Case studies

Sustainability solutions for apparel companies

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Sustainable materials and their applications

Sustainable materials and their applications 

The fast fashion industry is built on virgin materials such as polyester, spandex, viscose, and nylon that are quick and cheap to produce. Used to make low-quality clothing, these textiles often end up as waste, taking years to biodegrade and releasing microplastics into the environment during the process. 

A variety of other materials, such as cotton and leather, and natural materials, such as wood, can be recycled and repurposed, reducing the volume of waste in landfills and preserving natural resources. 

Recycling and repurposing 

Wood recycling lowers environmental damage while creating valuable materials. In 2022, 15% of the wood used in IKEA products was recycled. The company aims to use 1/3 recycled wood by 2030. 

Leather manufacturing, particularly tanning, is highly polluting and releases toxins into the surrounding soil. Recycled leather is made by shredding leather scraps into fine fibers and adhering them to a micro-textile core using high-pressure water jets before coloring and texturing. 

Recycled cotton converts cotton fabric into cotton fiber that can be reused in textile products. The largest volume of recycled cotton sources is produced through pre-consumer waste. Post-consumer waste is currently more labor-intensive and difficult to sort. 

Plastic recycling is crucial to reduce global plastic pollution and demand for raw materials. Plastics can be remolded into a range of new products in retail, including food containers, clothing, and furniture. 

Fast fashion alternatives 

Piñatex is made from the leaves of pineapples grown in the Philippines. This material is more sustainable than traditional leather and is animal-free. Leftover waste is recycled and used as a fertilizer for biomass. Hugo Boss has a limited edition 100% vegan Piñatex trainer. 

Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant. The entire flax plant can be woven into a fiber, leaving minimal waste, and does not require pesticides, chemicals, or dyes. Linen is strong, durable, and fully biodegradable. 

Kintra fibers are a 100% bio-based alternative to synthetics such as polyester and nylon. Kintra fibers are made using sugar derived from corn and wheat and are biodegradable. In 2023, Kintra successfully raised $8 million in a Series A funding round led by H&M. 

Renewcell’s circulose is a dissolving pulp made from 100% textile waste with high cellulose content. Dissolving pulp cellulose is used to make a range of regenerated fibers and create new textile products. In 2022, Levi’s created a range of its 501 jeans using the textile. 

How companies are using sustainable materials: Nike Grind 

The Nike Grind program involves repurposing leftover manufacturing scraps and textiles collected from Nike factories worldwide. The materials include rubber, polyurethane (PU), and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam, leather, textiles, and thermoplastics. Materials are either leftover manufacturing materials that cannot be used for future Nike products or from end-of-life footwear, which is Nike footwear unsuitable for sale (samples, defective products) and worn-out athletic shoes. 

Nike Grind reuses or repurposes materials into various products. Sport products include surfaces for running tracks, walkways, outdoor and indoor courts, and new trainers with a percentage of Nike Grind rubber. Work and home products include carpet padding, rubber flooring, floor underlayment, and acoustic solutions. 

As of FY22, over 182,000 MTCO2e of emissions have been saved using 39% environmentally preferred materials in products. According to Nike, the program has helped divert 97% of Nike’s waste from landfills, with a future aim of 100%. 

How companies are using sustainable materials: IKEA 

Polyester is the most commonly used synthetic fiber in the world. As a result, IKEA has decided to use only recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester. 

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common polyester resin, is created by chemicals from oil and sometimes coal and is commonly used in plastic bottles. IKEA’s aim is to reduce the exhaustion of natural resources and instead reuse already circulating PET in the production of new products. According to IKEA, 1kg of an IKEA product is equivalent to 60 half-liter bottles, therefore, re-using PET is crucial for reducing global plastic pollution. 

The process requires acquiring the PET from plastic. Plastic waste is firstly washed and stored to become clean and usable. The PET is then shredded into small flakes. The small flakes are melted together at high temperatures to create uniform pellets. The uniform pellets are then spun into fiber and yarn, ready for use in IKEA products. 

Recycled polyester has limitations. Down-cycling of PET bottles creates fibers and textiles, which are harder to recycle than bottles. Although not 100% sustainable, by the end of 2020, IKEA had converted 130,000 metric tonnes of virgin polyester to recycled polyester. 

Sustainable packaging 

Retail packaging, which includes the materials and processes used to package products for sale to consumers in-store and online, generates Scope 3 emissions for hundreds of brands. Packaging waste is a major issue for the retail industry. Every parcel sent uses multiple materials. Consumer demand means packaging is increasingly produced with eco-conscious and sustainable materials. Sustainable packaging includes recyclable, recycled, biodegradable, and compostable materials. 

Retail companies are including sustainable packaging into their net zero strategies: 

H&M reported in 2022 that 87% of paper and cardboard in its packaging was from recycled or more sustainably sourced materials. It aims to reach 100% by 2025. 

Amazon has replaced 99% of mixed material mailers (plastic and paper) with recyclable paper alternatives in the US and Canada. 

Companies are also innovating in sustainable packaging materials: 

Mushroom packaging binds agricultural feedstock with mycelium to produce an organically grown material that has properties that are very similar to polystyrene. The packaging is fully compostable at home and naturally reverts into soil nutrients after 45 days. 

Utopia Plastix has developed a plant-based alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Its process uses its resin for various types of plastic production, including straws, bags, spoons, film, and a variety of containers. 

Hipli’s packages are designed to be reused around 100 times. With the unit QR codes on each parcel, Hipli can track the number of uses, whether they take place between individuals, or whether the parcels return to Hipli. The lightweight parcels can fold very small, which means they have a much smaller environmental impact during their return journeys. 36 

GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article. 

GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence uses proprietary data, research, and analysis to provide a forward-looking perspective on the key themes that will shape the future of the world’s largest industries and the organisations within them.