, research, and collaborations. Exploring these issues, which are more relevant now for the fashion industry than ever before, were Stylist and Fashion and Sustainability Advisor, Marina Spadafora, and the Fabrics & Embroidery Research Expert, Michela Finaurini, who were joined by the experts of Intertek, Calin Moldovean, President of Business Assurance & Food Services, and Mike Redshaw, Head of Technical – Global Softlines.
The importance of controls along the supply chain
When speaking of sustainability, it’s impossible to not start from the sad truth that the textile industry is known for being the second largest polluting industry in the world: textile production releases more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the international flights and nautical traffic put together, without forgetting about the abuse of human rights present in many productive realities worldwide. In recent years, however – underlines Calin Moldovean – we have seen different initiatives arise like Sedex Global, Textile Exchange Certification, and the SAC Higg Index aimed at improving the textile industry, while measuring the impact on the environment of the materials used and creating a value chain of responsibility. Additionally, if from one end consumers buy more clothes now than ever before, from the other end, many of them, including especially the younger generations, are becoming increasingly aware and showing loyalty to brands that stand firm in their sustainable commitments.
In terms of supply chain, global brands are using their influence to favour commitment and innovation in the use of sustainable materials and are accordingly changing the way in which the entire industrial supply chain and value supply chain work. As of today, over 150 fashion brands have signed the G7 Fashion Pact this year and more than 36 global brands are committed to using sustainable cotton by 2025. In addition to favouring a use of sustainable and recyclable materials, brands are also focusing on the use of organic materials like organic cotton, which is becoming an extremely popular eco-friendly alternative thanks to its reduced use of water and chemical substances in production. Another important theme is circularity, which is aimed at prolonging the lifecycle of products and keeping fabrics far away from landfills.
Sustainability is not just an increasingly growing demand among consumers, but also among employees and investors, who are interested in working with brands that are committed to safety, sustainability, and ethical manufacturing. Businesses must be clear on who their suppliers are and which practices they implement in producing their fabrics, and the outbreak of Covid demonstrated just how vulnerable and fragile the supply chain can be and just how important visibility and business continuity is in constructing an effective resilience to shocks. Transparency, along the entire supply chain, is accordingly fundamental in managing risks and guaranteeing compliance with social and environmental safety standards, while helping to avoid eventual product recalls from the market, as well as prevent false declarations and a loss of reputation for the brand. Monitoring is essential to ensure all this happens.
Science and the fashion industry
If from one end the fashion and luxury industry in particular are called upon to maintain high quality and performance product standards, from the other end, they are called upon to reduce their impact on the planet, starting from a reduced use of chemical substances. How can science help fashion in facing these new challenges? Mike Redshaw underlined how from the beginning of this year, Textile Exchange launched an important initiative in collaboration with the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UNIFICCA), called ‘2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge’, which is aimed at increasing the use of recycled polyester from 14% to 45%. Recycled polyester, in fact, has a much lower ‘carbon footprint’ than virgin polyester and is capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 70%. Why this specific focus on polyester? Polyester is the fibre most used in the clothing industry and represents 52% of the total volume of the fibres produced, but only 14% of it arrives from the regeneration of materials. Likewise, recycled cotton and wool are extremely valid alternatives in a scope of sustainable production. When, however, speaking of recycled materials, it is fundamental to have an attentive and constant control of the production process, which is a key factor in guaranteeing a quality material. This is because the processing of recycled materials is based on breaking down the structure of the fibres, which reduces the length of the filaments, thereby resulting in a possibly inferior performance to the detriment of the dyeing and finishing processes. Not to be forgotten is the eventual presence in recycled materials of chemical substances used in the original production process, substances that can contaminate the material of the recycled material itself. This is why there must be an attentive evaluation of the materials to be recycled at the beginning of the product’s development, followed by constant supervision of the entire productive process, especially since the laws on the use of chemical substances differ around the world. This is an aspect that must be carefully considered in the phase of selecting the country of origin of the recycled material.
‘Transparency’ in the textile industry
Marina Spadafora believes that today it is increasingly important to have clear labelling not only for garments but also for fabrics. Looking at recent statistics, in fact, it can be seen how the fashion industry took a hard blow with the outbreak of the pandemic, while in Italy alone, the loss in revenue was equal to around 27%. Nevertheless, even in such a dramatic context, sustainable fashion sales around the world increased by 8.7% compared to the previous year, and overall, it is estimated that the green market will arrive at a value of 6.8 billion by 2023. This is the context that has given rise to the new Civil Society European Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, Garments, Leather and Footwear proposed by the European Parliament as part of the comprehensive EU Strategy for 2021. Soon, in fact, there will be new European legislation with sustainability measures for the textile industry and it is important that companies adapt as soon as possible in order to ensure their survival.
The first issue addressed in the proposal is the sustainability of the textile supply chain, with forms of agriculture and breeding that will be required to follow sustainability principles with respect for the environment and the well-being of animals. Other issues include a respect for human rights in textile companies, as well as the development of products in a key of greater longevity and circularity. In this context, for example, the stylist underlines the importance of preferring natural materials over synthetic ones, as well as fabrics 100% made from the same materials, because they are easier to recycle at the end of their lifecycle when compared to blended ones.
In the new European legislation, also the requirements of transparency and labelling of materials will change and there will be the obligation (no longer optional) to provide detailed information on every phase of the production process, on the conditions of workers, and on the location of the factory itself. In the proposal, there are also measures concerning incorrect business practices, with the aim of avoiding order cancellations or late or partial payments, like for example those that recently occurred with leading global brands as a direct result of the pandemic’s outbreak. Other measures regard the regulation of recycled textiles and the promotion of circular business models, as well as greater cooperation between the European Union and manufacturing countries, with the aim of reinforcing the protection of the environment and the rights of workers with regards to the use of chemical substances that are allowed, for example.
Sustainability and innovation
Michela Finaurini underlined how the pandemic gave rise to a new impulse in consumption, and at the same time to the need of fashion and luxury to find new alternatives to the materials used up until now. It also happened in the high-end range with its age-old adage of ‘used = lower quality’, so that the regeneration of that which already exists has now become a winning asset for tomorrow. This transformations towards a more sustainable fashion must however contemplate a considerable cultural leap forward with the development of new processes, new workmanship, and new expertise in companies. Among the barriers to this transformation are undoubtedly the costs, an element not to be underestimated above all in this period when orders are down, especially for smaller brands, which will have more difficulty in investing in this change.
Speaking instead of new materials and of alternative materials used up until now, the researcher highlighted how eco-sustainability has led her to make a break with the past and get rid of old stereotypes, in order to focus her attention on the recycling of materials and on the search for new fibres derived from plants and animals, combining artisanal skill with the best of the technology available. This research has been aimed at the creation of “fabrics made up by not only by materials, but also by thought, ethics, and sustainability”. Among the vegetable fibres, worthy of mention are hemp, bamboo, eucalyptus, corn, and soy, while for fibres of animal origins, always of central importance is wool, renewable and 100% biodegradable, absorbent and breathable, but also organic silk, which is non-violent and sustainable. Among the animal fibres, Michela Finaurini also mentioned byssos, a precious natural silk obtained from marine molluscs. There are then innovative artificial fibres like econyl, obtained from recycled abandoned fishnets and from plastic waste. “The ability to select and choose this fibre is an art, because you need to know how to identify with the soul of the fibre, capture its shades and imagine its transformation. This way every fabric becomes a story to be told”. The sector – confirms the researcher – is full of opportunities for those interested in being green. “If, in the last decade, the challenge was luxury and not having enough time, today the true challenge is preserving the planet for future generations. Be the energy you want to attract”.