Textured swimwear from Mara Hoffman’s latest collection, crafted using Repreve, a polyester fiber made of 100 percent recycled plastic.

Fashion brands are seeking greener pastures. And as the demand for ethically made apparel continues to rise among consumers, brands and designers are seeking sustainability solutions that can help hasten and streamline the process.

Textile solutions provider Unifi does just that by empowering brands to go green through its portfolio of recycled fiber solutions, such as Repreve Polyester, its branded polyester fiber made from recycled plastic bottles. Among the many sustainable designers that have used the fiber is Mara Hoffman, the president and creative director of her eponymously named women’s wear brand, who is featured as the fiber firm’s designer of the moment.

Well-known for her focus on sustainable materials and production processes, Hoffman began working with Repreve when it was first introduced into her resort 2017 swimwear collections; Repreve is currently used in Mara Hoffman’s ribbed and textured swimwear, according to the firm. And Unifi recently honored Hoffman with its Champion of Sustainability Leading the Change award, in recognition of Hoffman’s ongoing efforts and leadership in sustainable fashion. 

Here, Unifi’s Helen Sahi, vice president of global corporate sustainability, and Hoffman talk to WWD about the growth of sustainable fashion, market dynamics and sustainability solutions.

WWD: How has the sustainable fashion market evolved in recent years?

Helen Sahi: Sustainability has gotten the most visibility in the activewear and outdoor markets, but has now made its way into fashion. Brands like Stella McCartney, Mara Hoffman and Alexander McQueen — to name a few — are all making headlines due to their commitment to sustainable fabrics. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is the apparel, footwear and home textile industry’s foremost alliance for sustainable production and both Mara Hoffman and Unifi are members. The SAC has developed and is developing more tools to evaluate the sustainability of the supply chain. By driving transparency, the SAC is driving sustainability and a transformation of the industry.

While some fast-fashion brands have been criticized for not being sustainable enough, many of them have stepped up their game by founding take-back programs that collect used apparel and other products from consumers and reintroduce them to the manufacturing cycle. They promote circularity and give garments new life.

Mara Hoffman: I completely agree with Helen, there are so many more sustainable fashion brands out there now. The assumptions about the aesthetics of sustainable fashion are also changing. Sustainable brands are proving that you can be less harmful and still be fashion-forward. There are also so many more sustainable fabrics available now than in the past and there are new innovations happening all of the time. Brands have so many more options for sourcing sustainable materials today than they did even a few years ago.

WWD: Is the increased demand for sustainability led by consumers, brands or both?

H.S.: Both — it’s a push and pull. Consumers are part of a highly connected world and have a heightened awareness of what’s going on around them. For example, they see pictures of plastic and trash building up in the ocean and start to ask questions.

Designers and moviemakers are now issuing calls to action through their products, asking the question, “what does it mean to wear your clothes?” Ninety percent of ceo’s say sustainability is important to their company, and it’s important for companies to have a sustainable platform because it’s expected of every company today. Brands are under a microscope, and are increasing the pressure on those in their supply chain to be more sustainable. Consumers may or may not look for sustainable products on the shelf, but they do expect companies to do the right thing.

M.H.: In our case, the decision came solely from within the brand. We changed because I truly started understanding the apparel industry’s contribution to environmental damage. We came to a point where I felt that we had to either close the company or completely restructure our methods. Our customers were not asking us to become sustainable. In fact, there were a lot of buyers that were apprehensive when we made the shift. Overhead costs are higher when you switch to more responsible production and materials and sometimes it is hard for people to justify the higher price tag that results from that.

Now that we have been working in this way for a few years, we do have customers that are coming to us because of the sustainability aspect so I agree that there is a growing number of people who are more aware and are asking the tough questions about what their money is contributing to. But ultimately I think that brands should be leading the way and providing the most responsible options for consumers.

Mara Hoffman uses Repreve to manufacture all of its textured swimwear. Photo courtesy of Unifi. 

WWD: Why is Repreve a standout material among comparable fabric technologies?

H.S.: What really sets Repreve apart is a higher level of transparency through Unifi’s U Trust verification program of comprehensive certifications. Repreve fibers are embedded with a proprietary FiberPrint technology that helps customers avoid false environmental claims through third-party analysis, which verifies the Repreve content claims in a product and in what amount. By combining Repreve with Unifi’s performance technologies, we are able to create apparel that truly performs and gives the wearer peace of mind that they’re making a difference for the planet while looking and feeling great.

Unifi continually innovates to meet consumer needs in moisture management, thermal regulation, antimicrobial, UV protection, stretch, water repellency and enhanced softness. The company’s proprietary technologies offer increased performance, comfort and style advantages, enabling customers to develop products that perform, look and feel better.

A good example of this was our recent reception in New York to honor Mara Hoffman with our Repreve Champions of Sustainability Leading the Change Award. When those at the party were able to see, touch and feel her swimsuits, they were surprised that they were made from Repreve recycled polyester due to the very detailed texture and patterns, the color is beautiful, the overall look and feel is great and they could not believe that this was recycled polyester.

M.H.: Yes, for us, it is imperative that we are not sacrificing the quality of the clothes in order to use sustainable materials. Repreve is also able to work with lower minimums, which is great for smaller brands. They also offer immense support when it comes to understanding the metrics of our usage. For example, they let us know how many plastic bottles are kept out of the landfill through this partnership.

WWD: What are some emerging and trending solutions that can help brands and retailers pivot their businesses toward sustainability?

H.S.: Designers are becoming more aware of their impact on the earth. Studies show that 80 to 90 percent of a garment’s impact begins with the designer. The yarns and fabrics they choose upfront are then woven into the sustainability of their products. Circular economy and [the aforementioned] take back programs look at end of use instead of end of life. Another trend that will continue is the emergence of new fibers and yarns that are sustainable.

M.H.: This is an inspiring time as there are many new innovations and technologies that could ultimately revolutionize the industry. Something that we really look forward to is when we can actually take our textile waste and create new textiles. A circular model is the ultimate goal so anyone who is focusing on that right now is exciting.

WWD: What should the sustainable fashion market look like five years from now?

H.S.: More designers will focus on circularity, with nothing going into the landfill. Integrating sustainability into everyday business will continue to become an expectation worldwide. There will be a deeper adoption of sustainability, from fast fashion to the runway. We’ll continue to see brands using new, more sustainable fibers. Transparency — where and how garments are made, along with chemicals used to make them — will also be key. Consumers will be more engaged in the sustainability process, and expect it. They will wear clothes more often, and want to buy from environmentally and socially purpose-driven brands.

M.H.: I hope that timelines slow down so that there will not be as much pressure to constantly churn out new product and that the fashion landscape will start to feel more collaborative and less competitive. Companies need to share sources and partner together to create sustainable solutions.

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