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Fundamental changes to the fashion business model, including an urgent transition away from ‘fast fashion’, are needed to improve the long-term sustainability of the fashion supply chain, according to a global review published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.
University of New South Wales (UNSW) Associate Professor Alison Gwilt, one of the review’s co-authors, said the fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter after aviation, and accounts for up to 10 per cent of global pollution.
“However, the industry continues to grow, despite rising awareness of the environmental impacts, in part owing to the rise of fast fashion, which relies on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption and short-lived garment use,” she said.
“Fast fashion pieces are viewed by the consumer as disposable garments, since they are cheaper to produce and often made from poor-quality material. Normally they are designed to be on-trend, which means that new products are constantly arriving in store all the time.”
Academics from Finland, Sweden, USA, the UK and UNSW have identified the environmental impacts of the fashion supply chain, from production to consumption, focusing on textile waste, water use, chemical pollution and CO2 emissions.
“While impacts from the production of cotton and polyester continue to create concern, there has been a global response to developing new innovative fibres and fabrics that aim to replace resource-intensive natural fibres and petroleum-based man-made fibres,” the review states.
While most environmental impacts occur in textile-manufacturing and garment-manufacturing countries, the authors write that textile waste is found globally.
“Current fashion-consumption practices result in large amounts of textile waste, most of which is incinerated, landfilled or exported to developing countries,” the review states.
A/Prof. Gwilt said that when a garment is sold on the shop floor, producers often feel that’s the end of their relationship with the product.
“But there is a discussion about whether producers should actually be responsible for the waste that they produce, and how they can they better support the extended life of garments through repair services,” she said.
According to the review, these impacts highlight the need for substantial changes in the industry, including decelerating manufacturing and introducing sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.
“As we look to deceleration in fashion manufacturing it means that brands and retailers need to look at other avenues and opportunities for growth,” A/Prof. Gwilt said.
“Currently there is a real interest in the fashion rental and subscription service. For example, Rent the Runway, the US clothing rental service, has grown exponentially. While repair and remanufacturing services enable consumers to keep their garments for longer.”
Advanced textile recycling methods could see denim jeans transformed into artificial cartilage for joint reconstruction.
Deakin University researchers Dr Nolene Byrne and PhD candidate Beini Zeng have discovered how to dissolve denim and turn them into an aerogel that can be used for cartilage biosculpting, water filtration and used as a separator in advanced battery technology.
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Dr Byrne said the denim recycling technique would also help contribute to the fight against textile waste.
“Textile waste is a global challenge with significant environmental implications, and we’ve been working for more than four years to address this problem with a viable textile recycling solution,” she said.
“With population growth and the development of third world countries combined with today’s rapid fashion cycles, textile waste is always increasing, leading to millions of tonnes of clothes and other textiles being burnt or dumped in landfill.”
Dr Byrne said Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials team used an “upcycling” approach to get around cost-effectiveness issues.
“One of the main drawbacks of textile recycling efforts is that any advanced technique requires the use of chemicals, which can then make the procedure less cost-effective,” she said.
“We use environmentally-friendly chemicals, and by upcycling our approach to create a more advanced material we can address the limitations affecting other less cost-effective methods.
“We are now entering pilot-scale trials and look to be at commercial scale within 3 to 5 years with industry support.”
She said the process worked because denim was made from cotton, a natural polymer comprised of cellulose.
“Cellulose is a versatile renewable material, so we can use liquid solvents on waste denim to allow it to be dissolved and regenerated into an aerogel, or a variety of different forms,” she said.
“Aerogels are a class of advanced materials with very low density, sometimes referred to as ‘frozen smoke’ or ‘solid smoke’, and because of this low density they make excellent materials for bioscaffolding, absorption or filtration.
“When we reformed the cellulose, we got something we didn’t expect – an aerogel with a unique porous structure and nanoscopic tunnels running through the sample.”
Dr Byrne said she believed the sticky nature of the denim cellulose solution was likely responsible for the unique aerogel structure that resulted, something ideally suited for use as synthetic cartilage.
“That’s exactly what cartilage looks like – you can’t 3D print that material – and now we can shape and tune the aerogel to manipulate the size and distribution of the tunnels to make the ideal shape,” she said.