Saving Water to Reduce the Waste Stream and Reboot Our Fabrics
March 22, 2023
By Esha Chhabra
This year’s theme for World Water Day focuses on accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis. Being part of that change means reducing water waste. And regenerative businesses are already on it. In this passage from Working to Restore: Harnessing the Power of Regenerative Business to Heal the World, writer and journalist Esha Chhabra showcases a handful of companies channeling their resources into recycling fabrics and textiles the cleanest way possible.
Unable to put all the secondhand clothes to use, Patricia Ermecheo, [who has been in the business of recycling trash for the past decade], began thinking about how to break down this clothing and turn it into yarn, ready to be spun into a new garment. That could create more systemic change in the industry.
Ermecheo partnered with some scientists at North Carolina State University to conduct research on the strength of this recycled yarn. Two years of research at NCSU and visiting manufacturers and fashion experts resulted in a new technology that provided a solution, and Ermecheo founded another company, called Novafiber, to employ the new process. She set up a factory in Guatemala, working with her existing contacts. Novafiber breaks down fabrics and upcycles them without the use of chemicals, dyes, or water. “That’s really important,” she says, “because the dyes and excessive water usage in the fashion industry is just as bad and we didn’t want to add to the problem.”
Ermecheo took the solution to the marketplace with a simple offering: socks. It was a low-cost, affordable product with just a couple of sizing options, making it a good pilot. The response was positive. They sold more than two thousand socks in a month, and she began thinking about how to scale the model.
“To get the industry to truly change, we have to work with the big brands, and convince them to go circular,” she explains. “So I focused on B2B [business to business].” Rather than creating her own line of products, she invested her time in working with established brands that could transform the industry virtually overnight. Though the change didn’t happen that quickly, she did find a receptive audience with one of the world’s largest sports brands, Nike. For the past two years, Ermecheo has been working with Nike to drive innovation in its sustainable supply chain, and to perfect this upcycled yarn for its products.
In the meantime, she has received recognition from other ecofriendly brands. For instance, in 2018, Stella McCartney, a women’s fashion brand focused on sustainability, featured the socks at Fashion Week in Paris. Each guest at the Stella McCartney show was given a custom-made Osom Brand pair of socks in a 100 percent compostable bag.
“It’s definitely still the beginning, but we’re starting to see more brands take action, and have a hunger for solutions and change,” she says.
Ermecheo’s focus is on using postconsumer waste, clothes that have already been worn. This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge in recycling clothing because most clothing today is made of a blend of fabrics and fibers. “That makes it hard when you’re trying to break it down and reweave into a new thread. These materials have their own properties and cannot be separated so easily when they’re woven together,” she explains.
Anders Bengs, the Finnish cofounder of Helsinki-based Pure Waste Textiles, knows this firsthand. In 2006 Bengs started a company called Costo with Hannes Bengs and Lauri Köngäs, an accessories label that refashioned waste textiles into hats. The concept was a hit, and as Costo’s popularity surged in the Nordic region, Bengs, like Ermecheo, began to think bigger: How do we revolutionize the industry as a whole?
Bengs partnered with a fellow Finn, Jukka Pesola, and an Italian, Maela Mandelli, to start Pure Waste Textiles in 2013. Having seen the amount of fabric wasted on the cutting table in factories, Bengs and his cofounders homed in on textile waste in the manufacturing process, or pre-consumer waste. In particular, they started working with cotton, a material that, Bengs says, “takes a hell of a lot of resources to grow and seems like a crime to waste.”
In 2016, they built a factory with their Indian partner, Raj Agrawal, in a small village outside of Coimbatore, India. Situated in the heart of the Indian textile industry, they had easy access to the cuttings from the factory floors. “India is a powerhouse when it comes to knitwear, and as a result, they have a lot of the waste as well. About 15 percent of material is wasted in the manufacturing process,” he estimates.
With 100 workers, primarily women, the factory gathers all the cotton clippings from nearby factories and sorts them by color, then mechanically breaks them down to individual fibers.
Like Ermecheo, Bengs is focused on repurposing the material in the “cleanest” way possible. “We don’t use dyes or chemicals in the process, and the consumption of water is almost zero,” he says. The factory runs on 90 percent wind power, with solar panels on the way to make up the last 10 percent.
To make it easy for companies to work with them, Pure Waste Textiles offers finished products, such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, pants, and bags that can be customized with company logos, slogans, and designs. “We do that because we’re working with a relatively new type of material, the recycled cotton blends, which some factories may not be as familiar with, or [know] how to work with properly,” he explains. It’s easier for them to own the whole supply chain, from waste to a finished product. “We don’t have investors, shareholders, or any outside voices telling us what to do,” Bengs says, “so we’ve been able to grow this slowly based on our knowledge and values.”
The three founders started with $3,500 (€2,500) in 2013. By 2019, they had an annual turnover of $5 million. With some grants from the Finnish government, they’ve also invested in research and development. Their latest foray is in learning how to better recycle post-consumer textile waste. They’re currently testing potential solutions with local universities and research institutes in Finland.
“We’ll definitely be able to do it. It just takes a lot of infrastructure, which is what’s lacking right now in the industry. So, we need to invest in the machinery and infrastructure to be able to repurpose all kinds of textile waste,” Bengs says.
Despite their need for investment capital, they are not interested in receiving capital from institutional investors. “We like our freedom,” says Bengs. “It’s let us get to where we are today and build a business that’s not about making money but about changing the world.”
The Waste Stream Itself
To reduce the waste stream, using existing materials is important—first, because some of these items are made of polymers and synthetic materials that do not decompose; second, because of the chemical dyes that manufacturers use to color fabrics in specific shades of millennial pink or sky blue. Dyeing fabrics for both industrial and consumer use eats up precious resources, especially water, and leaves behind toxins.
Not just the dyes can be problematic but also the finishes on these clothes that make them soft, water-resistant, and sweat-friendly. All textiles have some pretty dirty secrets, the textile chemist Matthias Foessel tells me.
Dressed in a denim jacket by Nudie Jeans, a Swedish brand that uses organic cotton and promotes heritage-inspired selvedge denim that has not been prewashed, Foessel wears his views these days. But that was not the case nearly three decades ago when he started his career in textiles.
With a master’s degree in textile chemistry from Coburg University in Bavaria, Germany, Foessel was prepared for a lifelong career in textile manufacturing. His first job after completing post-grad was at Ciba Specialty Chemicals, a company that operated in more than eighty countries and in almost every industry where a textile would be used: from car seats to baby clothes to shoes to home linens. In 2009, Ciba became a part of BASF, a German chemical company that is one of the largest chemical companies in the world.
After Ciba he went on to work for Huntsman, an American chemical company headquartered in Texas. It was at Huntsman, in 2008, that Foessel started thinking about alternatives to the thousands of chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
“I had to spend time learning about the industry, and its mistakes, before I could wake up to the reality,” Foessel admits. “I needed that time to understand that we can do it better. At this point, I had traveled all over the world, been to countless mills. I could have just sailed into an executive position at a chemical company and lived a very cushiony life. But I saw the effect that all this consumerism was having on the planet. And I couldn’t turn away from that. So I quit.”
Foessel partnered with friends to start a new era in textile chemicals. It was the beginning of Beyond Surface Technologies, or BST. Using their own funds, they set out to create alternatives to some of the commonly used chemicals in the industry. It took them four years to create their first product—and even that happened by accident.
“Everyone thought we were nuts to start a chemical company that was going to be bio-based, and that, too, in Switzerland,” Foessel jokes. “We were mad and stupid. That’s the truth.”
Luckily, they didn’t care what everyone thought. Instead, Foessel, with the addition of Mike Rushforth, a Scotsman with a PhD in chemistry, set out to find a replacement for durable water repellent—DWR, as it is routinely called—one of the most commonly used chemical coatings on outdoor apparel. The job of DWR is to keep you dry when it’s wet outside. It does this with the use of chemicals. DWR, until recently, was made with a long-chain (C8) fluorocarbon, but the byproducts of this chemical are toxic and, when mixed with water, can easily end up in the environment.
“After three years of working on different chemistries for DWR, we dropped water on a sample and it absorbed [the water], instead of repelling it,” Foessel says. Instead of creating a bio-based alternative to DWR, BST developed the exact opposite, a substance that causes wicking. “Thankfully, we didn’t give up. We just kept going with it,” Foessel continues, laughing.
Though they didn’t find the solution to DWR, in 2015 they did create their first product, bioWick. Outdoor and athletic wear needs to have effective wicking properties, so that when a person sweats, the fabric picks up the liquid and disperses it quickly throughout the material, allowing it to evaporate.
The BST team, based in Basel, did not have the travel budget to market their product to clients. So they reached out to Adidas, a significant name in sports, and conveniently headquartered just a few hours away in Herzogenaurach, near Nuremberg, Bavaria. That year Adidas did a trial run of the bioWick finish on the jerseys for the German World Cup football (soccer) team. If the professionals didn’t notice the difference between the bio-based and the chemical-based finishes, BST had a winner.
“We knew we had to create a product that wasn’t just about being bio, or natural—it had to perform. And this was the test,” Foessel says.
The feedback from Adidas was positive. BST’s bio-Wick performed on par with the synthetic concoction. Three years in, BST had a client. Adidas adopted the product for its global football collection in 2015.
“Our solution is 99 percent bio-based. While it’s not 100 percent, because we have less than 1 percent of synthetics, it’s a serious upgrade from the industry standard, which can be as low as 0 percent [bio-based],” Foessel says.
The chemical waste and carbon footprint from bioWick, as a result, is one-ninth that of conventional DWR. In a life-cycle analysis, BST’s vegetable-oil-based bioWick was put up against the traditional petroleum-based wicking concoction; bioWick came in at 2.4 versus 23.4 for the latter (in the units used to measure carbon footprint).
BST aims to make a dent in petroleum usage by the industry: the textile industry uses ninety-eight million tons of nonrenewable resources, including oil, every year. Textile production pollutes water systems; 20 percent of industrial water pollution is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles. BST can tackle both by going bio: the water has fewer, if any, pollutants, and the finishes themselves are largely biodegradable and petroleum-free.
With Adidas on board, BST had established that they can compete with existing industry players and work in big volumes. That goes back to BST’s team, which consisted of industry veterans with established networks, and a recognition that to succeed, the product had to be on par with or better than the options currently on the market.
Since 2015, BST has developed some more bio-based alternatives. DWR is still only partially bio-based, Foessel says. “It’s better, about 53 percent bio-based, but we’re still working on it.”
He acknowledges that four bio-based alternatives are a good start but nothing compared to the dozens at his previous job. Although BST is only twelve years old, Foessel expects that product development will go faster than it did during the first three years. “I sure hope that it doesn’t take us three years to develop a single product,” he says. “But we’re learning quickly, and I think we’ll be able to iterate faster going forward.”
While their emphasis thus far has been on developing bio-based coatings for synthetic and conventional fibers, even materials like organic cotton can be coated in synthetic chemicals for their finishing, which Foessel is keen to highlight: “It doesn’t stop at the fiber. And the industry needs to appreciate that. It goes further, and it gets complex.”
In addition to Adidas, BST’s client base includes some mainstream brands such as Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger, and BST’s bio-based products have been used on one hundred million pieces of clothing (annualized) thus far. Surprisingly, approximately 10 percent of that total comes from Tchibo, a German coffee company that also has a chain of cafés throughout the country, for which BST produces merchandise periodically. “What I love about working with them is that it shows that this is not an upscale solution. They’re a very mass-market brand. If they can do it, why are you not doing it?” Foessel asks of other brands.
Cost-wise, he notes, bioWick is comparable to industry standards. “After having spent two decades in mills and dye houses,” he says, “I knew that I had to make a product that would be just as good and as inexpensive as what the market was using. So there are absolutely no excuses not to convert over.”
About the Author
Esha Chhabra is a writer who covers sustainability, international development, and the rise of mission-driven brands. She has spent the last decade contributing to a number of international and national publications such as The Guardian, New York Times, Wired UK, Washington Post, Atlantic, Fast Company, Forbes, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and more. She has been awarded multiple fellowships from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Follow her on Twitter (@esh2440) and Instagram (@eshatravels).