Fashion trends and cheap clothes are draining the planet of water, and leaving tons of wasted textiles that resale and donations can’t keep up with.
The once vast Aral Sea, which is now a tenth its original size, is a testament to the amount of water needed to grow cotton.
As early as 2030, water scarcity could create a 15 million ton shortage in the absorbent fibers market.
Stacy Flynn and Christo Stanev, two veterans of the textile industry, teamed up to find a solution. Through the Evrnu process they’re working on a way to create new, high-quality fiber from your old clothes. I spoke with Stacy about her work, and radical vision to combine technology and ethics.
This interview was edited for clarity.
I mapped out the entire textile and apparel system as I had known it, and I found two major things.
The first was the resources for fiber are massive. Ninety percent of all clothing in the world is made from either cotton grown on land, or polyester pulled from the Earth’s crust. Both types of fiber generation require massive resources.
Seven hundred gallons of water are used to make a single cotton t-shirt. The CO2 required to make polyester is enormous as well.
On the back end, consumers are throwing away 14 million tons of garment waste every year in the US.
I saw the two bookends, and the design challenge really became clear: is there a way for us take this waste and break it down and convert it into a high quality fiber? If we could pull that off, we could create a more balanced supply system.
We’ve created a technology that liquefies cotton garment waste, and then extrudes it into a new fiber for the creation of new clothing. In 2014, I made our first prototype.
I took a t-shirt from a solid to a liquid and then back into a solid with a syringe.
We see our fiber results in reducing the use of water by 98 percent compared to cotton, and cuts CO2 by 90 percent compared to polyester.
It’s made with garment waste that can’t be resold or reworn. We’re breaking that down and turning it into new fiber that will be used to create new clothing.
Cotton is made from cellulose, so eventually the cellulose turns into sugar. The Earth knows how to process sugar, and it doesn’t bioaccumulate the way a PET or a synthetic polymer would bioaccumulate. We can get 3 good lives out of our fiber before it converts to cellulose.
If we can outperform virgin materials, or at least be on par, then to a consumer it would look no different and feel no different, and perform on par or better. That’s the name of the game, to outperform virgin materials.
Fiber of the future
There are 17 generic fibers on the planet. This is a new generic classification, and it doesn’t have an FTC code yet.
Cotton naturally has one DNA molecule marker per grade of cotton. Our technology has multiple grades of cotton DNA, so we’re not exactly sure what it will be called yet.
With it we can simulate properties of cotton, silk, or rayon and also some qualities of polyester.
We have the technology to molecularly separate cotton and polyester, but we’re commercializing our cotton separation technology first.
We wanted to start with the worst of the worst, which is post-consumer waste because it’s so variable.
Our technology has been built to handle a wide range of variables, which breaks the cardinal rule of the textile industry.
I don’t know it’s impossible
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had doors slammed in my face when I said I wanted to break that rule.
Christo was the only one who didn’t slam the door in my face. We’d worked on really big programs at retail together. I brought him in and after talking for hours, and he was like, “Stacy, it’s going to be so challenging. It’s got dyes on it. It’s got human wearing contaminants. It’s all mixed. It’s all different. No one’s ever done it.”
And I said, “I understand that it’s challenging, and I understand that nobody’s ever done it, but not even once did you say it was impossible.”
And he said, “You’re right, I don’t know that it’s impossible. Let me figure out if there might be some solutions here.” So that’s how we got started.
Love without fear
Humanity’s ability to create technology outpaces our ethical management or understanding of what we’re creating at scale.
I see Evrnu as the model for how we apply sustainability to the textile industry supply system. I call it a system, because the word chain is not accurate. It’s really a system, a living system.
The people working in the apparel industry are creating products that they believe are beautiful and that they think will actually make people’s lives better. But the way we make them doesn’t uphold that intention.
And it’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way the world has always operated until now. We need to kick up our ethics pretty significantly to match our ability to create technology. It’s about lining up the design intention with technological invention.
I see the combination of technology and ethics being combined at levels we’ve never seen before.
In the past 7 years in working with this technology, I’ve seen a profound shift in consciousness. What I’ve seen is a fearless in the expression of love for humanity. It’s so powerful.
Because when people are unafraid to express their love for humanity, amazing things happen. The impossible becomes possible.
Learn more about what Evrnu is doing to tackle the problem of garment waste.
And let us know what you think. What are the most effective ways to deal with the environmental impact of fast fashion? What technological and cultural shifts will be needed?