There’s a lot of noise clouding the message when it comes to eco-friendly fibers and fabrics. Materials that are “natural” also require a lot of water to produce. Others that are labeled “recyclable” may not be. Hasan Erdal, vice president of the family-run textile agency Yarn Mavens, has worked with hundreds of the fashion industry’s top designers for decades. We asked him what “eco-conscious” really means and whether it’s possible for the fashion industry to be truly eco-conscious.
Is on-demand clothing production the wave of the future?
I don’t think it’s such a new model. Bonobos was one of the first companies online where you were getting a bespoke garment made for you – the idea was that they’d take your measurements than make your pants. From there, there have been many imitators.
I do think it’s a smarter model because having stock is a liability - you need physical space to keep it and a store in which to sell it. Honestly, [on-demand] is the correct model for the future. The problem is that the market has become oversaturated.
What are some new apparel concepts that you find exciting?
What Variant is doing with sweaters is interesting because there hasn’t been that type of customization for sweaters because of the high cost of programming and producing. It’s a lot more intricate than cutting and sewing together pieces of fabric, because it comes out in one piece and it’s very form-fitted. An uneducated consumer who doesn’t understand knitwear will have a hard time understanding why it is so expensive. The value is that it’s not traditional, it’s an experience made only for them, not something you can pick up in a store that other people will have. Consumers want bespoke items that make them feel special and that will last.
What does it mean to have an “eco-friendly” fiber? Is cotton “eco-friendly?”
I think eco-friendly is sort of a misnomer. The idea that one is better than the other, synthetic versus natural, is not necessarily true. Cotton may be cost effective but it take a lot of water to produce it, more so if it’s organic because it takes five years of watering to get a chemical-free field. Two of the biggest obstacles in fashion production are water consumption and carbon footprint from shipping. To produce something entirely locally is best no matter what it’s made of. People are going more into technical fibers for this reason.
Isn’t polyester also bad for the environment?
While polyester does create microbeads that end up the water, you can recycle it up to 20 times. Cotton can’t really be recycled post-consumer. H&M has a recycling program for old clothes, but actually only 5 percent of what they get back is recyclable. There are companies that buy old cotton garments in bulk to be used for other things like stuffing for blankets. Madewell’s denim recycling program uses it for insulation, for example.
Do you see a big shift in a business like yours?
I think the yarn supply business will remain fairly traditional. First, because certain fibers are cheap, and second, because we have a consumer base that only understands certain fibers. They are trained to buy and respond to certain things. For example, cashmere or wool is more saleable than some synthetics
Do you see consumers embracing newer materials?
I think there will be a shift that will merge with wearable tech. You’ll see more integration happen not only with polyester and nylon but also with performance yarns. Yarns woven with silver or copper nanowires have conductive properties that let the entire garment have microcenters to track things like movement. Or hollow fibers can regulate body temperature.
How do you define an eco-conscious customer?
Someone who cares about how their products are made and where they come from. Companies are now using RWS4 blockchain technology to trace where wool comes from back to the actual farm. It’s an important step for an industry that has never been transparent.
I work with a lot of brands and for the first time in many years there is more than a cursory push to share how they produce.
Why is it important for big companies to lead this charge?
Recycyled cotton, organic cotton and sustainable fabrics are price prohibitive right now because there’s not very much made. As demand increases prices will drop. Unfortunately, most companies don’t really care if it’s good or bad as long as it sells. The only reason that sustainability is popular now is that there is a consumer base that cares about it.
What are some fibers of the future?
Viscose, which is currently used in a lot of dresses, is moving into sweaters. Companies hoping to attract younger consumers are catching on with this and also nylon.