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Kering and Silicon Valley find a good fit in sustainable fashion

The acclaimed fashion company behind Gucci and Saint Laurent teams with a startup accelerator to find the next big thing in circular, durable and decarbonized fashion.

An iconic Gucci bag is coveted by many who follow fashion trends. But a compostable purse made of mushrooms and dyed using regenerative microorganisms? That’s an unusual look.

Such items soon may come to mainstream stores near you. The new Plug and Play — Fashion for Good initiative, launched earlier this month in Amsterdam, is helping develop and market 12 technologies that it believes are on the verge of revolutionizing the fashion industry.

The fashion market’s myriad environmental impacts are well documented: The majority of cotton is grown in water-stressed areas. No commercially viable recycling technology is available for popular materials such as cotton and polyester blends; meanwhile, we discard billions of pounds of clothing every year to stay current with the latest trends. Breaking down in the wash, those polyester items cause 33 percent of microplastic pollution. Rayon and modal production contribute to deforestation. The list of fashion faux pas goes on.

The objective of the 12-week startup accelerator program is to find, invest in and scale companies that can reverse this trend and ensure a sustainable clothing industry. The program searched for innovations in new raw materials that reduce fashion’s environmental impact, alternative production methods to increase textile longevity and processes enabling closed-loop product lifecycles.

"We’re looking for the next Dropbox or Airbnb for sustainable fashion," Bradley Sherman, founder and director of Plug and Play  Fashion for Good, told GreenBiz. "That will basically come with making a good change for the world."

And, said Plug and Play CEO Saeed Amidi, "they’ll become part of the largest startup network in the world."

The objective of the 12-week startup accelerator is to find, invest in and scale companies that can ensure a sustainable clothing industry.

The program is a joint effort by the Plug and Play Tech Center, the new Fashion for Good program and clothing magnate Kering, which owns 100 percent stake in brands such as Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Gucci, and develops strategies for Puma and Volcom, among others.

Each organization plays a unique role in the effort. While founding partner Kering is a mainstay in the luxury world, Plug and Play is a well-known Silicon Valley startup incubator that has mentored firms such as Dropbox, PayPal and Soundhound in the early stages of their life. Companies that have been part of its community collectively have raised more than $3.5 billion from the broader venture capital arena. Fashion for Good, founded by closed-loop systems innovator Bill McDonough and Dutch retailer C&A, stitched the accelerator together.

"The focus on fashion and retail aligned nicely with the work we do in our Silicon Valley Brand and Retail accelerator, but the real clincher was the focus on environmental and social impact," said Amidi. The Tech Center will help with the investment, business model support and pitch polishing.

Innovative details

The accelerator finalists, chosen from 250 applicants, come from various fields, academic backgrounds and countries. The names to watch are Agraloop, Amadou, Dragon, Dropel, ICA Bremen, MySource, MycoTEX, Pili-bio, RePack, Sundar, Tersus and Tipa. Over three months, these companies will receive mentoring, training and networking opportunities.

These are the first round of what will be a three-year series of three-month startup cohorts. The next group is expected later in 2017.

Some startups are trying to phase out traditional textiles: MycoTEX is working on a mushroom-based textile shaped on custom molds, eliminating the need for spinning or weaving yarns. It requires little water and can be composted after use. Amadou has piloted a collection of mushroom-based footwear and accessories that have been tested for durability.

RePack's returnable, reusable packaging.

Others tackle production impacts. Dragon is a water purification technology that is powered by light and can reduce the level of chemicals and energy needed for textile production. Using nano-technology to introduce scannable tracers into organic cotton fibers, ICA Bremen helps identify truly organic cotton and the ratio of conventional and organic material in fabric. Pili-bio wants to phase out toxic petrochemical dyes and replace it with a dye made of microorganisms.

Companies such as Dropel, a biodegradable polymer that repels water and oily substances, improves clothing durability. If you do spill wine during dinner, Tersus uses recycled CO2 fluid from industrial manufacturing as a solvent in dry-cleaning and industrial laundry processes, nixing the need for water. RePack said it can reduce the carbon footprint of e-commerce packaging by 80 percent and close the loop on waste by taking back packaging from customers.

"We’re introducing them to different companies, brands, retailers and suppliers so that they can either run pilot opportunities, proof-of-concept opportunities or acquire them," said Sherman. "Some of them are software or digital-based that can be implemented into some of their systems, and some of these are actual brands that I hope one day can be mainstream."

The focus on closed-loop systems and sustainability comes from the Fashion for Good program, funded by the C&A Foundation, which provides grants and expertise to companies transforming fashion by working on issues such as recyclable materials and sustainable cotton. It has provided funding to BSR to study labor issues in the supply chain and to the Canopy Foundation, which helps brands reduce deforestation. 

Fashion for Good, created in 2017, has laid out a best-practices guide to help apparel manufacturers, brands and retailers comply with sustainable practices. It is influenced by five guidelines developed by the Cradle to Cradle market standard.

The 12 startups were chosen "because they can all play a pivotal role in achieving the Five Goods of a new, transformed fashion industry: good materials; good economy; good energy; good water; and good lives,” said Leslie Johnston, executive director of the C&A Foundation and founding partner of Fashion for Good.

Sustainability is in season

At best, fashion reflects the culture and attitude of the current moment in history. According to Kering, the search for sustainable solutions is part of the industry’s transformative new goals.

Fashion for Good approached Kering while it was finalizing its three-pillar 2025 sustainability strategy of care (reducing environmental impact), collaboration (diversity and equity to be an employer of choice) and creation (launching disruptive innovation).

"We were looking to identify startups with whom we could collaborate in order to fast-track sustainable innovation both within Kering Group and across our industry," said Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs. "In short, it was the right proposal at the right time."

Kering’s sustainability department, started a decade ago, counts 50 people across the group with a lead in each fashion house.

(The 12 startups) can all play a pivotal role in achieving the five goods of a new, transformed fashion industry: good materials; good economy; good energy; good water; and good lives.

Sustainability, said Daveu, "inspires creativity, stimulates innovation, reinforces transparency and reduces risk — which in turn yield business development and growth."

She emphasized "macro change" across the fashion industry and its supply chain, which Kering found accounts for 93 percent of its environmental footprint, with raw materials production and processing causing nearly three-quarters of the impact.

"We aim to reduce environmental footprint by 40 percent," said Daveu. "Today, we know how to reduce 20 percent. For the other 20 percent, we will need new and disruptive solutions."

Which is why these 12 startups may be the next big thing.

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