Sustainability is the magic word for the future of the fashion industry. Wageningen University & Research is making this new breakthrough possible with innovative research into more sustainable resources for textiles, such as fungi and fruit waste, and by bringing in industry professionals to collaborate.
“The textile industry is only second to oil when it comes to generating pollution”, notes Kim Poldner, assistant professor and research associate of Management Studies. She coordinates the Circular Fashion Lab at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). “Wageningen is working on a more sustainable production chain, from the raw materials to the end consumer.”
In the lab, students collaborate with designers on clean, sustainable clothing. For instance, fruit waste can serve as a substitute for leather. WUR will use these projects to contribute to the State of Fashion exhibition which, in collaboration with ArtEZ, will open on 1 June in Arnhem. The results will be exhibited for seven weeks after the opening. At the opening festivities, Louise Fresco will participate in a panel discussion.
More clothing bought, less clothing worn
The sale of clothing doubled to more than 100 billion articles in the 2000-2015 period. At the same time, consumers are wearing their clothing less and less frequently. More than 70% of that clothing was ultimately burned or discarded as waste instead of being recycled. “If the fashion industry wants to become circular, the capability to recycle the products it creates must be improved”, says Jan van Dam, a biomaterials expert at WUR.
In order to produce all that clothing, manufacturers primarily use new raw materials, particularly plastics and cotton. The cultivation of cotton requires a great deal of water and artificial fertiliser. All in all, the CO2 emissions generated by the fashion industry is equal to the amount produced by international flights and maritime transport combined.
Sustainable clothing made from renewable resources
“Following earlier efforts made by the industry, such as organic cotton, the time has now arrived to take the next step: towards circularity”, says Poldner. As part of the search for renewable, sustainable raw materials for clothing, the students at the Circular Fashion Lab are researching fruit waste as a substitute for leather. Other renewable resources, such as fungi and hemp, are being analysed for their degree of sustainability as well. For example, a dress made of fungi could be composted.
Researchers are also investigating whether chemicals that are used to dye clothing can be replaced with sustainable alternatives. Pigments made from algae or produced by micro-organisms are some of the possible substitutes.
Clothing made from plant-based alternatives also provide another advantage in that they do not release any plastics when they are washed. This is something that occurs with nylon, polyester, and acrylic fabrics. It is estimated that half a million tons of microplastics end up in the ocean each year because of synthetic fabrics.
Working together like ants and bees
Kim Poldner mentioned that WUR can also apply its successful research to the market and to value chains on a much larger scale. The Circular Fashion project on biomimicry occurs at this level, across the entire system. “We observe how ants and bees work together and apply that to the fashion industry”, says Poldner. “We have to move past sheer competition and take on this challenge together. A global problem requires a global solution.”