Freshwater-free textile: A supply chain game-changer

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Fashion is a freshwater-thirsty industry, but companies like SaltyCo are providing a potential solution by producing vegan freshwater-free textiles with saltwater.

Only 3% of Earth’s water is freshwater. 2.5% of it is unavailable since, it is locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, atmosphere, and soil, highly polluted, or lies too far under the earth’s surface to be extracted at a feasible cost. This leaves us with a remainder of 0.5% of available freshwater.

Considering how scarcely humans should be using this resource, the amount that the fashion and textile industries currently use is absurdly unsustainable. It can take up to 2,700 litres to produce the amount of cotton needed to make a single t-shirt; this amount of freshwater could provide a person with almost three years of drinking water.

The textile and fashion industries are major consumers of freshwater, as the production of both natural and synthetic fabrics requires extensive use of this resource, ranging from the growing of raw materials to the manufacturing and dyeing processes (though there are also entrepreneurs addressing the latter).

British brand SaltyCo avoids this by using the most abundant water resource on the planet — seawater. It grows salt-tolerant plants, which they irrigate with seawater. These plants are then harvested and processed into fibre that is suitable for many applications — all this without using any freshwater.

 

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“Our plants are irrigated with seawater and survive on arid and unused land; these are two of the most abundant resources out there,” says SaltyCo’s chief technical officer, Finlay Duncan. The ability to grow plants on arid and unused land is a silver bullet solution. By using saline agriculture, SaltyCo is able to redesign the way textile supply chains operate from ones that systematically exploits land and freshwater with aggressive farming practices to ones that works symbiotically with the environment around it.

SaltyCo’s practices are vegan, carbon negative, and have the potential to remediate damaged land by returning nitrates to the soil.

“There is a huge range of benefits that could come from this type of farming and the types of plants that we can use,” says Duncan. One of the benefits is cleaning polluted freshwater before those flow into the sea. “This type of farming can be a part of a system where polluted water can go through our plants and go back into the sea treated and purified. We actually help to break down pollutants in the water and treat the water.” Additionally, saline farming is cheaper than conventional methods, and SaltyCo is the first to use it in the context of fibre production.

According to Duncan, the benefits of saline farming extend to areas where farmland has been damaged by rising salt levels. “There are a lot of areas in the world where sea level rise and excessive irrigation have led to very salinised land. We can go into these areas and create a value stream and income for farmers whose land has been largely destroyed by rising sea and salinity levels.

“Ultimately, our goal is to be growing our plants in a place where it could have the biggest impact. One of those is places is Bangladesh, where rising sea levels have led to millions of hectares becoming unusable for farming purposes because of the salinity.”

The textile company can cultivate plants under rough conditions and on low-quality land, leaving the higher-quality land for growing food. “Shifting towards plant-based materials, there is a worry that we start diverging land from food production, which requires good-quality land. If we can grow [our plants] in areas that are currently unusable for anything else, it allows us to meet the demand for new plant-based materials without using valuable, arable land that could be used for growing food.”

 

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SaltyCo was formed during a unique master’s programme called Innovation Design Engineering, which is run jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. This scheme formed a team that came to realise that the clothes they buy and wear add up to their unseen or “virtual water” daily consumption. The members see themselves as part of a global community that understands the importance of transitioning to sustainable manufacturing methods, for the health of the planet’s ecosystems.

The garments that can be produced with salt-tolerant plant fibre varies from insulating jacket liners and faux leather to t-shirts and trousers. SaltyCo currently has three different textile products in different stages of development: a technical stuffing, a woven fabric, and a non-woven fabric. Their first marketed product will be the technical stuffing that is lightweight, three times more insulating than wool, and displays remarkable hydrophobic properties that allow it to perform in humid conditions.

Given that one of the leading sectors of the fashion and textile markets is outdoor wear, the company’s technical stuffing is a perfect, sustainable alternative for current polyester stuffing used across this market. The technical stuffing will therefore become their first revenue stream.

Since its venture capital funding kicked off, SaltyCo has started to build relationships with potential customers; designers at Stella McCartney have agreed to look into its product as a potential vegan replacement for their padding. It has also begun its first collaboration with a high-end Italian designer that will be showcased in Milan design week in 2021.

Currently, the team is starting their farming pilot in the UK; it has already established an agreement with saline farmers in Scotland to run their pilot program at cost. In addition, the brand has been receiving requests to launch new farms in the Philippines and getting invitations to collaborate with wastewater treatment plants.

While it is always best to prioritise reduced consumption, and choosing to purchase secondhand when you do decide to buy a new garment, it is also important to begin manufacturing in ways that are the least harmful, and perhaps somewhat beneficial, to our ecosystems. Regardless of new manufacturing methods, remember that fewer clothes shopping is always the better option.

However, when you do, choose to buy from companies that get it right. SaltyCo’s innovative fabrics can help reform an industry known for its freshwater-wasting and -polluting practices. It fulfils most, if not all, criteria for sustainable fashion whilst remaining viable at scale: it produces recyclable biomaterial, can leverage wastewater to manufacture, and can grow on low-quality land. SaltyCo’s catchphrase sums it up: “Textile can already be natural, vegan, carbon-neutral, and organic, but now it can also be freshwater-free.”

Aviv Nesher
Aviv Nesher is a current Schwartzman scholar studying her master’s in management science in global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She works at the intersections of environmental action, trend analysis, and sustainable fashion. Her writing revolves around integrating sustainable practices within different industries and markets, and policy development that generates sustainable impact. Aviv has been vegan for five years and raw vegan for one year. She believes that transitioning into a plant-based diet is one of the most significant steps individuals can take to tackle the eco-climate crisis. Aviv is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a United World College alumna, and a Huayu Scholarship recipient.