Close up of a sewing machine needle in black and white.
17 Aug
Close up of a sewing machine needle in black and white.

The Needle Movers: Innovations In Sustainable Fashion 2023-24

Fashion desperately needs innovative solutions to tackle its biggest challenges, but too often what’s described as innovative never lives up to the hype. So, Good On You has launched the first Needle Movers List to spotlight emerging players and technologies that show real potential to, well, move the needle.

Problem: innovation is an overused buzzword

How do you define innovations in fashion? In an industry obsessed with trends, this buzzword is often thrown at the newest, shiniest, and most exciting companies on the market. There is no shortage of bold ideas promising to revolutionise the industry, but hype and great marketing can only get start-ups so far. To stand the test of time, truly innovative companies need the added element of impact.

“At the simplest level, innovation is a new and more effective way of solving a problem or creating value that hasn’t existed before,” says Gordon Renouf, co-founder and CEO of Good On You, the publisher of this report.

Fashion has no shortage of problems, from overconsumption and overproduction to opaque supply chains, unfair wages, clothing waste, and the need for less damaging materials and manufacturing.

This is an industry that needs real innovation, but too often what’s described as innovative fails to make a meaningful impact on the biggest challenges.

“As much as the word fashion means moving with the times, fashion itself is very old-fashioned,” says Moin Roberts-Islam, technology development manager at the Fashion Innovation Agency, part of the London College of Fashion. “Everything has been done the same way for decades and what that means is the industry has missed out on innovation.”

This is an industry that needs real innovation, but too often what’s described as innovative fails to make a meaningful impact on the biggest challenges.

Now, the race is on to fix fashion, lower its environmental impact, and redress the inbuilt inequality for a better future. So for this first-ever Needle Movers List, Good On You has sought insights from leading experts across the industry to spotlight emerging technologies and players that demonstrate progress or significant potential.

No single solution on this list is a silver bullet. No single innovation can solve the myriad problems we face. But when considered together, we can start to see a roadmap for what could be next.

Real innovations lead to real changes

So, what is a winning formula for innovation? “Innovations that we work with always [need to be] more sustainable than what they’re trying to displace,” says Kathleen Rademan, Innovation Platform Director at Fashion for Good, an accelerator that supports more than 150 fashion solution providers.

“They’re not just impact-driven, but commercially viable from both a technology and price standpoint. Innovators should have a clear roadmap to scale—ie how they intend to meet the price point that is required of them depending on what they make, whether it’s a machine or raw material.”

Having a great solution is just one piece of the puzzle—there is an element of good timing and luck involved in getting innovation from idea to market.

“If someone has a really pinpoint-focused solution that genuinely answers a question and they can demonstrate it, that’s when you’ve got a winner,” says Roberts-Islam. “That’s the sweet spot, but it’s a convergence of lots of factors—some out of your control and some well within your control.”

Incoming regulation around due diligence, traceability, and circularity has fuelled innovation in these sectors. “If I had to take all my money and bet on innovations, I’d want to wait and see what was happening from an adoption standpoint on the legislative front, because that drives everything,” says Rademan. “People and companies are driven by incentives, and penal incentives like taxes really help to create behavioural change. If that is well implemented and executed, then we will start to see real change.”

The key—demonstrating progress and viability

Our experts agree that consumer demand is a powerful driver of innovation, but warn that behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” says Roberts-Islam. “If you want mass adoption to the degree and depth you need for these technologies and the investments behind them, then you have to do that slowly and bring consumers on the journey with you.”

People need to know that innovation isn’t just something new but it’s something that delivers on the social and environmental impacts. One frustration with new materials, for example, is that we don’t have solid information or evidence about how much environmental benefit they have.

Gordon Renouf – Good On You co-founder

Proving an innovation’s positive impact is key to gaining both consumer support and investment to scale. “People need to know that innovation isn’t just something new but it’s something that delivers on the social and environmental impacts,” says Renouf. “One frustration with new materials, for example, is that we don’t have solid information or evidence about how much environmental benefit they have.”

Roberts-Islam echoes this sentiment: “There needs to be more data scrutiny, more science, and more technology symbiosis with fashion to make it more efficient.”

The Needle Movers List 2023-24

Pioneering digital IDs to enable traceability

Fashion supply chains are notoriously complex networks of farms, suppliers, manufacturers, and middlemen. Brands tend to have poor visibility over where their materials come from, who makes their clothes and in what conditions, creating an industry full of unethical and environmentally-damaging practices. Eon was founded in 2017 to enable traceability by attaching a digital ID to materials and goods as they move through the supply chain. This gives brands detailed oversight of the products they make, enabling them to uncover and fix social or environmental risks in their value chains. Brands can also communicate this journey with consumers, backing it up with accurate and verified data from raw material to store. Eon works with some of fashion’s biggest platforms and brands, including Zalando, PANGAIA, and Net-a-Porter.

In a similar vein: FibreTrace—a traceability tech company that embeds an indestructible luminescent pigment into natural and man-made fibres at the source to trace that fibre from farm to finished product.

Recycling solution for blended fibres, powered by AI

Less than 1% of the recycled materials on the market are made from old clothes, so establishing and scaling textile-to-textile recycling is an urgent issue facing fashion. While garments made from a single material can be easily recycled, clothes made from a blend of materials have long been a challenge to identify, separate, and recycle. Founded by three engineers in 2020, Refiberd is a unique recycling technology that combines a hyperspectral imaging system with AI to detect fibre composition, and then separate and chemically recycle the cellulose and polyester into new threads. The Refiberd team says that through this process, 93% of the original recycled garment is recycled, ready to be made into new clothes. Crucially, Refiberd thread is up to 75% cheaper than other lower-impact threads on the market, eliminating the cost barrier that prevents many sustainable innovations from being widely adopted.

In a similar vein: Renewcell—a Swedish company that recycles cotton and viscose into Circulose®, a recycled man-made cellulosic fibre that mimics its virgin counterparts (viscose, lyocell, modal, and rayon) exactly.

Plastic-free leather alternative showing promise

There’s no shortage of leather alternatives on the market, but most have a significant percentage of fossil fuel-based binders (usually polyurethane) to keep them from falling apart. Mirum by Natural Fiber Welding leads the pack as one of the few plastic-free and commercially available plant-based materials. Mirum uses agricultural waste like rice hulls and coconut husks, plant-based rubber, and colourants which are then applied to a cotton backing to become a leather-like sheet. Because it is made from 100% non-synthetic inputs, the company claims that Mirum can be recycled. The production process uses zero water, and it has a lower carbon footprint than other leather alternatives, publishing a life cycle assessment in 2022 to show its progress. While there’s further to go, it’s a promising start for a novel material.

In a similar vein: Treekind by Biophilica—while not yet commercially available, this leather alternative is made from urban plant and agricultural waste blended with a natural binder, making it plastic-free, biodegradable, and low-carbon.

Virtual fitting rooms based on consumers’ real sizes

Poor fit or style accounts for 70% of clothing returns, according to a 2019 survey by McKinsey. With no universal standard for clothing sizes, many customers end up “bracketing”—buying a size up and down from their usual size—which increases the number of returns that often end up in landfill. Style.me solves this problem with its virtual fitting room plug-in, which allows customers to create an avatar that matches their measurements and can be personalised down to hair colour and skin tone. Brands that use Style.me can learn from this sizing data and design new products better suited to their customer’s needs, creating clothes that fit better and cutting returns by up to 50%.

In a similar vein: ZERO10—an augmented reality company that partners with fashion brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Coach to create realistic digital clothes that customers can “try on” in-store using AR Mirrors.

AI-powered upskilling and reskilling for garment workers

The fashion industry is being transformed by automation. But what does this mean for the tens of millions of garment workers around the world? Founded by Sarah Krasley in 2016, Shimmy Technologies is an AI-powered training platform that upskills and reskills garment workers, providing them with the knowledge they need to transition into new roles and employment opportunities. Shimmy has two tablet-based video games that can be translated into any language, making them accessible to people around the world. These interactive training platforms teach skills like digital pattern fundamentals, digital garment assembly, cut planning, sewing machine fundamentals, and more. Shimmy has collaborated with Zalando, Under Armour, and the H&M Foundation, and following an uptick in factory layoffs in Bangladesh this year, Shimmy partnered with Unity and VF Foundation to train unemployed workers in need of up-to-date machine skills. So far, the company has trained 3,792 garment workers around the world.

In a similar vein: Kno Global—an employee engagement platform that gives garment workers a voice, creating a more equitable and transparent supply chain.

Circular platform connecting refugees to preloved clothes

Founded in 2020 by Sol Escobar, Give Your Best is a social enterprise platform that connects refugee women and their families to clothing donated by the public. Recognising the opportunity to redirect usable clothing away from landfills to people in need, Give Your Best fuses social impact with the circular economy. With an emphasis on empowerment through choice—something not often afforded to society’s most vulnerable people—clothing, shoes, and accessories can be “shopped” on Give Your Best’s online portal. This web app can only be accessed only by those who are seeking asylum, have refugee status, are victims of trafficking, or are unable to access government support. To date, Give Your Best has kept more than 25,000 garments in circulation and supported 3,180 refugee women and children.

In a similar vein: Responsible—a resale platform dedicated to streetwear, with an emphasis on the authentication and refurbishment of clothes from brands like Supreme and Palace.

Recommendation engine for shopping your closet

We’ve all been guilty of wearing the same things over and over while ignoring the rest of our wardrobe. WRAP estimates that at least a quarter of our clothes haven’t been worn in the last year. Whering is an app helping users to make the most of the clothes they own, reducing overconsumption one outfit algorithm at a time. Users take photos of their pieces which are then catalogued on the Whering app. They can then receive daily outfit recommendations based on the weather forecast, discover pieces from ethical brands to fill the gaps in their wardrobe, get automated packing lists for holidays, and discover where to dry clean or alter their clothes. Users can also create mood boards, wishlists, and outfit lookbooks for every occasion.

In a similar vein: Save Your Wardrobe—a digital wardrobe platform that not only catalogues your clothing but also enables in-app booking of cleaning, alterations, and repairs, as well as customisation and upcycling services to give your clothes a new lease on life.

Building the preloved infrastructure for circular brands

The second hand clothing market is booming—set to be worth $350bn by 2027, according to research by thredUP. Despite its popularity, the way we buy second hand clothing online is fraught with issues, from poor quality images and counterfeits to inaccurate product descriptions. It’s a far cry from the seamless experience of buying new clothes. Enter Reflaunt, a company that streamlines the logistics for fashion brands by integrating resale technology into their existing websites. This allows customers to not only shop that brand’s preloved pieces in the same ecosystem they’d buy new, but they can also send back and resell their clothes using Reflaunt’s reverse logistics infrastructure. The aim is for retail and resale to be interlinked to encourage more shoppers to buy preloved, and forge a circular economy for fashion along the way.

In a similar vein: Rntr.—a platform that plugs into a fashion company’s website to enable customers to rent or buy preloved pieces from the brand all in one place.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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