This new awareness among younger consumers is leading them to switch their shopping attitudes and habits. According to the Global Fashion Agenda Report:
of consumers stated that they have switched brands to support those that take a public stance on environmental change
of shoppers plan to switch to support fashion brands that are environmentally friendly
From a sustainability perspective, natural fibres have the advantages of being renewable and biodegradable.
However, conventional cotton production is one of the biggest drivers of water consumption in the supply chain.
Natural animal fibres such as wool, leather, down and silk offer unique qualities. In the case of synthetic fibres, some typically require less water to produce than natural fibres, are often highly durable, and are in many cases easily recycled. However, most existing synthetic fibres are not biodegradable, and rely on fossil fuels and chemicals during production. Fortunately, innovative labels and emerging designers have started experimenting with lab-grown and recycled materials, introducing new players to the industry but also paving the road of innovation, combining fashion and science. In its latest report, The Global Fashion Agenda appointed a materials innovation asset for the TRANSFORMATIONAL PRIORITY FOR FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE. This innovation-driven material research, is playing a part in to reducing the industry’s environmental footprint, while offering potential design alternatives, modernising production, and creating jobs.
Bio-based materials seem the best choice for a long-term strategy to address sustainability and challenge companies worldwide, representing new hope for a re-shaped textile system. They come from organic waste matter or from artificial polymers or natural bacteria that catalyze production processes (for example dyeing and colouring) in natural ways. The idea of using bio-polymers to make yarns had been around for a while, but only recently did innovators get to work in textiles, soon collaborating with designers and textile manufacturers. They are united by one aspect: young and ambitious, but with no knowledge or entrepreneurial skills. So far, various steps have been discovered in producing these fabrics: some projects are born as startups, others as textile brands in which a team of engineers joins designers to experiment with new polymers in yarn manufacture, or to reuse organic waste such as food.
Stella Mccartney has been pioneering the change within the luxury industry. The company has a partnership with Bolt Threads, a startup creating silk from yeast and sugar that, at its molecular level, is mostly similar to spider silk (Stella McCartney.com, 2016).
The charts present a projection of average production expenses to produce clothes and accessories made of leather and silk (Credits to LVMH Group).
Imagine: your dress made from food waste?
Bolt Threads creates silk by replicating the spider’s natural process: without involving the animal. Silk proteins are isolated and recreated using sugar and yeast, obtaining a product which is lighter and warmer than real spider silk, ready to be used as yarn
<a href=”https://boltthreads.com”>Bolt Threads</a> started studied silk proteins in nature to determine what gives them their properties, then recreated them through fermentation using yeast, sugar and water, finally turning them into fibres and garments through spinning and weaving. The main input in their fibre-making process is sugar from plants that are grown, harvested and planted. Compare this to polyesters, which are made from petroleum. Currently, more than 60% of textiles are made of polyester and other petroleum-derived fibres. The startup analysed spider’s silk’s attributes, gaining understanding of the relationship between the spiders’ DNA and the characteristics of the fibres they make (boltthreads.com, 2017). The success attracted the attention of the English eco-friendly brand Stella McCartney, which started collaborating with them on a new sustainable project.
Orange fibre is produced in Italy, which involves recovering citrus scraps, extracting the cellulose from the fibres of the skins, and converting it into yarn. Thanks to the inherent properties in the citrus fruit scraps, the product also has beneficial properties for the wearer when it comes into in contact with the skin.
Among the Italian brands operating with biodegradable materials in the textile industry, orange fibre is the most successful. Thanks to collaboration with the venture capital funding company Future Tech Lab, the brand has achieved success and recognition on the national scene, thanks to collaborations with luxury brands such as Ferragamo and Armani. The project, born between Milan and the Sicily region, has seen two researchers create an innovative yarn in the laboratory, directly produced from orange peels waste. The residues of peel and orange pulp used to be exclusively for disposal or composting to obtain biomass from which to produce renewable energy. Now the startup design yarns, called ‘cosmo textiles’ can with the use of nanotechnologies, release vitamin C onto the skin. As told in an interview in 2015, the fibre can be blended with other fabrics, has no physical-chemical problems, and can be compared to acetate (L. Motta, 2015). Over the years the brand has managed to grow and raise funds, but it remains to be seen if the production process can really become competitive (in terms of costs and resources) compared to more traditional manufacturing methods, especially in Italy.
- Algiknit produces fibres through the extraction of biopolymers from algae, which are then processed according to the required needs. They can be knitted, 3D printed or treated, or dyed with natural pigments.
- Mango Materials is a fibre maker that recovers discarded methane in chemical-organic processes and catalyses it in bio-polymers that can be transformed into textiles, in particular as sustainable alternatives to the currently used polyester. Its products are completely biodegradable and can be easily disposed of at the end of their use
Established in California, and mainly composed of engineers rather than designers, the brand transforms waste gas streams into biodegradable materials at competitive economics, working within a closed loop in order to grantee the full biodegradability of its product at the end of use. In a close interview with the team, Anne Schauer-Gimenez described how the idea of using methane as a primary source of production was successful, considering the extensive quantity naturally available (almost 3 billion pounds) and its low price. By using wastewater treatment plants, they are willing to collect them as feedstock gas which would be otherwise converted into electric energy or released, significantly driving down production costs (National Science Foundation, Feb. 2014).
The core knowledge is converting methane gas into a polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) by a biological process: methane eater bacteria will eat the meth and build the polymer inside themselves, by growing and getting larger. Sourced from naturally abundant methane gas emissions, PHA can be converted into a variety of conventional plastic goods. When no longer needed, these goods may simply be disposed of in a waste facility. Once there, PHA will biodegrade back into methane, thus closing the loop and creating a cradle-to-cradle process. The final result then is a yarn creates a similar experience as traditional PET “polyester”, but without the concerns of shading problematic, persistent microfibers during washing and disposal at end-of-life. In the future, they plan to scale their production labs (and use water, gas and electricity in larger spaces) in order to address the growing demand of renewable fibres as well as working with big fashion companies to improve their chain and commercialise the product, by small releases and shows.
Still think this is the stuff of science fiction?
It has actually never been more real.
The fields of experimentation in creating sustainable fashion are vast. They are growing exponentially, since recycling synthetic fibres is increasingly difficult and consumers are rejecting fast fashion’s ethos of increased production and low-quality products. The implementation of new technologies in fashion should not be a limitation Rather, it must be a sustainable solution towards writing a new chapter in fashion’s history.