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Regenerative fashion, a new paradigm

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By Samuele Tini

· 6 min read

Only 1% of worn clothes are recycled into new ones (European Parliament, 2020). But Imagine a future where all of your shoes and t-shirts are fully biodegradable and become healthy soil. This is the objective of Eric Liedtke, former Executive Board Member at Adidas, who is now working to realize this ambition through his startup, Unless Collective. "Within ten years, I believe regenerative fashion can be 10-15% of the market," he predicts. "This will create an inflection point, driving systemic change across the industry,” he argues. But how will this be achieved?

There is an overwhelming body of academic literature on the costs of fashion (Bailey et al., 2022). Niinimäki et al. (2020) highlight that “the fashion industry is a major consumer of water (79 trillion litres per year), responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution from textile treatment and dyeing, contributes approximately 35% (190,000 tonnes per year) of oceanic primary microplastic pollution and produces vast quantities of textile waste (>92 million tonnes per year), much of which either ends up in landfills or is burnt, including unsold products.

Clothes are also, on average, only worn seven to eight times (Soyer & Dittrich, 2021). And despite increased awareness, a significant intention-behavior gap persists in consumer behavior, evidenced by the continuous growth of fast fashion and ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein (Bläse et al., 2024; Rajvanshi, 2023).

Basically, the fashion industry faces a real challenge here. While many brands do advocate for reduced consumption and for circular models, Unless Collective instead focuses on 100% biodegradability. Eric Liedtke’s journey into sustainability began at Adidas, where he spearheaded initiatives like the Ocean Plastic Shoe. "I wasn't thinking about sustainability when I started at Adidas," Liedtke admits. "But over time, I realized that doing good is not just philanthropic; it's good business." His eureka moment happened with the launch of Adidas' first shoe made from ocean plastic in 2015. Presented at the United Nations General Assembly, the shoe symbolized the potential for turning waste into valuable products. "The response was overwhelming," Liedtke recalls. "It proved that sustainability could drive consumer advocacy and business success."

Recognizing all the limitations within a huge corporate structure, from fiduciary responsibilities to shareholder pressures, Liedtke sought to dedicate 100% of his efforts to disrupting the fashion industry. That realization was what led to the founding of Unless Collective, completely dedicated to pioneering fashion.

The Unless Collective aims to build the future of fashion on plants, not plastic. That involves creating a supply chain based entirely on plant-based materials, from cotton and natural rubbers to innovative alternatives like mycelium.

The company achieves this through partnerships with innovators to develop plant-based polymers that rival traditional plastics in performance and durability. "We aim to replicate the success of plant-based proteins in the food industry," says Liedtke. "Why can't we create polymers that are as flexible and durable as plastic but made from plants?"

Key innovations include:

  • Plant-Based Leathers: Derived from materials like mycelium and pineapple leaves.

  • Plant-Based Foams and Rubbers: Utilizing natural latex and other biodegradable substances.

  • Natural Insulation: Using materials like kapok, a silky fibre from the seeds of the kapok tree, which provides natural cushioning and insulation.

Many companies are already using some of these innovations. However, Eric’s approach is to fully scale and mainstream these practices rather than keeping them niche. There is often a disconnect between consumers' expressed desire for sustainable products and their purchasing behaviour. Despite widespread awareness of sustainability issues, price and convenience often dictate consumer choices. "You can't ask consumers to compromise on quality or design for sustainability," Eric argues. "We need to meet them where they are and provide compelling, high-performance products." Only in this way, Eric argues, can full scalability be achieved and a complete industry disruption occur.

The fashion industry is deeply entrenched in its use of synthetic materials, which are cheaper and more readily available. Transitioning to regenerative practices requires significant investment and a willingness to innovate. Eric, with his extensive experience in the corporate world, recognizes that "big companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders," and therefore change is slow. "You can't swing wildly from zero to 100%. It needs to be a gradual, well-planned shift." Despite the increasing calls for stakeholders' consideration, Eric’s remarks serve as a reality check on how many companies still operate and the hurdles for sustainability.

The shift is possible. Regenerative fashion can account for a significant portion of the industry's output. "Within ten years, I believe regenerative fashion can be 10-15% of the market," he predicts. "This will create an inflection point, driving systemic change across the industry." While the percentage may seem low, it is a minimum point to trigger change. Unless aims to achieve this with partnerships with major brands to help them integrate regenerative materials into their supply chains. Eric also recognizes the role of consumers and uses vivid images to reinforce it. "We show our product in partially decomposed states, with worms going through it and plants growing up around it," and this helps them make correct choices. "Consumers care about the oceans, they care about the mountains, they care about the land we live on; they just don’t know how to participate."

The key takeaway is that transforming the fashion industry is fundamental in our path towards a sustainable planet. Eric and the case of Unless Collective are showing an important direction on how to use innovation to disrupt an industry and fully scale alternative solutions. "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing will get better. It simply will not," Eric concludes. It is time to act.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


Bailey, K., Basu, A., & Sharma, S. (2022). The environmental impacts of fast fashion on water quality: a systematic review. Water, 14(7), 1073.

Bläse, R., Filser, M., Kraus, S., Puumalainen, K., & Moog, P.. (2024). Non‐sustainable buying behavior: How the fear of missing out drives purchase intentions in the fast fashion industry. Business Strategy and the Environment, 33(2), 626–641

European Parliament (2020) The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographics) [online]

Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H., Perry, P., Rissanen, T., & Gwilt, A.. (2020). The environmental price of fast fashion. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 1(4), 189–200.

Rajvanshi, A. (2023) Shein Is the World’s Most Popular Fashion Brand—at a Huge Cost to Us All [online]

Soyer, M., & Dittrich, K. (2021). Sustainable consumer behavior in purchasing, using and disposing of clothes. Sustainability, 13(15), 8333.

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About the author

Samuele Tini is the host of the Sustainability Journey, he sparks crucial conversations with leading changemakers, tackling the most pressing challenges of our time. He champions ethical and sustainable practices through his involvement in the B Corp movement as a B Leader, board member at B Academics, and Chair of Membership. Committed to impact, Samuele has led transformative projects across Africa, empowering entrepreneurs and fostering environmental conservation. He is a published author and holds an MBA from Warwick Business School in the UK.

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