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Seeing sustainable fashion clearly at the unspun Summit

What we heard from fashion industry leaders at the unspun microfactory, and how their experiences inform the success of fashion tech innovations in the real world.

At unspun, we’re tirelessly devoted to reducing global carbon emissions by revolutionizing the fashion industry with a comprehensive toolkit.

Using both novel technology and a unique business model, we seek to prevent or substantially mitigate pollution from manufacturing, transporting, selling, and disposing clothing. We strive to be the north star we haven’t yet seen in fashion.

This level of ambition requires perspective. We should be able to explain to ourselves and to the world where we stand in the fashion industry, and how well we’re poised to change it.

That’s why we convened the unspun Summit, a program of conversations with industry leaders in which we learned about the state of fashion and methods for steering the industry toward an environmentally sound future. Although each guest approached these topics from a different angle, all were concerned with a fundamental question: how do we catalyze change?

Here’s a rundown of the Summit’s main talks, and some key takeaways that promise to guide our direction in the months ahead, and hopefully influence your own personal efforts to change fashion for the better.

unspun cofounder Beth Esponnette, right, leads a panel discussing the future of sustainable fashion in America inside the unspun microfactory design studio.

Disseminating new technologies

Our first discussion was with Enrique Silla, founder and CEO of Jeanologia. Resolutely focused on improving the production of denim products, for 30 years Jeanologia has found new ways to minimize the impacts of jeans manufacturing.

The company’s breadth is truly inspiring. To conserve water, prevent runoff, reduce emissions, and eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, no innovation is off the table. Consequently, Jeanologia has not only developed novel machines for lasering, washing, and dying denim, but also the software to use them, as well as logistics models for maximizing the value of their technologies. We can hardly overstate how much Jeanologia’s diversified business provides a blueprint for our own, and how of a feather our values are.

Silla’s talk considered Jeanologia’s trajectory through a pragmatic lens. Across its history reevaluation and reinvention are the throughlines. Pivoting first from a consulting to a technology company, and again from a dispersed company with a presence in over 100 countries, to one concentrated in a few strategic locations, Jeanologia has consistently devoted itself to the goal of helping the planet more than it has to any one means of achieving that goal. To succeed, it has become adaptable. Any mission-driven company should take note.

Although Jeanologia maintains considerable market share among jeans manufacturers today, refreshingly, Silla was candid about the difficulties his company experienced, and that any fashion tech startup is likely to experience, in its earlier years. Foremost among these is inertia, that is, the at times slow adoption of unfamiliar technologies and the skills required to use them. In Silla’s telling, Jeanologia has overcome this obstacle by staying true to its philosophy, to be the “best in service.”

Through providing hands-on training and responsive troubleshooting, Jeanologia creates relationships with its clients that translate into ongoing business. The simplicity of this lesson belies its import: mechanical inventions and organizational breakthroughs are only as effective as their implementation. An enterprising startup should be ready to closely assist manufacturers and retail partners to use and get the most out of the innovations it introduces to the market.

Jeanologia develops innovations to reduce the environmental impacts of finishing denim, including the lasering machine that etched this pair of unspun x Bráulio Amado jeans.

Realizing science-based targets

Our next conversation was with Dr. Subramanian Senthilkannan Muthu, Chief Sustainability Officer of the consultancy Green Story and a groundbreaking figure in the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) field. In broad terms, an LCA is a study of the pollution created by the manufacture of a product, by its use, or both. In application, it’s a practical tool for measuring a company’s environmental impact.

Today, many fashion brands commission LCAs to identify ways to make their supply chains less impactful. Even a decade ago, however, that was hardly the case. Dr. Muthu literally wrote the book —or rather, dozens of them— on best practices for conducting an LCA involving textiles, and has had an outsized role in solidifying the field’s credibility.

Yet in his presentation, Dr. Muthu emphasized that an LCA is only as complete as its inputs. More information can lead to new findings. Surprisingly, Dr. Muthu illustrated this point with unspun’s own LCA, which he helped conduct. This study was the first among fashion industry LCAs to account for impacts deriving from clothing that is manufactured, but isn’t sold. By measuring how overproduction contributes to the carbon footprint of an article of clothing, Dr. Muthu and his colleagues pioneered a new LCA metric altogether.

The episode is a glimpse into the power of transparency. For an LCA to be a “mechanism of validation” for sustainability claims, Dr. Muthu posited, fashion brands should share more primary data about their operations. By portraying conditions specific to the fashion brand under study as opposed to the fashion industry as a whole, primary data may establish the objectivity of a brand’s LCA while also fending off charges of greenwashing. Most importantly, the more accurate the data of an LCA is, the more accurate the science-based climate targets deduced from that data will be.

Dr. Muthu was optimistic that better information will prompt brands as well as policymakers and consumers to make choices about how to manufacture and use clothes that are better for the Earth. Yet his greatest insight was in keeping with Silla’s pragmatism. The fashion industry is notoriously secretive. To encourage transparency for the sake of determining science-based targets, industry leaders and disruptive startups should be cognizant of a brand’s financial incentives. The payoff of a rigorous LCA is the prospect of high cost-savings. In our efforts to attain the noble end of a cleaner industry, utilizing the motives of the marketplace may be our most expedient means of getting there.

LCAs like unspun’s rely on primary data to reveal new ways to reduce the environmental impact of an article of clothing.

Founding the future of fashion

The marquee event of the unspun Summit was a panel led by our own Beth Esponnette, cofounder of unspun. Having connected with us through their advocacy of sustainable fashion, each speaker brought a unique professional background to the discussion. There was Dr. Muthu of Green Story; Rachel Kibbe, CEO of Circular Services Group, an advisory firm specializing in readying clients for, and lobbying in favor of, circularity in textile use; and Sophia Marie Poulos, Lead Community Organizer for Remake, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing both social and environmental justice in the making and wearing of clothes.

The panel revolved around understanding how the future of the fashion industry and domestic policy converge, a subject that entailed thoroughly exploring what role government can play to reinvigorate clothing manufacturing in America. Onshoring factories, paying good wages for skilled jobs, fostering cutting-edge innovations, building a circular economy for clothing with robust textiles recycling. These are all laudable aims that seem commonsensical. But how are they plausible?

As it happens, there’s no single answer. Rather, the speakers coalesced on three simultaneous strategies to center the industry of tomorrow here, now. The former two are driven by legislation and enforcement. First, incentives such as tax credits, grants, and infrastructure investments can attract companies to relocate their operations Stateside. The Americas Act represents this tack. Second, regulations such as wage floors, transparency requirements, and closing loopholes can nudge companies to improve their operations, rendering them more competitive. The FABRIC Act represents this tack.

The third strategy, meanwhile, is that of information. In this arena, government, companies, and consumers may instigate the fashion industry to operate more openly and “go green.” For instance, white papers can direct government to adeptly stimulate development. LCAs can persuade companies to rapidly decarbonize their supply chains. Social media, journalism, and public interest documents like Remake’s Fashion Accountability Report can spur consumers to demand clothing that isn’t deleterious to the environment. Ultimately, the challenge is to get all stakeholders interested in collecting information and acting on it, whether to hasten innovation, gain an edge, or be happier with a purchase.

The panel closed pondering this challenge. Each speaker agreed that to bring about the future of fashion, the way that future unfolds needs to be participatory. As a society, policymakers, corporate leaders, activists, journalists, and shoppers should approach the issues of the fashion industry with curiosity rather than resignation. The panel encouraged attendees to think of sustainability as an open platform.  For indeed, gaining greater value from our clothes is a universal opportunity.

The big idea

unspun is a startup on the verge of transitioning from an idea to a reality. We intend to manufacture millions of garments with hundreds of Vega™ 3D weaving machines within six years. The unspun Summit provided us with important real-world examples and insights in preparation for that scale. But it also contained a big idea.

In the fashion industry, growth has become synonymous with volume. Profits correlate to higher quantities of clothes that are produced at a low cost.

By and large, the volume model assumes natural resources are limitless, and environmental damage endless. Therefore, it does not require innovation. A fashion brand operating under this model is able to achieve an economy of scale using legacy supply chains that are not capable of significantly reducing pollution. It can lower the cost of making clothes by passing off the climate cost.

Growth defined this way is at odds with our planetary boundaries. It isn’t suited for our century. According to the Paris Agreement, by 2030 greenhouse gas emissions from all sources must decline 43% from their peak if humankind is to limit global warming to 1.5º C.

Reaching that benchmark requires innovation —new technologies, new processes— that will significantly reduce pollution. In turn, innovation proposes a new outlook, where growth is synonymous with optimization. Profits correlate to higher quantities of clothes that can be sold for a low cost.

A subtle but consequential shift occurs: instead of increasing overall profit by lowering costs, the new outlook increases profit per unit by saving costs. Innovation replaces legacy supply chains with compact supply chains defined by automated, local, and zero inventory production. This is the big idea.

A fashion brand operating under the optimization model will still be able to achieve an economy of scale. However, it can save on the cost of making clothes by canceling out the climate cost. Growth defined this way can meet our precarious moment, without raising production costs or retail prices. That’s valuable for the planet, for the fashion brand, and for the consumer alike.

We’re eager to take part in this shift. We bet that you are too. The faster all of us can introduce innovations that will swiftly curb emissions to the market, the sooner we can catalyze change.

Velocity is the prerequisite of momentum. Let's go.

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What we heard from fashion industry leaders at the unspun microfactory, and how their experiences inform the success of fashion tech innovations in the real world.

May 2, 2024
Frank Morison
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