Are Biomaterial Innovations the Key to a Sustainable Future for Fashion?
With the advent of fast fashion and micro trend consumerism, low quality textiles have flooded the markets and subsequently our landfills and waterways.
Petroleum based finishes, dyes and synthetic microfibers shed from our clothing and are distributed into the deepest depths of our oceans and rivers where they are absorbed by all manner of organisms. These pollutants are not caught by the current wastewater treatment system and remain unsafe for animals, humans and our ecosystem (twitter). It is estimated that 1.5 million tons of microplastics are dumped into our oceans each year. The current fast fashion model which dictates continuous overproduction has led companies like H&M to incinerate their excess inventory. The rising awareness of these problems has led to an acceleration in the development of bio based alternatives to traditional materials and processes. Biomaterials are biopolymers with countless uses that offer new ways to think about traditional textile production. Within the last five years, innovative materials and brand partnerships have popped up in every corner of the garment industry from technical outdoor apparel to high fashion.
This move toward low-impact materials was front and center at this year’s Paris Fashion Week, where eco-pioneer Stella McCartney presented her most sustainable collection to date. The collection utilized textiles like hemp, organic cotton and a new plant-based fur called Koba. McCartney also hosted a roundtable on the lessons she’s learned over the past few decades and her hopes for the future of the industry. Fifteen years ago, McCartney was one of the first designers to do away with materials like leather, fur, feathers and animal glue; now she is joined by many of her fellow designers and textile producers in the quest to make fashion more environmentally responsible.
Companies doing exciting things…
New York based Algiknit is creating degradable yarns from kelp. Kelp is a rapidly replenishing and abundant organism that grows ten times faster than bamboo and absorbs CO2 faster than land-based plants. The yarn is created through a process that extracts the biopolymer alginate and combines it with other renewable biopolymers. Algiknit is part of the Fashion For Goods 2018 Plug and Play Accelerator Initiative, which pairs innovative start-ups with corporate partners. The accelerators participants also attend a 12-week program that advises them on strategies to scale.
Bolt Threads / Mycelium leather, Synthetic Spider Silk
Bolt Threads has partnered with Stella McCartney to bring mycelium and synthetic spider silk to market. The California based company used silk proteins found in nature to inspire the development of their synthetic spider silk. The silk substance is produced by fermenting yeast, sugar and water. These proteins are spun into a yarn that can then be knit or woven. This strong and resilient material is being used to create the Adidas x Stella McCartney fully degradable tennis dress.
Bolt Threads is also producing a leather like material called Mylo derived from mushrooms. The material is created with the branching underground structures of mushrooms known as mycelium. Bolt Threads grows these structures on beds of agricultural waste. Stella McCartney used Mylo to create a prototype of her tremendously popular Falabella Bag, which was displayed at the 2018 “Fashion from Nature” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England. Bolt debuted their own Mylo Driver Bag around the same time as part of a Kickstarter campaign to raise awareness around the new material. Founder David Breslauer referenced the need for an industry wide transformation in response to the current climate crises when he participated in McCartney’s roundtable this year at Paris Fashion Week.
Ananas Anam Company / Pinatex
Pineapple fibers have been used to make clothes for hundreds of years. Dr. Carmen Hijosa, a leather goods and manufacturing consultant, used this knowledge as a jumping off point to create Pinatex. Pinatex is produced by the Ananas Anam Company using fibers from pineapple leaves that are discarded during the pineapple harvest. The fiber is removed through a process called decortication, which extracts this long fiber from waste leaves. These fibers are then degummed and undergo an industrial process that transforms them into a non-woven leather like material. This year, Pinatex will be featured in H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection and in a line of 100% vegan shoes created by German design house Hugo Boss.
Italian company Orangefiber is another company that utilizes agricultural waste to create a sustainable leather alternative. Orangefiber is created by extracting fibers from citrus waste and then treating those fibers with essential oils also created from this waste. The result is a smooth and resilient material that can be used for apparel, home furnishing and footwear. In 2017, Salvatore Ferragamo launched a capsule collection made entirely from the citrus fiber and this year Orangefiber will be included in H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection.
Natural Coatings was founded by Jane Palmer in 2017. She is a pigment and dye specialist who has previously worked in the apparel industry. The company develops sustainable biopigments and has recently created a black pigment derived from wood waste. Black pigment is traditionally made from a petroleum base and is notoriously toxic. Natural Coatings has won two National Science Foundation Awards, participated in Fashion For Good’s Accelerator Program and is currently part of Fashion For Good’s Sailing Program. They see their black pigment as the first of many biobased dyes and fabric treatments that they intend to bring to market.
Drawbacks, limitations and conclusions
A large part of the controversy surrounding biobased materials centers on the portion of biomass in a product. Presently the term extends to any material that is partly or wholly biobased. This means that a material composed out of even a small portion of biomass can be labeled a biomaterial regardless of what other synthetic polymers are present.
Biobased fibers are often blended with nondegradable synthetics which can make recycling and compost difficult. The industry has yet to develop the capacity to efficiently recycle blended fiber fabrics. Although biobased materials offer exciting ways of utilizing unconventional natural biopolymers, the process by which some of these materials are created often requires complex chemical processes. The chemicals used in these processes are often not sustainable. It is important to understand that materials like cotton, linen and wool are also biobased but are typically produced using their own set of toxic chemicals and unsustainable production practices. Being biobased does not make a material inherently sustainable.
Another barrier for many of these materials is that they are currently too expensive to compete in a mass market where they could replace a less sustainable item. This has led to the criticism that many of these capsule collections and limited offerings are nothing more than a public relations move that does not reflect a real change in the way we produce, consume and dispose of our clothes.
In the end, the fashion industry must embrace a circular mindset that scrutinizes each step of the supply chain. Simply addressing materials is shortsighted, insufficient and does not take into account the many implications caused by the traditional garment production model. As consumers, we play a powerful role in the current system and its reinvention. We have the power to demand fewer pieces of higher quality per season, increased traceability and a commitment to lasting environmental stewardship. If this is the persistent message directed at large conglomerates we will certainly see an industry wide transformation.