RRI And Collaborative Strategies In Sustainable Fashion: Who Is Orange Fiber?

Fast fashion has changed our purchasing habits: we buy more, and we spend less for each item. In 2014, on average, people bought 60% more clothing items compared to 2000 and, on average, keep them for half the time. But at what cost? According to the World Economic Forum “the fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply”. Additionally, every year, almost 85% of textiles go to the dump and the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles are dump into the ocean in the form microplastics every year. 

Currently the fashion industry’s carbon emissions count for 10% of the world’s total emissions. On top of that, current fabrics used in the fashion industry have many drawbacks: polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton; to produce a cotton shirt approximately 2700 liters of water are required, and the amount almost triples when it comes to producing a pair of jeans, because cotton is a highly water-intensive plant. In addition to requiring exorbitant amounts of water, the fashion industry is also responsible for water-pollution. It is estimated that fashion is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide. Some fashion firms are starting to fight these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution, to grow cotton more sustainably  and to find alternative, more sustainable fabrics. There is also a positive trend in the increase in the number of consumers demanding sustainable materials and fashion brands seeking green innovation. 

Additionally, a significant growth in food processing can be noticed, which has led to an even more significant increase in the amount of non-edible byproducts over the past 50 years. For instance, 700.000 tons of citrus waste is produced every year in Italy alone. The disposal of such waste has been a challenge for citrus juice companies: both the illegal disposal of such waste and the exorbitantly high disposal costs are factors that have led many firms operating in the market to close down.

It is because of these trends, the growth of non-edible byproducts and increasing negative impact of fashion on the environment, that Orange Fiber was created. Orange Fiber is an Italian innovative SME that was founded in 2014.  

Orange Fiber identified the opportunity of using discarded products and natural resources that would otherwise be wasted to create value. It developed a system that allows to transform citrus juice byproducts that do not rival food consumption into something new, sustainable and useful: yarn for fashion industry. 

In this case we can see how commercial innovation is controlled by two sets of forces: market forces (search for sustainable products from consumers) and forces of progress at the technological and scientific frontiers (patented technology developed to produce yarn from citrus byproducts). 

The idea at the base of Orange Fiber, and the firm itself, are a clear example of RRI. Responsible Innovation, or Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), is “on-going process of aligning research and innovation to the values, needs and expectations of society”. It is a “transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products”. In this sense, Orange Fiber has developed a product by stepping into some problematic aspects of both the fashion industry and the food manufacturing industry. It has aligned its activity to the increasing demand of sustainable fashion from more environmentally concerned consumers, to the need of dealing with byproducts from the food manufacturing industry and to the expectations towards more sustainable fashion brands that consumers have developed over time.

Over time, companies have integrated CSR within their operations. Current CSR efforts tend to focus more on later phases of a product lifecycle, such as the manufacture, use, and disposal of products. RRI emphasizes the earlier phases of R&D, innovation, and design when addressing responsibility in product development and its life cycle phases. This is exactly what Orange Fiber is doing.

The goal of developing an RRI strategy is to “identify early in the product development and life cycle process of new innovations, what potential social effects are associated with the invention and how to accommodate these before the technology’s embedding is irreversible or can only be undone at high costs and with delays in market launch”. Orange Fiber is a clear example of an attempt to identify the possible effects associated with their product. As stated by the company itself, its goal is to “make the world we live in a better place”. In fact, during a 2020 TEDxTalk, Enrica Arena, the co-founder of Orange Fiber, expressed some key aspects that society should take into consideration when it comes to fashion: people should buy less, but buy better; people should wear for longer what they have and repair garments instead of disposing them. This goes to show that the company aims at revolutionizing the fashion industry thanks to its technology, by providing high quality products that have a smaller impact on the environment. In fact, it also states that “We are committed to bringing sustainable design values to the fashion industry” 

Orange Fiber is also proof of the importance of collaborative strategies and the benefits they may bring, especially within the start-up world. Before the foundation of the firm, the two co-founders, collaborated with Politecnico di Milano University, to conduct a feasibility study of the product. In August 2013 the innovation was patented, and, in the same month of the following year, the patent was extended in international PCT. This patent “gives the owners the legal right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention for a limited period”. In these terms, the Orange Fiber technology is exclusive to them and this sets a strong base for a competitive advantage for the firm. In fact, they aim at “establish (themselves) as the first Italian mover in the segment of sustainable fabrics through a “green” production of cellulosic fabrics from renewable sources, and to create a highly recognisable textile brand for its commitment toward environmental protection and transparency”
In 2015, Orange Fiber was the winning firm of the annual H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award. The firm was awarded with grant of €150,000 and a year of innovation accelerating, provided by the H&M Foundation in collaboration with Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. 

On top of the initial collaboration, the first collection made with Orange Fiber fabric was launched by Salvatore Ferragamo, an Italian top fashion house, in 2017. The collaboration represented the first marketed Orange Fiber product. Salvatore Ferragamo was in fact the first fashion house to make use exclusively of Orange Fiber fabrics. In 2019 the innovative fabric was then used in H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collections 

The collaborations of H&M and Salvatore Ferragamo helped Orange Fiber gain visibility in the fashion industry as a possible substitute to, for instance, cotton or polyester. And this represents one valuable aspects of collaborations, which increased visibility for both brand: visibility for Orange Fiber thanks to the visibility provided by the two well know and established firms, and visibility for the two firms that show interest in environmental and sustainability matters.

Among the challenges that Orange Fiber has faced, and that is still facing, is the problem related to the industrial scale up and the optimisation of the costs of production. It is challenging to make sure to exploit synergies with citrus squeezers and their processes, and to work simultaneously work with industrial players in the cellulosic industry in order to meet the industry’s standards of production.  

As for now, Orange Fiber is still aiming at scaling up their production. It may be beneficial for the firm to develop alliances with other textile firms in order to scale the production. However, this strategy could pose some threats to Orange Fiber. Most importantly it can be highlighted the loss of control over the technology. In this sense, despite it being patented, Orange Fiber could experience being victim of opportunistic behaviour from the allied firm which could, for instance, learn how to use the technology and, in case of bigger size, overtake Orange Fiber, therefor Orange Fiber’s first mover advantage would be jeopardized.

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