Rome, Italy
Thomson Reuters Foundation

From using custom-made, biodegradable fabrics and 'living' clothes that photosynthesise to polyester created from planet-warming carbon dioxide, European start-ups are on a quest to transform one of the world's most polluting industries: fashion.

The business is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined during the pre-pandemic period, said the United Nations Environment Programme.

Sustainable fashion MycoTEX jacket

A view of a seamless jacket from MycoTEX in collaboration with fashion designer Karin Vlug. PICTURE: Jeroen Dietz, provided by MycoTEX

A sizable chunk of fashion's emissions - up to 40 per cent - come from the manufacture of polyester, the most-used fabric, said Benoit Illy, co-founder and CEO of French start-up Fairbrics.

"If we can bring emissions from polyester to zero or negative value, we can significantly reduce industry emissions," he said in a telephone interview.

"If we can bring emissions from polyester to zero or negative value, we can significantly reduce industry emissions."

- Benoit Illy, co-founder and CEO of French start-up Fairbrics.

Illy and co-founder Tawfiq Nasr Allah, both chemists, aim to replace existing polyester-producing processes, which use fossil fuels, with their new technology.

It uses electricity and a catalyst to turn carbon dioxide - emitted when fossil fuels are burned and a major driver of climate change - into synthetic fibres, Illy said.

In some respects, the process is similar to trees capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using sunlight and natural enzymes to produce fibre, he said.

By the beginning of next year, Fairbrics - its name refers to a "fairer" way of producing fabrics - expects to be able to produce a kilogram of polyester yarn a day, he said.

The firm's aim is take the effort to industrial scale in early 2024, he said.

The room for scale-up is clear: The fashion industry currently consumes more than 60 million tonnes of polyester a year, Illy said.

Under pressure from increasingly environmentally-aware shoppers, brands from luxury fashion houses to high street names also are taking steps to reduce waste.

This month, H&M, the world's second-biggest fashion retailer, said it would showcase a recycling machine that could turn old jumpers into new sweaters or scarves on the spot at a store in Stockholm.

Every second, a garbage truck worth of textiles is landfilled or burnt, a costly waste of resources, according to a foundation set up by retired British sailing star Ellen MacArthur.

If Aniela Hoitink, founder of Dutch company MycoTEX, has her way, however, people's wardrobes would adopt a more biological lifecycle, with garments grown and later decomposed in the way trees grow and drop leaves.

She is working with mycelium - the feeding threads of mushrooms - to produce custom-fitted, on-demand clothing that reduces waste and cuts chemical use. At the end of its life - a minimum of two years - the garments would be biodegradable.

The production cycle - growing mycelium, harvesting it, putting it into a 3D mould, drying it and then finishing the final product - currently takes about two to three weeks, said Hoitink, who has worked in fashion for more than a decade.

The 3D modelling also allows for seamless garments that are comfortable and perfectly fitted, Hoitink said.

"When you have a customised garment, it's [a] luxury. But we believe that with this production system we can do that on a mass scale," she said.

In particular, the material could make it easy to shape garments for different body types and markets, she added.

"Right now, everything is based on Western sizes. But African bodies are quite different. Asian bodies are quite different. If we can design with all those different body types in mind, it would be much nicer for everyone."

Sustainable fashion Dian Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert

A view of the co-founders of Post Carbon Lab, Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert. PICTURE: Post Carbon Lab

London-based Post Carbon Lab wants to take emissions-cutting even further, making sure fashion and design have a positive effect on the climate by turning fabrics into carbon-absorbing surfaces.

Designers and researchers Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert do this using photosynthetic coating technology which involves introducing microorganisms, such as algae, to the fabric.

The resulting textile, with live organisms, can then absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide, Lin said.

Having a 'living' garment does require a different set of care, Lin said, and users need to give it some access to moisture - such as an open window on a rainy day - as well as ventilation and light.

Fairbrics, MycoTEX and Post Carbon Lab are three of the 10 finalists in the 2020 European Social Innovation Competition, which is focused on fashion and run by the European Commission.

Other finalists, chosen from more than 760 applicants, include Germany's Kleiderly, which recycles textile waste into new material, and Belgium-based Resortecs' dissolvable stitching that allows for easy recycling and reuse.

The competition, now in its eighth year, is looking for practical solutions to key environmental and social issues and has focused in past years on issues such as cutting plastic waste and better integrating refugees, said Sonya Gospodinova, a European Union spokeswoman.

Three winners are expected to be announced on November 26, with each receiving €50,000 in prize money, the organisers said.

"What is the ecological role of fashion?" asked Post Carbon Lab's Lin. "If we don't have the environment, where essentially we all live, there's nothing. There's no society, no happy communities to build on. And … the clock is ticking."