There’s a revolution brewing in the beating heart of Italy’s textile industry, one where technology meets innovation crossed with the higher purpose of achieving circularity within the supply chain. If it sounds like a mouthful, it is. And trying to achieve these objectives is no small feat. And yet there are companies out there doing just that.
In the sleek, modern setting of Manteco’s factory in Prato, Florence, there is a sense of purpose in the air. In one room, an archivist documents the company’s whole entire catalogue of fabrics into a digital reference library, in another, state-of-the-art machines rip apart recycled wool to be reformed into a new piece of fabric and in yet another, a technician oversees the meticulously testing of fabric to ensure its quality and durability.
Manteco, which has been mechanically recycling wool for more than 80 years, is part of a growing number of sustainable textile manufacturers who offer tangible solutions to luxury companies under pressure to find more sustainable options.
Take Orange Fiber, a pioneering company that uses the by-products from citrus fruits to create sustainable fabrics, MycoWorks, which creates leather from mushroom-based biomaterial, or Evolved By Nature, which makes biodegradable coatings that are used on items like luxury handbags or sportswear.
These companies count the likes of Hermès, Salvatore Ferragamo, Kering, LVMH, and Chanel as their clients or investors. And what’s more, the practices that they embody, are lessons that the luxury brands they serve can learn more from.
The need for luxury companies to be more sustainable comes at a crucial time for the fashion industry. European consumption of textiles alone has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change, according to the European Commission overseeing the EU strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles.
What’s more, in a recent study by conducted by McKinsey, it found that while currently, most shoppers are neutral to the idea of sustainability, this may change in the future as “eco-conscious generations become more financially stable, brands will need to keep up with increasing demand for sustainable fashion practices.”
“It’s changing very, very quickly,” Matteo Mantellassi, Co-CEO of Manteco, told Luxury Society at the company’s bright and airy showroom, where examples of its fabrics made from its recycled wool product MWool were hung neatly in an undulating line of varying colourful shades.
“This year, for example, the balance between the production of virgin and recycled has changed a lot,” he noted. “For example, in 2018 the balance was around 75 percent of virgin material and around 25 of recycled material. This year, recycled material has grown a great deal, to account for around 45 percent. This obviously makes us very happy, not only for the business, but also because it shows that what we believed to be the future, is now a concrete demand from clients.”
Manteco’s clients, which range from Kering and LVMH to Inditex, now regularly seek out information about many of its fabrics' sustainable credentials: Is it certified organic wool? Is it classed as responsible wool? How can we return off-cuts? What other standards does it meet? What can we use to be more sustainable? The thirst for more knowledge from its clients is endless.
And handling those requests to help plan for the future has increasingly become a large part of Manteco’s mission as an industry leader to revolutionise textile manufacturing from the inside out.
“We are really investing a lot in new technology and new solutions to make everything more recyclable and more efficient,” said Mantellassi. “Every day I have a lot of calls with our clients who are more concerned than ever about the responsibility and end life of a garment.”
“And now more than ever, there is really more awareness of where we need to go, what we need to do, and how important the environmental impact is,” he added. “We feel that we are really ahead on all of these aims, as we are already experimenting with innovative materials, circular recycling services, and traceability, that we believe will be incredibly important in the next five to six years.”
While it’s important to note that luxury brands have made a lot of progress, particularly in the past few years after the global COVID-19 pandemic accelerated sustainability as a priority for companies, more can always be done.
“Nowadays there is a true pressure from governments, investors, and consumers for transparency, therefore it is imperative that companies are working to improve the ecological and social footprint of garments and that includes materials,” Diana Verde Nieto, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Positive Luxury told Luxury Society.
“We could argue that the desire for new materials is being driven by the higher cost of natural fabrics as a result of the high demand from luxury companies coupled with the unreliability of price and quality, ” she added. “These drivers are fuelled by climate change plus a tsunami of new legislation that will soon into play forcing companies to rethink the value of their raw materials.”
Interest and demand for companies to be more sustainable shows no signs of slowing.
In the past two years, Google searches for “sustainability” and “sustainability luxury brands” rose by 40 percent, and 46 percent respectively, according to data analysed by DLG.
Likewise, for brands, in particular, Google searches for brands like Prada, Chanel, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton and sustainability rose by 28 percent, 58 percent, 83 percent, and 62 percent demonstrating the kind of growing interest and demand that companies are facing regarding their sustainability pledges and practices.
Now more than ever, we as consumers are familiar with terms like circularity, deadstock, and traceability, as luxury companies proudly champion their green credentials on their websites and social media accounts. But will these kinds of solutions become the mainstream or remain on the fringes as add-ons?
"I think we are at the forefront of a new materials revolution — and MycoWorks and our partners are going to lead the way", said Matt Scullin, chief executive officer of MycoWorks in an interview with WWD at the start of this year, after having just announced $125 million in Series C financing.
“I think brands recognise the superior quality that we’ve been able to achieve, (and it) really means that they can think about different ways in terms of how to structure their supply chains and how they’re going to address this huge sustainability problem that needs to be addressed,” he added.
Addressing that problem remains a huge challenge on the horizon for many luxury brands, who have to balance the higher cost of using more sustainable materials against other priorities. However, as more and more industry heavyweights like Kering continue to push forward with sustainability targets like cutting its environmental footprint by 40 percent by 2025, hopefully, more will follow.
“We knew that to reach this target, our own projects linked with raw materials — for example, organic cotton, organic wool, sustainable cashmere — would only reduce our footprint by about 20 percent,” Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer said in an interview with the FT. “So if we want to reduce by 40 percent, we need to find disruptive innovations.”
With that in mind, Kering set up a Materials Innovations Lab, to function as a library for certified-sustainable fabrics, of which there are now around 2,800 of them, and also invited its designers of its brands to bring in materials they liked to see if lower-impact alternatives could be found. Balenciaga’s October 2020 catwalk collection, comprised of 90 percent recycled, upcycled or certified-sustainable materials, is just one example of the changes brought about by these investments, noted Verde Nieto.
And Kering isn’t the only one. LVMH has invested in Nona Source, a surplus fabric platform that sells deadstock fabrics from the luxury group’s Maisons, Tommy Hilfiger has produced sneakers made partly from Frumat, a cellulose-based material extracted from apple skin and core waste. These products have been manufactured in relatively small quantities as part of capsule collections, and it will be some years before any of them could make serious inroads into fashion supply chains, but it is a step forward, said Verde Nieto.
“Innovation is like happiness - elusive, it’s hard to find and scale,” she noted.
For Manteco, the future of sustainable manufacturing is about trying to create a comprehensive ecosystem with a sustainability-driven focus, from educating a new generation of designers about the possibilities of using recycled fabrics, to setting up a traceable, transparent and zero-mile supply chain also known as MSystem.
“We started our academy four years ago when we saw that designers did not understand how to use these materials,” he said. “We really wanted to get them accustomed to how to care for and design their garments and as part of our partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we sit down together with brands to understand how to make everything more circular and how to avoid waste.”
The academy, which works with 36 universities and design schools like Istituto Marangoni, Central Saint Martins, and IED, holds lessons, webinars, and field trips with specialised personnel for students to teach them about sustainability, the circular economy, and what eco-designed textiles are.
“Right now, we are in the middle between the old mentality and the new mentality,” he continued. “The value of sustainability has to be spread around all parts of a company, and also, it has to be something that is embedded into the final customer’s mentality, when they think about how we live, what we eat, and only when we are living in this kind of changed mindset can we say that we have a new business model based on sustainable-driven goals.”
“The young designers that we meet, not only do they relish the challenge of trying to find sustainable solutions, it’s something they wish for in the future, to have a new kind of business model.”
With additional reporting by Ekaterina Lapshina.
Disclaimer: To facilitate the editorial coverage of this article, Limei Hoang travelled to Florence as a guest of Manteco to visit its headquarters in Prato.