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  • Writer's pictureKartik Verma

Fashion and sustainability - Part 1

Updated: May 26, 2022

In the first part of this two part series, we explore the environmental impact of fashion as an industry. Today, we take a deeper look into understanding the extent of impact and look at a sustainable fashion company. In the next week’s edition we will look at H&M sustainability goals and a startup that is aiming to grow lab based leather.

What to expect today:

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Environmental impact of the fashion industry

Image Source: Calpirg

Modern textiles rely heavily on petrochemical products that come from many of the same oil and gas companies driving greenhouse gas emissions. Today, in fact, fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output—more than international flights and shipping combined, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Tell me more

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that plastics will be the largest driver of net growth in the demand for oil in the next two decades. Textiles are the second-largest product group made from petrochemical plastics behind packaging, making up 15% of all petrochemical products. Majority of that plastic is used today to make polyester - a type of plastic that has soared in popularity.

Image Source: Tecnon OrbiChem analysis

What about polyester?

Most of the emissions come from the production of a particular type of cloth known as polyester, which has become immensely popular due to its versatility and long life. Polyester, a ubiquitous form of plastic that’s derived from oil, has overtaken cotton as the backbone of textile production. Garments made from polyester and other synthetic fibers are a prime source of microplastic pollution, which is especially harmful to marine life (check out our edition on microplastics in the ocean here).

What about recycling?

Only a fraction of what’s manufactured gets recycled. In the US, 87% of the total fiber input used for clothing is ultimately incinerated or sent to a landfill. Additionally, synthetic textiles like polyester shed tiny pieces of plastic with every wash and wear. These plastic particles, called microplastics, pollute the oceans, freshwater and land and pose a danger to the animals that consume them, inhibiting their growth and reproduction. Scientists in Australia estimate that between 9.25 to 15.86 million tons of microplastics can be found on the ocean floor.

Not all hope is lost though, brands and consumers are increasingly switching to circular economies and recycling materials in their supply chain. Zara for example has committed to produce 50% of the items it plans to sell in 2022 from recycled products. Other brands like H&M also have sustainability goals which we will explore in the next edition.


Sustainable fashion at Rubi Labs

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Rubi Laboratories, founded by twins Neeka and Leila Mashouf in 2020, is a startup based in San Francisco that develops technology that manufactures carbon-negative textile. It uses sustainable solutions to turn carbon emission into natural fibers. The company has raised $8.7 mn so far, recently closing a funding round of $4.5 mn in Feb 2022.

Targeting viscose

Viscose - also known as rayon - is the third largest material that is used to make textiles after polyester and cotton. It is used as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk and synthetic velvet. It is typically made by taking wood pulp, dissolving it in chemicals and spinning it into fibers that can be turned into threads. Threads make fabrics, fabrics make clothes.

Turning CO2 from source into viscose

Rubi captures CO2 from the waste streams of manufacturing facilities using its proprietary enzyme system. It is able to capture and convert CO2 from a gas input at any concentration. Once captured from whatever source is available, CO2 is then converted into cellulose, which can then be used to create viscose-based yarn. By utilizing enzymes as the catalyst, Rubi claims it is able to turn 100% of CO2 input into the reactors into an end product, all with zero waste.

Rubi Labs says it has validated its technology by creating a successful prototype, and is agreeing test plans with numerous tier-one global retail and fashion brands. The company also recently won the H&M Global Change Award.

Our take

Personally, even though we knew the fashion industry was bad for the environment, we did not truly understand its impact, both from CO2 emissions and plastic pollution. Carbon emissions from the fashion industry are more than aviation and shipping combined and while there is focus on creating sustainable fashion products, we need to re-think the core materials used in fashion and how we can reduce our emissions in manufacturing those core products like polyester, cotton and viscose.

Recommendations from the team

  • NPR - Environmental impact of when you click ‘buy now’ (7 min video)

  • Hasan Minhaj - Ugly truth of fast fashion (30 min video)

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