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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Biomimicry, Changing Attitudes Poised to Revolutionize Apparel Sector

Fashion continues to make headlines, with news emerging about a new textile breakthrough and shifting attitudes towards clothing across the UK that are helping drive down the industry’s environmental impact.

Fashion continues to make headlines, with news emerging about a new textile breakthrough and shifting attitudes towards clothing across the UK that are helping drive down the industry’s environmental impact.

While many textile innovations focus on the use of recycled fibers to generate new, sustainable materials, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge have harnessed the power of nature to create a strong, low-impact material that can be produced without high heat or toxic chemicals.

The fiber mimics the strength and flexibility of spider silk and is made from a soupy material called hydrogel, which is composed of 98 percent water. The remaining two percent is made of silica and cellulose, held together in a network by barrel-shaped molecular “handcuffs” known as cucurbiturils. The chemical interactions between the different components enable long thin fibers — only a few millionths of a meter in diameter — to be pulled from the gel. After 30 seconds, the water evaporates, leaving a fiber which is both strong and stretchy.

“Although our fibers are not as strong as the strongest spider silks, they can support stresses in the range of 100 to 150 megapascals, which is similar to other synthetic and natural silks,” said Dr. Darshil Shah of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture. “However, our fibers are non-toxic and far less energy-intensive to make.”

The fibers are also capable of absorbing large amounts of energy, much like a bungee cord, exceeding the damping capacity of natural silks, as well as synthetic alternatives. Additionally, they can be produced at room temperature and are held together by supramolecular host-guest chemistry, which relies on forces other than covalent bonds.

Shah believes that this method of making fibers could offer a sustainable alternative to current manufacturing methods and the researchers intend to explore the potential of applying a similar method to produce yarns and braided fibers.

The research is the result of a collaboration between the Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis in Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, led by Professor Oren Scherman, and the Centre for Natural Material Innovation in the University’s Department of Architecture, led by Dr. Michael Ramage. The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Leyerhulme Trust provided funding for the project.

Meanwhile, sustainability nonprofit WRAP has released the results of a new study detailing how changing attitudes towards clothing are helping drive down the environmental impact of the UK’s wardrobes.

Valuing Our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion demonstrates that people are not only changing the way they care for their clothes, but they are increasingly moving away from the practice of putting unwanted clothes in the garbage. The amount of clothing being discarded in residual waste in the UK dropped from 350,000 tons in 2012 to 300,000 tons in 2015. While the numbers remain daunting, it indicates the beginning of an important paradigm shift.

WRAP’s research indicates that the regular use of tumble-dryers and ironing has fallen and clothing is increasingly being washed at lower temperatures. These combined changes alone have helped slash CO2 emissions by 700,000 tons per year.

The report also examines improvements within the clothing sector since the launch of WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) in 2013, a voluntary agreement designed and brokered by WRAP in partnership with key government and industry players.

Over the last four years, WRAP has worked closely with major clothing designers, brands, manufacturers, retailers and reuse and recycling organizations to spur the wide-scale adoption of sustainable production methods and buying practices and increase textile reuse and recycling. SCAP initiatives — ranging from sustainable fiber procurement to providing advice and support for households on caring for clothes — have played a critical role in achieving these goals. SCAP membership now accounts for more than half of the UK clothing market.

Only midway through the agreement, SCAP signatories have already demonstrated significant improvements, including reducing carbon by 10.6 percent, water by 13.5 percent and waste across the product lifecycle by .8 percent per ton of clothing.

“I am delighted by how well SCAP signatories are doing. At this stage of the agreement, they are not only well on the way to achieving the targets, but continue to outperform the sector as a whole — particularly in sustainable cotton,” said Steve Creed, Director of WRAP’s Business Program. “It’s amazing that 20 percent more cotton is now sustainably sourced by signatories than when we began. And having high-street names like M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury’s setting ambitious sustainable cotton targets will help ease the pressure on some of the world’s most water-sensitive countries.”

But while fewer clothes are finding their way to landfill, the amount purchased since 2013 has risen by nearly 200,00 tons to 1.13 million tons sold. The environmental footprint of UK clothing has also risen and now stands at more than 26 million tons of CO2e, up two million tons on 2012. This is largely attributed to low prices and an expanding global population and makes clothing the fourth after housing, transport and food in terms of its impact on the environment.

“Overall our carbon footprint is rising, so the next few years are critical in balancing growing demand with supplying clothes more sustainably,” added Creed. “I’m confident SCAP will play a big part in helping to make this happen and make sustainable fashion much more mainstream.”

WRAP is now calling on retailers and brands to focus on a number of priority garments, which it has found to have the highest environmental impacts in terms of their manufacture and which sell in the largest volumes. These include women’s dresses, sweaters and jeans, as well as men’s t-shirts and sweaters.