How to make threads “green”

As anyone who has been in a clothing store recently knows, the market is booming. Between 2000 and 2014 sales doubled worldwide – much of it in Europe, where, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the average citizen buys 16 kg of threads per year. The environmental consequences are significant since manufacturing all those clothes requires large volumes of water. According to some estimates, it takes 20,000 litres to grow one kilogram of cotton – and 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.

A French start-up, Hopaal, has decided to do something about this by making clothes from recycled materials. Founded in Toulouse in 2016, the company, with its six employees, collects scrap textiles and discarded clothing to reuse the fibres. The fabric is cut and ground up before being formed into yarn that can be used to make T-shirts, shirts and jumpers.

The brand’s creators, Clément Maulavé and Mathieu Couacault, add in polyester fibres made from plastic bottles to make the garments sturdier and more comfortable. That process takes place mainly in France, the clothes come from a partnership with Le Relais, a French organisation that collects used clothing. “It takes only 50 litres to make a jumper,” says Couacault, “as opposed to the 2,700 litres used by major brands to make the same item.”

Greenwashing or genuine awareness?

Like Hopaal, some major clothing retailers have taken up the challenge of producing more sustainable clothes. Leading the pack as early as 2011, the Swedish group H&M released a collection under the name Conscious. This year’s novelties include accessories made from old light fixtures and fishing nets collected from coastlines.

Are the big companies just “greenwashing” – making a show of eco-awareness purely for marketing purposes? It’s hard to say. But the larger problem, asserts Nicolas Tétreault, senior consultant at Sofies, a Geneva-based consulting and project management firm that promotes sustainable economic development, is that the big companies are not reducing the sheer volume of clothing being produced. “A major company such as H&M bases its business on a fast or seasonal renewal of low-quality clothing at low prices,” notes Tétreault. Even collections like Conscious cannot solve this problem.

Hopaal has shown that there is another way. “We create timeless clothing only to limit overconsumption,” says Couacault. “We want the decision to buy to be an act of civic engagement.” The company’s clothes are hardly cheap: T-shirts sell for €35 and jumpers for €120.

Hopaal’s modest turnover of €200,000 in 2017, which it hopes to double by 2020, will not put a dent in the global market. But its approach has the merit of serving as an innovative example. Says Tétreault: “It support a circular-economy mindset based on the use of sustainable materials and processes.”