The Future of Apparel
Unspun Tech is changing the clothing industry for good
July 20, 2018
The clothing industry is one of the most polluting in the world. With the rise of fast fashion, clothing production is becoming cheaper, quicker, and worse for the environment. We’ve accustomed ourselves to the traditional four seasons of fashion, but this accustomed pattern is virtually gone. Now, retail stores release on average 50-100 micro-seasons. That’s new clothing on a weekly basis! On average, people worldwide purchase 60 percent more clothing yet keep them for half as long as they did in 2000. And in the United States, over 85 percent of our unwanted clothing ends up in the landfill instead of clothing those in need.
Let’s talk more about production. It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton shirt. We could both survive on that much water for over a year! In 2015, polyester production, a primary component for most textiles, generated about 706 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases, equating to 185 coal-fired power plants’ annual emissions. About 20 percent of water pollution globally is caused by textile dyeing and treatment. The industry uses over 8,000 chemicals throughout these processes, many of which are poisonous and damaging to human health.
The industry as a whole barely addresses this large environmental problem as major players continue to overlook the importance of implementing best practices. Fortunately, innovators in the industry are motivated to flip the script on how detrimental the clothing industry should be.
Meet Unspun Tech
Unspun Tech is a robotics and apparel company working to reshape the future of apparel. They use technology, specifically digital customization and automation, to build a pair of custom jeans that fits your body perfectly. Their mission is simple yet inspiring: reduce global carbon emissions by 1%. And they’re on to a great start with support from the National Science Foundation, SOSV, and the H&M Foundation. The H&M Foundation’s vision is to contribute towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 by supporting programs and organizations, like Unspun Tech, around the world that are leading systemic changes in the right direction. Branching off from Unspun Tech is Denim Unspun, a developing technology that focuses on reinventing how apparel is manufactured sustainably.
Denim Unspun is working to eliminate and tackle textile waste, flip the inventory paradigm that has consumers fitting into what’s available shelves, and localize production to decrease emissions caused by raw materials transportation. We recently met with Walden Lam, co-founder, on a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning in San Francisco to chat more about what he and the Unspun team are up to. What we learned was both inspiring and marveling. We’re beyond excited to have partnered with this amazing group of innovators that are actively combating pollution in the clothing industry.
So what got Denim Unspun going? Well, in Walden’s words, something ironical yet appropriate motivates their team. Waste. Walden’s partners in crime are Beth Esponnette and Kevin Martin.
The three together have wide experience in fashion and along the supply chain. They’ve noticed that what goes on on the front-end, and how busy, fast, and exciting the sales floor is for most clothing companies does not mirror the back-end. Supply chains are rarely optimized and are struggling to keep up in terms of sustainability. It’s incredibly fragmented. And consumers have no idea about this. From cradle to grave, the clothing industry is generating a ton of waste. Here are three areas that Denim Unspun is focusing on revamping: Cutting & Sewing, Inventory, and Raw Materials.
Walden explained to us that the simple process of cutting & sewing, on average, generates at least 15% of textile waste no matter how you optimize it. Meaning, for every twenty shirts, jeans, or another piece of clothing you’ve ever had, three were automatically wasted by cutting what you own and are wearing currently.
Surprising? No – shocking.
How do we avoid this? 3D printing! The Denim Unspun team is working to incorporate 3D printing to weave your jeans together, eliminating cut & sew waste.
Do We Fit?
When you walk into a clothing store, you’re instantly wowed at how much clothing is available for you to try and purchase. But how many times have you walked into a store and left disappointed that the selection available didn’t fit? Why in the world have we restricted our size selection to some outdated-tiered-profit-hungry hierarchy? As Walden points out, our current paradigm finds consumers fitting into clothing instead of the other way around. This forces anywhere from 25% to 33% of all inventory to enter clearance or end up in a landfill. In the best case, this clothing is donated to charity, yet lots of brands, especially those who care about brand equity and are considered “premium”, don’t want the average joe to have access to their products. Sadly, they would rather incinerate or throw their clothing away than allow it reach those in need. With 3D printing, your clothing will be created to your dimensions. There’s no inventory involved, and with that, no waste that results discarding apparently unwanted or unmarketable clothing. This zero wastage is something we really loved learning about. We haven’t heard of ANYONE using 3D printing to create and weave clothing, and the fact that it would create hardly any waste puts a huge smile on our faces.
Your Underwear Travels More Than You
Have you ever thought about how far you’ve traveled throughout your whole life? Well, your underwear has probably traveled more than you ever will. We’re butt-hurt. Although traveling is an amazing experience, exposing you to the world’s many beautiful cultures, people, and places, it takes a huge toll on our environment. What’s worse is knowing that all the clothing in your luggage that you haul with you to the airport or on a road trip has already degraded our environment 10x more than your lifetime of traveling. It doesn’t make sense for raw materials to be moving around so much. So, Denim Unspun is pushing to enable localized production as much as possible. If you live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle you should be able to purchase clothing that was made where you live, or at least somewhere in your state! This goal of localizing production is much more intuitive than the typical model of production and transportation. As consumers, we never paid much thought to the environmental impact that each of these three areas has. After learning more about them. We’re confident that the Denim Unspun team is on-track to make real and much-needed progress for the clothing industry.
Zero Waste Commitment
Denim Unspun aims to create products that can go from raw materials to finished pieces and vice-a-versa. No down-cycling and no waste. They also are committed to processing and manufacturing jeans in the utmost sustainable way. This means partnering with producers that also uphold sustainable best practices. One such producer is Candiani Denim, an Italian company that is one of the greenest in the world. Their denim is made from 50% recycled fiber and 50% Re-fibra™ (up-cycled cotton scraps). And get a load of this: their denim fabric is laundered, treated, and dyed using 60% less chemicals and 83% less water! They’ve created a patented fabric production process (SAVEtheWATER-Kitotex) and dyeing technology (INDIGO JUICE) that both work their magic to create spectacular and sustainable denim. Each pair of jeans are 100% sustainable and saves 2.565 liters of water! Candiani’s Kitotex® clean dyeing is salt & microplastics free, uses a 100% biodegradable polymer harnessed from recycled food waste, and penetrates your denim so colors do not fade. Denim Unspun also uses Core Denim’s SGENE® stretch tech to add comfortability and sustainablue™ collection that uses REPREVE® fibers. So far, Core Denim has recycled over 10 billion water bottles and counting. On top of that, for every 1 pound of REPREVE® polyester yarn used, 0.4 gallons of gas is saved.
From your zippers to your buttons, your Denim Unspun jeans are 100% sustainable. Their NATULON® zippers are recycled from PET (plastic) bottles and other post-consumer materials like yarn waste and are bluesign® approved products (a.k.a. sustainable textile production verified). Their buttons also follow in line with helping you save the planet. Each button is not produced using an electrical plating process that forms a thin coating on the button that helps fight corrosion. This process requires loads of electricity and by avoiding it, every 1,000kg of buttons saves 3,600 kWh which is the average electricity consumption per family for 20 days! Amazing. Lastly, the pocketing fabrics used to hold what’s most important on the go uses recycled yarns produced from plastic bottles reclaimed from landfills.
These jeans were made for… walking the talk
From the inside-out, DenimUnspun jeans are truly and unequivocally sustainable. We can’t wait for their 3D tech breakthrough to eliminate the need for panel cutting and sewing, further propelling the positive impact each pair has on our planet. Today, we find many clothing companies say this and say that. It’s incredibly reassuring and refreshing to see a group like DenimUnspun progressing in the right direction wholeheartedly.
Q&A with Chief Hustler, Walden Lam
Where are your jeans being produced currently?
WL: Currently, there are production facilities being tested in San Francisco (2) and Los Angeles (2), so our jeans are being produced in California.
How are your jeans made?
WL: We’re really inspired by what Tesla has does with their multi-step approach to sustainability. We’re focusing on customizing, automating, and localizing production. Currently can customize and localize production. Once you get scanned you can choose three options: Mission, Offline, and Skinny. On the backend, four panels are created based on your body scan dimensions. With that process, we have to laser cut sustainable fabric that is made of recycled polyester and cotton. We work with a seamstress to complete the product. Our goal in six to twelve months is to incorporate 3D machine printing and weaving. We still create 15% of cutting and sewing waste. The 3D printer will weave in real time, setting up the warp yarn (that goes vertical) with the weft yarn (that goes horizontal). The weft varies based on your leg’s dimension and will change throughout the weave, so we won’t generate waste beyond what is needed. Our waste will be substantially less.
What fabric do you use for your production?
WL: Generally, 70% of our fibers are either organic or recycled cotton. The remainder is made from rPET fabric (recycled plastics). Denim fabric is bulky, but we noticed that people, in general, want comfortable jeans. There is a group of people, Denim Heads, who prefer rigid fabric. But with our pilots, we find that people prefer comfortability. Especially with our pilot in Hong Kong. Fifteen-ounce denim will kill them (We’ve both either lived or traveled to Hong Kong and we totally agree). The rPET fabric is used to create that stretchiness and comfort.
One main concern of ours is packaging. We often find clothing packaged and shipped in plastic. Do you use sustainable packaging?
WL: In terms of shipping we’re faced with various compliance issues. Shipping with a courier or postal services requires that our packaging is waterproof. For deliveries, we use a dust bag that is made from the denim that we currently waste. Remember that 15% we still create? We repurpose those clippings to create dust bags and we heat transfer your specific jean dimensions on the dustbag for you to keep. Some brands are donating their excess fabric to us so we can create dust bags from their waste, too.
Is this where the future of the textile industry is headed? What do you see this growing into?
WL: If you ask anyone in the industry if mass customization and made-to-order will happen they will say yes. But, they will disagree on the timeline. The big question is when are consumers and the technology both ready for that? For the industry, made-to-order and mass customization are both available. At this point, it’s a matter of time and readiness.
Do consumers seem ready?
WL: Yeah! Consumers are more ready than manufacturers actually. Despite what consumers see on the surface when they enter stores, the supply chain is very, very fragmented. Players along the supply chain play their roles well. This is both good and bad. What we need today is a good orchestration of these players. Without this orchestration, things will continue to be inefficient and unsustainable.
Who’s in charge of sustainability and zero waste?
WL: Our team consists of seven people so far. We all wear different hats. A portion of Tania Cheung’s role focuses on sustainable sourcing. We are also adding a new member to the team that will dive into our product life-cycle assessment. We haven’t conducted an internal review on the carbon footprint of our current processes from cradle to grave. Once we have products beyond our pilot stages, she will document our process and measure how much carbon we are saving the planet.
How long will these jeans last and can they be returned and reused?
WL: Again, there is a warp (length of your legs) and a weft (width of your legs). For a set of four panels that complete your jeans, the weft yarn you cut (getting nerdy here) is very short. To recycle this length of weft yarn makes no sense to anybody. Today, producers typically down-cycle them, which is an energy and chemical-intensive process. With 3D weaving, there will be a continuous weft yarn. Instead of having to cut from both sides (the outer leg and the inner leg) the continuous weft yarn will go completely around your leg. So, at the end of the product cycle, we can unravel that fabric and the weft yarn will probably be 40 to 50 meters long. At that length, it will make a lot of sense to reuse the weft yarn instead of down-cycling. The warp will be naturally long enough to be recycled as well. So both the warp and weft will be reused for a new pair of jeans that you can ultimately wear again.
As zero wasters, we fully stand behind what Unspun Tech is making happen.
Our clothing industry is incredibly wasteful yet people tend to turn a blind eye to its negative impact. We’ve learned how incredibly harmful the industry is to our environment, and we’ve decided to only purchase, if ever necessary, from sustainable businesses like Unspun Tech. We also make our own clothing and save all our scraps for pillow stuffing.
We’re looking forward to conducting a product review once we get our hands on these awesome jeans. We’ll take you through the entire process, from getting scanned to wearing the jeans, and will highlight the zero waste features that make Denim Unspun so great. Stay tuned for that review in near future and make sure to follow our zero waste journey on our blog, Instagram and Facebook!
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