Today, many apparel brands are joining the sustainable metrics journey. When companies such as Walmart ask their suppliers to provide them with detailed accounting of the environmental impact of their products, we know the world is changing. But Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) thinking captures only one part of the picture. We also need to look closely at how the product was designed in the first place and whether the design will allow a product’s materials to be reused. As the Institute’s certified products program envisions, there will be no waste in the new economy, only nutrients for continued value to nature or industry – polymers to polymers, metals to metals, and safe biodegradables back to soil.
This proposal becomes more of a challenge when we looks at textiles and apparel, as many fiber types are not easily reclaimed. At best, they are down-cycled or composted. At worst, many fabrics are complex blends of fibers that can’t be easily separated on the backend. Institute co-founders McDonough and Braungart called these fabrics “monstrous hybrids.”
My personal background with the apparel industry goes back more than a decade when I worked with Argentine fashion designers to export products to the U.S. and Europe. My partner and I toured the United States, schlepping samples to Coterie, Designers & Agent, and various apparel marts. The sustainable fashion conversation was only just beginning. Ten years ago, all the average consumer heard was a small murmur from a few “hippy” brands. And I was only beginning to scratch the surface of what sustainable textiles would mean in my work. While I had consulted an organic cotton t-shirt company, I did not truly begin my deep-dive into this field until I joined Mohawk Industries as their Director of Sustainable Strategies for the commercial division in 2007. Even then, my knowledge of the development, recyclability and reuse of fibers in the textile world was limited to nylons and polyesters. That is until now - with my new role as a sector specialist for textiles and apparel with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
With passion for the subject and suitcase in hand, I travelled to Europe earlier this month to assist the Institute in opening our European office. This tour gave me the opportunity to meet with several leaders in the world of innovative textiles and fibers. One such company is Backhausen, a 200 year-old weaver based in Austria. The company is still owned and run by the Backhausen family and, in fact, their Vienna showroom boasts a wonderful collection of textiles from generations past. This museum includes design sketches, iconic textile examples, photographs of their products in historic settings, and the biographies of the many world-class artists and designers who have partnered with the company over the years.
What is truly innovate about this company is their continued dedication to leadership in product design, right down to the performance of the fabrics in this new age of quality-awareness and solution-based thinking. In 2008, their president, Reinhard Backhausen, led the company into their next era of innovation by working with Cradle to Cradle® principles to develop a new textile line called Returnity. This latest innovation is the world’s first environmentally friendly produced and 100% recyclable fabric using Trevira CS, a textile fiber based on the Cradle to Cradle® principles. At the end of a long use phase, the fabric is taken back to be infinitely resourceful in new products. Because Trevira CS has been assessed for its impact on human and environmental health with strategies for continued optimization in place, it has achieved the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM Silver Mark.
Keep in mind that today Backhausen produces fabrics and textiles for commercial, hospitality, and home applications. And while these fabrics are suitable for use in clothing, so far this has only been done occasionally to demonstrate and inspire designers. For this reason, we are recommending that a sampling of appropriate Backhausen textiles be included in the portfolio for the 2013 Red Carpet Green Dress design competition. This design competition is a high-profile opportunity for the Institute to convey the benefits of the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM Products Program to apparel textile producers via a winning designed dress on the famed red carpet at the Academy Awards (stay tuned for a future story about the competition next month).
Bachhausen textiles will not be the only certified apparel textiles in our designers’ portfolio. We have been working with partners such as Source4Style to identify sustainable textile products and dyes that already embrace many of the concepts that comprise product certification. We are encouraging these fabric producers to seek Cradle to Cradle certification in order to be included for this year. To learn more about these concepts, check out our website.
We can learn a great deal about the potential for truly sustainable apparel if we look to the commercial fabric/textile companies who have paved the way in working with single material fibers and creating programs for product take-back and material reuse. The carpet industry is a grand example of this leadership. The majority of commercial carpets being sold today have face fibers made from one synthetic material that can be reused. As many of us are aware, the “monstrous hybrids” we so often see, particularly in the outdoor and athletic apparel industries, are the major reasons why clothing can’t be easily recycled. Material innovation and new product design will solve this conundrum. This leaves me wondering how quickly we could advance the apparel industry if more companies would experiment with materials such as Trevira CS.
Those of us working in the design and material innovation movement often hear ourselves saying “don’t make perfect the enemy of good.” The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program inspires continuous improvement. We enthusiastically celebrate companies who begin the journey and aim high. So I encourage more apparel companies to begin their transition to safe, healthy, and infinitely resourceful products. Getting on the path begins today and I commend industry leaders like Reinhard Backhausen and his team for starting their journey nearly 5 years ago. I can’t wait to see what they innovate next. And I encourage any textile producer who wants to get their company started on its product certification journey to contact me today.