Outsider Information: An Outsider’s Perspective on Sustainability

Intro By Ruth Kelly, Materials Editor

Sustainability can be a vague umbrella term that often generates  more questions, doubts and uncertainties rather than  providing  solutions and clarity. Companies and individuals may feel paralyzed in not knowing  where to start on their sustainability journey. Ben Galphin of  Outsider Innovation,  is your guide through that journey. Ben is kickstarting the Ssachs Materials Sustainability Series  and  takes us through how sustainability comes in many shapes and forms, and offers some food for thought for getting started and the future.


the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level

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The term ‘sustainability’ is more commonly used to vaguely describe any broad set of behaviors aimed at reducing one’s environmental impact.  It can conjure thoughts of sandal-wearing, VW bus-driving, hemp-clad hippies foraging for their next meal, and simultaneously bespectacled, lab-coated scientists with hands full of test tubes filled with some novel, earth saving miracle chemistry. 

Indeed, sustainability can have different embodiment’s in different situations, as well it should.  Whether recycled natural and synthetic textiles, biosynthetics and regenerative organic agriculture, or simply building better, longer lasting products and cleaning up our collective mess, sustainability can, and should, come in many shapes.

In the 1990’s, using recycled materials was a crazy idea.  Back in 1993, Patagonia Inc., debuted their first recycled fleece jacket.  That product would eventually inspire the clothing brand to invest time and capital into moving much of their line to recycled synthetic materials and helped inspire the outdoor industry to do the same. 

Patagonia’s 1993 ground-breaking recycled polyester fleece jacket.
Photo Credit : Patagonia

Today, using recycled materials, especially recycled plastics, is commonplace.  Allied Market Research estimates the recycled textile market will reach $8 billion by 2026 at growth rate of 5.2% annually. The Textile Exchange reports, that the number of brands who signed the organization’s recycled polyester PET commitment increased by 25% from 2017 to 2018. 

While PET claims much of the spotlight in recycled textiles, other polymers like Nylon (polyamide, PA) and polypropylene have seen increased availability and usage as well. 

Much of the feedstock for recycled PET comes from bottles
Photo Credit : Polina Tankilevitch

Global recycling efforts were delivered a blow in February 2018 when China’s National Sword Policy came into effect  banning imports of 24 types of waste material, including textiles. It  however helped highlight the gaps and imbalances in recycling capabilities across the world, as well as opening up new opportunities.  Since 2018, recycling companies have invested in new sites and innovated  sorting and recovery technology, so enabling them to increase their market  share in this growing industry. 

“With the world’s largest brands, retailers and plastics manufacturers making commitments around plastics recycling, recycled and recyclable content, current projections indicate demand for recycled plastics will increase from 5 to 7.5 million metric tons by 2030, requiring an increase in supply of 200–300%”

SustainAbility’s Trends 2020

So what’s next?

The step beyond recycled materials, from an impact reduction standpoint, may be bio-sourced or bio-based materials.  When properly grown, harvested, and converted, they offer the opportunity to remove carbon and restore the soil, surpassing the impact reduction from recycled materials.  According to the Textile Exchange’s Quick Guide to Biosynthetics, the climate change mitigation of the global bioeconomy is 2.5 billion tons C02.  Unfortunately, biosynthetics today may not perform like their virgin or recycled counterparts.   Adopting these technologies can be a technical headache, and some companies are unwilling or unable to accept the necessary compromises in cost, efficiency, or performance.  Most commercially available drop-in biosynthetic solutions are partially bio-based, like PTT or PET, or are relatives of other polymers, like Rislan from Arkema- a PA11 that can be more expensive though higher performing than more common polyamides.  PLA is possibly the most widely known biosynthetic, but it has different properties from its convectional cousin, PET, and therefore has seen little adoption into apparel.  In addition to cost and performance factors, biosynthetics must be considered on the merits of how they are cultivated. 

Chemical companies are scaling bio-based alternative polymers, but the impacts may be hidden.
Photo credit : Johny Goerend

Adopting commercial-scale organic agriculture is critical to realize the full benefits of biosynthetics. According to the Rodale Institute’s white paper on Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change, conventional agriculture has more than 50% higher energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions compared to organic agriculture.

It’s interesting to note that despite advances in regenerative wool and cotton, these materials are not yet widely available or used – organic cotton only accounts for about 1% of all cotton grown. 

So, if recycled is becoming the baseline, but bio-based may be hard to achieve, how else can we make progress in sustainability, and where do we start?  Part of the  answer lies with the brands.  Brands need to build better products and offer routes that encourage potential end users to;

  • consume less
  • buy back and resell
  • repair and regenerate

Sustainability can mean many things, not just cycling and sharing.

Ben Galphin

Photo credit : Pop & Zebra

When looking for headline-grabbing and legitimate sustainability schemes, consider trying a new consumption model.   What’s better than making and selling a product once?  Selling the same one twice! Research conducted by the online second-hand clothing retailer Thred Up indicates the used clothing market may be 1.5 x the size of fast fashion by 2028.   Arc’teryx, Patagonia, The North Face, REI, and others have marketplaces for used goods, and some of these companies are designing this into their products from the outset. 

According to KPMG and the Textile Exchange in the Threading the Needle report, wardrobe staples such as coats, jeans, socks, and underwear represent 64 percent of garments produced globally for men and women, and many customers expect these items to last.

Extending the life of wardrobe staples by nine months of active use has been estimated to reduce carbon, water, and waste footprints by 4 percent to 10 percent. 

Threading the Needle

Extending the life of the garment via increasing quality, fit and durability is only part of the answer. Garments are often discarded because they are no longer in fashion  – so encouraging consumers to adopt a more individualist permanent style, or slow fashion, has huge advantages. No mean feat in the fashion industry, but maybe less of a barrier in the active and outdoor category. It will also be interesting in the post Covid-19 world to see if our addiction to mass over consumption has been permanently kicked. Is our new found appreciation of nature and the environment here to stay, or is it just a temporary state as we return to materialism as a source of fulfillment?

Selling used clothing doesn’t have to feel like a thrift store. Luxury consignment and high-end retailers are adding this model to their businesses as well.
Photo Credit : Charles Etoroma

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) performed on apparel frequently points to the “Use” phase as the most impactful portion of a garment’s life.  The “use” phase is everything that happens between a garment being purchased and it being retired – the primary impact is laundry.  Making products that require less care and less energy-per-care can reduce this portion of their impact; finding ways for products to look (and smell) good between laundry cycles and get clean and dry with less, water, energy and detergent. 

Secondly when setting your sustainability goals, also look to the waste in your organization, be it energy, material, time or money. 

Some examples:

  • Electricity in owned and operated facilities, as well as supply chains, can often be purchased through power purchase agreements to favor renewable sources. 
  • Time saved through better process and company behavior can be spent devising and implementing new solutions to sustainability problems or making better product. 
  • Money saved through better systems and efficiency can be spend on research and development or donated to effective causes.

 Engage deeper with your organization’s consumption and value chain to find where funding might spur innovation and adoption.  The Financing the Transformation in Fashion report published by Fashion for Good and Boston Consulting Group estimated that $20-$30 billion is required to scale technological innovations within the fashion industry.  The Fund itself and other organizations are making investments to support sustainable growth in the apparel industry and need participation from brand partners to drive demand for the innovation. 

Despite recent advances in materials, and product responsibility from apparel brands, the global apparel industry is still creating massive pollution.  From incinerating sold stock to textile-related microplastic pollution and illegal chemical dumping, there is plenty of work to be done cleaning up. We need a dual approach – just as we would tackle an overflowing sink in our kitchen by simultaneously turning off the water from that gushing tap and mopping up the water from the kitchen floor, so we also need to stop more textiles polluting the environment whilst cleaning up what is there already.

Ocean plastics come from a variety of sources, including clothing. Brands and retailers can help remediate waste through clean-up efforts and proper product take-back, repair, recycling, and disposal services.
Photo Credit : John Cameron

In conclusion, the same resolution does not necessarily fit unique circumstances, and different problems may not have the same solution.  Apparel brands and textile mills often fall into the trap of adopting solutions from competitors.  In times like these, what is imperative is for a company to find authentic, sustainable, sustainability solutions for themselves, and then to implement them.  There are more resources than ever, and companies available to help craft and execute sustainability, material, product, and social responsibility strategies. 

For smaller or more labor- and cash-strapped organizations, simply having a material consumption and waste remediation strategy can help focus the company’s efforts and show that they are willing to lead the conversation and take the initial steps on their sustainability journey.

To learn more about how Ssachs can help you on your sustainability journey please contact ruth@sssachs.co

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