How Econyl became fashion’s favourite eco-friendly material

  • Both designers and suppliers have embraced Econyl, a fabric that resembles traditional nylon both in quality and physical likeness.
  • Since Econyl can be broken down and recreated repeatedly, it offers significant reductions in CO2-equivalent emissions.
  • Customers and recycling plants like Econyl’s transparent approach, but the material’s impact on microplastic pollution is unclear.

Plastic is killing fishturning up in food and raining down from the sky, and fashion brands are now racing to shrink their use of the non-biodegradable material. A growing number of luxury houses are pinning their hopes on a recycling company named Aquafil.

The Italian firm’s most famous product is Econyl, a nylon fabric made from discarded fishing nets, fabric scraps and other waste. When it launched in 2011, the material was used primarily in swimsuits. However, luxury brands soon came on board. Prada has replaced some of its most iconic nylon products with Econyl— dubbed as Re-Nylon — and plans to substitute all its nylon with recycled material by late 2021.

The material is also appearing in Gucci outerwear and most recently, Burberry trench coats. Internet searches that include “Econyl” have climbed 30 per cent year-on-year, with a more than 102 per cent spike since mid-June, according to Lyst. While there are other fibres with a sustainability claim, Econyl is arguably the eco-friendly material of choice for luxury brands today.

Just like the real thing

Aquafil’s pitch is that Econyl functions like traditional nylon during both manufacturing and wear, and can be recycled again and again. It is produced by a chemical recycling process in which the plastic waste raw material is chemically broken down to its core units, or polymers, before being reassembled back into nylon. The more commonplace mechanical recycling simply melts plastic down and turns it into something new, but degrades the material with each generation. According to Aquafil, swapping traditional nylon for Econyl can lead to reductions of over 50 per cent in CO2-equivalent emissions.

“You can only do [mechanical recycling] so many times before it ultimately is disposed of,” says Richard Blackburn, head of the sustainable materials research group at the University of Leeds. “I wish we had [Econyl-like] chemical recycling for polyester on a large scale.”

Prada uses Econyl despite its higher cost per linear metre.

© Prada

Prada uses Econyl despite its higher cost per linear metre.  © Prada
Prada uses Econyl despite its higher cost per linear metre.
© Prada

Since Econyl is broken down to these fundamental building blocks, the material can be produced to whatever specifications an apparel brand wants. “It’s a system, not a single product,” says Giulio Bonazzi, chief executive of Aquafil. “[Brands] let us know where they normally buy the fabric, and we send the yarn to their fabric suppliers.”

The physical resemblance to traditional nylon means designers, who have traditionally shunned replacement products that appeared to be of lower quality, embrace it as a direct substitute. “We need the highest-quality materials, and Econyl… performs as well as conventional nylon,” says Cecilia Takayama, director of the Materials Innovation Lab at Kering, the first luxury group to integrate Econyl into its product lines.

Manageable costs

The basic cost of the material is higher than virgin nylon, but not prohibitively. Prada is spending about 15 to 20 per cent more per linear metre on Econyl than traditional nylon because of the extra steps of depolymerising the plastic and then polymerising again to produce yarn.

Before a brand integrates Econyl into its supply chain, it needs to put it through the same testing devoted to other new materials. For Kering, this involved deep collaboration with its weavers, who transform Econyl yarn into fabric. For example, suppliers need to keep Econyl production separate, to ensure it doesn’t get blended into or even mixed up with virgin nylon.

The process of onboarding these new, eco-friendly materials is something that brands are increasingly getting used to. Adidas is a prominent user of Parley, a polyester fabric crafted from ocean waste and recycled plastic bottles. Tencel, a biodegradable fibre made from wood pulp, is showing up in activewear, and Evrnu just released NuCycl, a fibre made from recycled cotton that Stella McCartney is piloting with her Adidas collaboration.

Traceability standards

Econyl is particularly prized for its high level of traceability since information about its sourcing and production processes are publicly available. That’s crucial to the recycling process because, by the time the material is in the final product, Econyl is indistinguishable from any other nylon. It also helps brands meet the fast-growing demand from consumers for greater transparency throughout the supply chains that produce their goods.

Burberry uses Econyl in its trench coats.

© Burberry

Burberry uses Econyl in its trench coats.
© Burberry

“There are a lot of claims on recycled nylon as a material,” says Laura Ysabel Culligan, innovation director at Burberry, who adds that there are no clear standards as to what those claims could or should mean. “What Econyl provided was full traceability of their supply chain.”

Fashion for Good, an industry collaborative that fosters sustainable innovations, says that Econyl does a particularly good job in gathering materials and manufacturing the raw fabric responsibly. “If you’re using fishing nets, are you working with local communities to make sure it’s beneficial for them?” says materials innovation manager Georgia Parker. “Econyl does that particularly well.” (Prada, for example, sent a team to Cameroon to highlight how residents can earn a living by collecting the nets from Lake Ossa — providing an income source as well as an incentive to help clean up the lake.)

Lurking microfibres?

One question around synthetic fabrics such as Econyl is its potential impact on the microplastic problem in waterways. When synthetic clothing is washed, its microplastic fibres break down, shedding tiny fragments first in the washing machine, and eventually in rivers and oceans and even snow in the Alps. Researchers are concerned about the global impact of the tiny plastics on aquatic life and human health. It’s not yet clear if or to what extent Econyl contributes to the problem.

Bonazzi says Econyl’s structure — it’s made from long, continuous filament, rather than shorter fibre yarns — means it probably isn’t an issue. But Aquafil is working with an Italian research institution to develop a method for measuring microfibres released by garments into water.

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