Issue 24: Green is the new black

September 20, 2019

On the heels of New York Fashion Week (NYFW), we're going to look at fashion's green revolution. As consumers become increasingly eco-conscious, brands are looking to circular economies and high-tech fabrics to meet the demand for clothes that are made, distributed and consumed more responsibly. We'll explore how both industry giants like Nike and emerging startups are leading the way.

We'll also learn more about the the brave new world that Apple's U1 chip will usher in, take a moment to appreciate the lightbulb and delve into the secret history of Wi-Fi, and learn why inventors make some of the best CEOs.


LIFE'S A CYCLE

As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue in our public discourse, even the most fashion-savvy buyers are beginning to reconsider the implications of their purchases, and particularly their fast fashion purchases. Every year, over $500 billion USD in value is lost from under-utilized clothes and lack of recycling.

At present, consumers' interest in more responsible fashion is lifting a number of ethical and eco-friendly brands like:

  • Allbirds, which uses merino wool and eucalyptus in its shoes' fabrication and leans heavily into "easy on the planet" branding.

  • Rothys, 3-D printed shoes made from recycled plastic.

  • Girlfriend, a buzzy sportswear company making all its clothes from recycled materials that set the internet ablaze when it spent its entire marketing budget on giving its product away versus investing in a traditional ad campaign.

More established brands are taking a stand too. For example, influential British designer Stella McCartney — who has made sustainability an important focus of her eponymous line — believes the future of fashion is circular. She says:

"The future of fashion is circular. It has to be. Right now, the equivalent of one dump truck of textiles gets landfilled or burned every second, and by 2025 the clothing waste accumulated between now and then will weigh as much as today’s world population. We can’t ignore it. We are always working on new and interesting ways to be more circular as a company. It gives us the exciting opportunity to get creative.

Currently, the fashion system is linear, so it needs a radical transformation – we need to work together as an industry with huge levels of commitment and innovation and challenge the status quo.
We need to evolve from just reducing our impact to making a positive impact."

Sounds great, but what exactly is circular fashion? In short, it's the idea of designing, sourcing, producing, and selling clothing, shoes, accessories, and more with the intention of using and circulating them responsibly in society for as long as possible in their most valuable forms. It challenges the notion of waste and output in the production process and customer value chain. Can all outputs be inputs? How can we extend the lifecycle of all products? How can new businesses models and inventory and logistics planning eliminate waste entirely?

Source: Harper's Bazaar UK

Source: Harper's Bazaar UK

The shift to a more circular fashion ecosystem is already happening. Nike's GRIND program, which recycles the company's shoes into tracks, water bottles, and soccer kits, is a great example of a company reusing its products' components in new ones. Amazingly, the company's been running (pun intended) this program for 25 years, yielding over 1 billion square feet of surfaces in over 10,000 projects worldwide in addition to the company's new consumer products, such as fleeces and footwear.

Nike isn't the only retailer helping clothes find new life as other goods, either: Madewell — purveyor of the wide-legged crops that every cool girl in Brooklyn was wearing this summer — partners with the Blue Jeans Go Green program and Habitat for Humanity to recycle jeans into housing insulation. It incentivizes customers to recycle their jeans by offering a $20 credit towards new jeans for every pair donated, and makes it easy to participate in the program through both in-store drop-off and prepaid, pre-addressed bags shipped with every new pair of jeans sold through its website. To date, 615,991 pairs of jeans — or 750+ houses' worth of insulation — have been recycled through the program.

If you're interested in knowing more about how designers and brands can make impactful changes to their businesses, check out the New Standard Institute (NSI). As Vogue reports, amplifying NSI's "surprisingly straightforward" calls to action by signing its petition is a tangible way for everyday consumers to influence change by speaking directly to their favorite brands on social media.

SYNTHETIC IS THE NEW LUXE

As customers become increasingly concerned about clothing's environmental and ethical impacts, more people are favoring synthetic fabrics instead of furs. Thanks to the invention of convincing synthetic replicas and the realization that a full 20% of the world's total industrial water pollution is created by textile dying and treatment, we are seeking startups lead the way in potentially market-moving innovations:

Silk: San Francisco-based biotech company Bolt Threads which isolates spider silk proteins and recreates them with yeast and sugar

Leather: The New York City-based bio-fabrication company Modern Meadow uses collagen produced by a gene-edited yeast to create Zoa bio-leather

Gems: Carat and Ti Sento make products that are virtually indistinguishable from their real, much more expensive, counterparts to most observers, including in the wedding ring market, recycled metals and lab-grown diamonds.

Even high-end designers are getting in on this shift: in efforts to future-proof their business, Burberry and Kering are investing in the development of new materials and technologies like in-vitro leather (lab-grown cow product) and 3-D printing.

Investors and accelerators are getting in on the circular economy, too. Closed Loop Partners, a venture capital firm that runs the Center for the Circular Economy, expects that its investments will:

  • Eliminate over 16 million tons of greenhouse gas

  • Divert over 8 million cumulative tons of waste from landfills

  • Improve over 18 million households' recycling

  • Save American cities almost $60 million.

NO WASH, NO PROBLEM

The laundry-averse have cause to rejoice, too: high-tech no-wash clothing is starting to come to market. Zinc-infused socks and no-wash shirts are the answer to the prayers of those who hate laundry day more than they hate the idea of wearing the same item of clothing multiple times between washes.

No-wash clothing ranges from the fairly run-of-the-mill, like Unbound Merino's washless shirts that one intrepid traveler wore for 12 straight days without odor; to the slightly grosser, like MP's silver, copper, and zinc-infused Magic Socks, which the company claims are both odorless and ok to wear for a week straight (a Vox writer's partner put them to the test and found they mostly worked as promised).

However you feel about this: synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers — all of which are forms of plastic — now comprise about 60% percent of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide. Every time they’re washed, these fibers leach into the environment.

Estimates vary, but it’s possible that a single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of fibers from our clothes into the water supply. These tiny fibers — less than 5 millimeters in length, with diameters measured in micrometers (one-thousandth of a millimeter) — can eventually reach the ocean. There, they add to the microplastic pollution that’s accumulating in the food chain and being ingested by all sorts of marine wildlife and even us. 

In one paper, Environmental Science and Technology estimated that “a population of 100,000 people would produce approximately 1.02 kilograms of fibers each day.” That’s 793 pounds per year of individual, teeny-tiny plastic shards. So, even if wearing the same boxers for a full week doesn’t appeal to you on first blush, it may still be worth giving the idea of clothes that don’t need to be washed with every weave a bit more consideration.


Extended Reading

The U1 chip in the iPhone 11 is the beginning of an Ultra Wideband revolution
As we wrote last week, the fact that Apple didn't talk up the U1 chip much during its September 10 event belied its cool potential applications. Over the past few days, others have expounded on U1's broad applications. On Six Colors, Jason Snell and Dan Moren argue that the U1 chip is a momentous step akin to Apple's adoption of Wi-Fi in the first iBook, and that it could herald an Ultra Wideband revolution.

In New York City, the Ultra Wideband future is extremely close: in less than a week (September 26, to be exact), customers in parts of the city will be able to access Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband network. This will make New York the 11th city with Verizon 5G mobility services.

How Wi-Fi Almost Didn't Happen
We frequently take technologies for granted after they've been around for a while. Take, for example, the lightbulb. A mundane object now, at the time of its discovery in the 19th century the lightbulb was a miraculous gasless, flameless, oilless form of light. One could say the same today for the Internet.

However, as Jeff Abramowitz, author of the IEE 802.11/802.11b standards and founder of the Wi-Fi Alliance recalls in a WIRED Article, home radio frequency (homeRF) was a serious competitor to Wi-Fi in 1999. Ultimately, With-Fi won out, thanks in no small part to the Wireless Ethernet Compatability Alliance (WECA), which made two key decisions: first, to choose "Wi-Fi" (a riff on "hi-fi" or "high-fidelity") over "FlankSpeed" for the IEEE's second-generation standard, 802.11b, and second, to focus on "go-anywhere" connectivity.

Research: Companies Led by Inventors Produce Better Innovations
Steve Jobs one said that a company's innovative horsepower is determined not by money, but by "the people you have, how you're led and how much you get it." Somewhat unsurprisingly, several studies have proven Jobs was right: leaders play a key role in a firm's innovation success. One type of leader in particular, the inventor CEO (is anyone else irresistibly reminded of the HBO documentary about Elizabeth Holmes?), tends to help their company produce more and better innovation.

Sandisk CEO Sanjay Mehrota, who holds over 70 patents, offers some insight into why this might be the case.