How one factory in China is challenging fashion's waste problem
Past meets future in Ganzhou, China
Like many cities in China, Ganzhou, located in the south of the country with a population of more than 1.2 million, is a high tech, fast-growing metropolis. Ganzhou also has strong links to a history that stretches back for more than two millennia - the ancient city wall is a relic of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and once provided a defensive bulwark against invading forces. While tungsten - a metal used for electrodes and lighting filaments - is the main industry here, there are also numerous clothing factories which contribute to the tens of billions of garments that China exports every year. It’s a little-known fact that globally 15% of the textiles used to make clothing ends up being discarded as offcuts, adding to the long list of reasons why the fashion industry has a sustainability problem. A pilot project is underway in Ganzhou to bring these scraps back into the supply chain.
Small steps towards sustainability
The Parawin factory on the outskirts of Ganzhou manufactures clothing for well-known international brands. Giant rolls of nylon fabric are stored in a warehouse, before teams of pattern cutters and sewers transform them into undergarments and swimwear. When it was invented in the 1950s, nylon was famously hailed as a miracle fabric thanks to its resilience, flexibility, and silk-like characteristics. It quickly became ubiquitous, initially in the shape of women’s stockings. But like all plastics, its success has come at great environmental cost; when left in landfill, nylon can take decades to decompose. Over the past two years, Parawin has developed a simple system to divert some of its fabric scraps away from landfill and back into the production cycle, by partnering with an innovative nylon manufacturer.
Changing old patterns
Mochang Gong is a pattern-cutter at Parawin. He operates a computer-aided design (CAD) system that precision cuts cloth into shapes that the sewers then stitch into finished garments. Whilst the CAD machines automatically optimize the amount of cloth used, a significant proportion is still left over once it has been cut. Until two years ago, most of this scrap material was ending up in landfill. Then came an innovative partnership between Parawin and Aquafil, an Italian company that has pioneered a method of turning waste nylon into new yarn under the brand name ECONYL. Already using waste nylon from fishing gear and old carpets, Aquafil were keen to explore the possibility of adding fashion offcuts to their growing circular supply chain. Now Mochang Gong’s tasks include sorting nylon waste so that it can be sent to Aquafil for processing into pristine nylon yarn.
Closing the loop
China accounts for around one third of all clothing exports, and that equates to tens of billions of individual garments. Just a fraction of the pre-consumer waste from the production process is recycled, and it is a similar story around the world. Both natural and synthetic materials have specific qualities that impact their potential lifespan. The advantage of nylon is that it can be upcycled more or less ad infinitum by breaking it down chemically into its monomer building blocks and then reformulating the polymer. The result in Aquafil’s case is ECONYL nylon yarn – a product that is as pure as thread derived directly from the oil industry.
A glimpse of what is possible
Yunxia Li stands in front of nylon scraps that have been collected by Parawin workers. Li is the sales and marketing manager for Aquafil China, and has helped develop the partnership with Parawin. Whilst still relatively small, she hopes that it will provide a model for other factories in China to follow suit. If the brands that contract these factories can also cooperate, the potential exists to upscale the initiative exponentially. Intellectual property issues clearly provide certain constraints in this regard, but with an industrial player like Aquafil providing a secure conduit for the offcuts to be upcycled, this isn’t an insurmountable problem. The long-term goal is to create a closed loop system where nylon products are never discarded when they complete their lifecycle, but are instead deconstructed and chemically transformed into new products.
Iconic brands committing to sustainability
Prada has made a clear commitment to building sustainability into its operations over the coming years. Its partnership with Aquafil is significant not least because Prada built its name on its iconic nylon bags. These timeless designs are now making a updated comeback, with the Re-Nylon collection created using ECONYL yarn derived entirely from waste materials that may otherwise have entered up polluting the environment. This move by Prada reflects a growing industry-wide commitment to solve the much-publicized sustainability challenges that fashion is facing, by creating the circular economy of the future.