Innovator Spotlight Series: in conversation with Ed Brial, hydroCotton
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
Sustainability is an issue that permeates the fashion industry today and as a result, there’s a growing number of sustainable fashion brands, technologies and new business models that aim to change it for the better. But who are the innovators in the space? Fueled will be speaking to founders that are leading the sustainable fashion movement in a series of interviews called the Innovator Spotlight. Read on and get inspired.
This week we catch up with Ed Brial, co-founder of hydroCotton. hydroCotton is a London-based startup helping fashion companies reduce their environmental impact by growing radically sustainable premium quality cotton in a transparent way. The company uses a turn key farming system and data driven approach to grow extra long staple (ELS), pesticide free cotton, with up to 80% less water while increasing yield up to 4 times.
Ed is a designer, engineer and artist with a keen interest in emerging technologies and they impact to society. His experience spans from agri-tech, to public health interventions and experimental design installations. Ed holds an MEng and MSc from Imperial College, and an MA from the Royal College of Art.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability to me, and more broadly to hydroCotton, is about materials that can essentially self-sustain based on what the planet provides. It is making sure that on an annual basis the planet can replenish itself. And from a business perspective, it’s making sure that all stakeholders across the supply chain are given a fair wage and fair working conditions.
What is the problem in the market that you are solving?
From a global perspective, different material processes and forms of extraction all have their natural limits. When we look at cotton, it's traditionally grown in a way that is not reflective of a balanced and sustainable mindset. Historically, it’s been used in an exploitative way, using a lot of water an depleting natural resources. It is also grown chemically: 2.5% of the world's agricultural lands are used to grow cotton but 16% of the world's insecticides and pesticides are used on those fields. This means it is disproportionately poisoning workers and surrounding ecosystems.
At hydroCotton, we deploy a turn key farming system with an added farm management platform to grow cotton in a more sustainable and transparent way. With our technology, we grow cotton with up to 80% less water compared to numerous global baselines. We are pesticide free, so we don’t spray our fields, but also increase the yield and the quality of our cotton to generate higher revenues and profits on those farms. We focus on extra long staple (ELS) cotton for two reasons: to drive a better price point for customers and to increase the life of garments - longer staple fibres lead to more durable clothing.
In terms of our technology, we're using controlled environments, which is to say, covered crop and precision irrigation systems. The covering of the crop gives a buffer to the environment and creates a preferential environment for that plant. This allows us to grow higher quality staples in different parts of the world where it wasn't previously possible. We focus on developing regions struggling to grow higher value crops and that currently focus on shorter staple cotton.
The covered crop system also enables us to deploy a technology called biological pest control: instead of spraying the fields with pesticides, we deploy predatory insects that can do the work for the farmers. The precision irrigation systems and data-driven approach allow us to deploy feeds and water in a more resource efficient manner.
Can you tell us more about your experience at Fashion for Good?
Fashion for Good is a 9 month accelerator program based in Amsterdam that accelerates innovative businesses in the fashion space. A central theme of the program is to connect innovators with different partners (the brands). This gets you into a room with some of the world's largest and most influential brands when it comes to sustainable fashion.
It has helped us to get to know our customer a lot better. Fashion is a very interesting space as it doesn’t have the kind of innovation pipeline you see in some other industries, so it can be difficult if you're coming from a raw materials perspective to even find the right stakeholder or potential customer! Fashion for Good helped us a lot in that respect, to connect and map different stakeholders in the supply chain.
What’s your vision for hydroCotton?
It is always really interesting and really hard to set a vision in times like these, as everything feels like it's continuously under flux. The next five years for hydroCotton will be focused on establishing our technology as a self-sustaining entity and bringing it to the scale of our industrial competitor.
We also want people to understand the sustainable metrics that come with hydroCotton. Really have a material that has a bit more of a nuanced footprint around it and that is accessible not only to consumers but that also helps the fashion industry invest more on these more sustainable alternatives.
In the long term, our goal is to create the foundation for a sustainable transparent supply chain in cotton. The discussion will also be whether, in the future, we branch out into different fibre staples or other commodities but we are always looking to create systems that work with farmers to better empower them through better market access and also more climate resilient tools in terms of farming.
What are your challenges in the market right now?
There are two answers to this question right now with Covid. First, we need to build our farms in the communities where cotton has been grown and until we've transferred our approach from the UK to the filed, well, that is a barrier.
Secondly, the mindset in the fashion industry is undergoing a seismic shift at the moment so we're receiving interest from people who want to participate in the farming side of things. Once we've established the technology and we've proven that we can onboard farmers and get the cotton grow reliably, we can then scale our technology and company. It is going to require a unilateral effort.
In my opinion, that's going to be the hardest thing: getting fashion brands, textile and co-operatives to all agree at the same time and commit to something that's long-term. Because the way we look at our farms we're looking at a seven year timeline. Getting those strong commitments from the fashion industry is going to make the difference.
Anything else you would like to add?
This is a really awesome time to be entering the sustainable fashion space. There's interest not only from investors but also from people in the industry who are ready to take more ownership of what happens in the space. There are also so many new programs and platforms that lead to a lot of opportunities. You just need to engage and make it happen!
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