Listening to the Conscious Chatter podcast this morning – a tangent in the discussion got me thinking about the intersections of fashion/textile sustainability and technology investment.

The episode was an interview with Jessica Shreiber who founded Fabscrap (a nonprofit that collects textiles from New York designers for reuse and recycling). It was all fascinating, but it was a brief discussion on the technology of textile recycling that really got me thinking today – how far behind it is compared to the recycling technology in other materials, and how much of a need and opportunity there is for developments there.

Although textiles were one of the earliest materials targeted for landfill diversion, the technology related to glass, metal, paper, plastic, recycling quickly advanced, and the market for those materials developed. There’s so much to research on this question, but I’d guess that those phenomena are closely related – because the commodities themselves had value on the market, investments were made in the technology for processing them. Now, for instance, plastics are sorted for recycling at lightning speed by lasers and air suction, with very little human involvement, while textiles are sorted by people slowly examining pieces to determine the fiber content.

At another point the discussion was about how difficult it is to make the business case for sustainability in textile and apparel. There is rarely an efficiency/cost savings pitch to be made in the current landscape. It’s common for people to know how to make and understand an argument about building energy efficiency, for example: if you make this small behavioral shift, you’ll save money or if you make this investment in better insulation, you’ll get a great return in energy bill savings.

It occurs to me that because textiles remain so heavily dependent on human labor (at all the stages of production and potential re-circulating), efficiencies and cost savings translate to human labor exploitation. This of course, becomes an obstacle, not an opportunity, in making the business case for sustainability. Textile production has already taken economic efficiency via labor cost efficiency to an extreme, via globalized markets and policy influence. This has spanned from the historical development of US cotton production that was dependent first on slavery and later on exploitive immigration/guest laborer policy, to the current market where producers (and recyclers) follow low wages around the globe, often influencing trade policy to enable their pursuit.

From a sustainability and human rights standpoint, we’d like to move in the opposite direction of course, decreasing and eliminating harmful human impact, and so we often find ourselves advocating for more expensive options in both the labor (fair wages and safe working conditions) and material sourcing and disposal (reuse and recycling via relatively expensive manual labor). If we stop there, we make a good moral case, but we fail to make a business case.

It seems that developing the technology to process textile waste into textile inputs more quickly, efficiently, and with less dependence on human labor is the key to change enabling a pivot towards environmental sustainability in textile processing.  But I’m not sure the necessary investments are being made…despite the vast size of the industry, the volume of waste produced, and increasing public pressure and attention to the issue, I only hear of a few relatively small companies  in early stages approaching this problem. There is some investment in research by large clothing retailer coalitions, but not enough to move the needle yet.

In discussions of impact investing around technology development, renewable energy is often the focus. It seems that the opportunity in that area is recognized, and it makes a real difference. Could attention by investors to renewable textile material resources make a difference here, spurring innovation and enabling scaling that’s necessary to make a real impact in textile sustainability? Making the textile supply chain circular is a huge opportunity for impact, and it could be an unrecognized opportunity for investors as well. What is the next step to making it happen?

 

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