The days of polyester, leather, silk, PVC vinyl and other environmentally harmful materials in fashion may soon be a thing of the past. As probably one of the most exciting and fastest growing developments in the fashion industry, bio-based materials and biofabrics are set to play a starring role in the future of sustainable fashion. One after another, brands announce new products made from innovative materials. Whether it’s plant-based leather alternatives, biodegradable fibers made from waste, bio-plastics made from algae, or on the weirder side: decorative crystals made from sweat. At SANVT, we had a look at the latest (and some of the wackiest) developments in bio-based materials to better understand the future of sustainable fashion.
As a renewable, natural material made from plant cellulose, Lyocell is probably one of the most well known material innovations in sustainable fashion. One of the most widely used Lyocell fibers is Tencel™, which comes from a sustainable source of cellulose and from a closed loop system. In terms of pure feel, Lyocell is almost indistinguishable from cotton, while requiring much less water in production and no or very little pesticides. Tencel™ Lyocell is therefore considered a particularly sustainable and environmentally friendly textile fiber. Read more about the innovative Tencel™ Modal here.
Note: Tencel Modal is used in SANVT’s perfect boxer briefs.
Closing the loop
Speaking of Lyocell and closed loop systems, the Renewcell recycling technology is a link that has been missing in the fashion cycle so far. After all, even sustainable and renewable materials have to be grown and produced first. And even if these productions are far less resource-hungry than common methods, the use of energy, water and CO2 emissions are inevitable. Renewcell, however, dissolves used cotton and other cellulose fibers and transforms them into a new, biodegradable raw material: Circulose® cellulose. From this, new quality biodegradable viscose or lyocell textile fibers can then be produced. It’s an innovation that prevents the new cultivation of materials and closes the fashion cycle in a sustainable way.
Another recycling innovation in sustainable fashion is driven by companies like Ambercycle and Infinited Fiber. Namely, these companies are converting used textiles and waste into new yarns for apparel brands. The Agraloop™ company even goes one step further, converting agricultural crop waste into the new natural fiber BioFibre™. But also Infinited Fiber has developed, with Infinna™, a fiber that is both recycled and biodegradable. With other recycled materials, such as recycled polyester yarns, it is important to note that all polyester fabrics – recycled or not – release microplastics when washed. Of course, recycled polyester is better than new, but to protect the oceans from microfibers, recycled polyester clothes should be washed in laundry nets to filter out microplastics. Ideally and alternatively, use purely bio-based materials!
Bioplastics from algae
Speaking of plastic, plastic fibers could one day be completely replaced by one of the world’s most efficient organisms, namely: algae. Unlike most bioplastic production, which requires valuable drinking water, algae grows in salt water, which means its cultivation does not pollute freshwater resources. Pulverized, mixed with fats from various algae species and polished with vegetable waxes, the algae-based bioplastic is waterproof and resembles PVC vinyl. But the algae can do much more than that: through their photosynthesis, they can even sequestrate CO2 from the atmosphere and thus have a positive impact on climate change.
Crystals from sweat
Sweat is probably the most offbeat and unlikely natural resource we came across in our research. The sustainable material innovation was the creation of Alice Potts, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art. Potts has developed a technical process to produce crystals from human sweat to embellish clothing. The process involves removing sweat particles from used clothing in a laboratory, separating them from bacteria and turning them into crystals within a few hours, which can then be applied to other garments in a decorative way. And even if the idea seems a little strange (to us too) it must be taken into account that crystals grown in mines – as a non-renewable resource – are anything but sustainable and often result in violations in human rights through dangerous and unfair working conditions. Therefore, the technology is probably the most radical form of sustainability: fashion that literally comes from ourselves.
Vegan leather alternatives
Human rights violations are a well known side-effect of the fast fashion industry and animal cruelty is another ethical issue that should be considered in sustainable fashion. When it comes to plant-based leather, there are an abundance of innovations. After Desserto (cactus leather), Piñatext (pineapple leather), and Vegea (grape leather), a new trend has now emerged in the vegan and biodegradable leather market, namely: mushroom leather. The plant-based and sustainable leather alternative will, among others, soon be represented in the sneakers collection of Adidas. But also the traditional house Hermès – renowned worldwide for its luxurious leather production – has announced the first handbag made of sustainable fungi leather for the upcoming fall/winter collection. Hermès’ innovative material, called Sylvania, was created in collaboration with the California-based company MycoWorks. The purely organic leather material is based on the raw material mycelium: extremely fine, thread-like fungal cells. Mycelium’s moisture-absorbing, non-toxic, fire-resistant and waterproof properties make it a sustainable and durable alternative to leather – entirely biodegradable and cruelty-free.
Leather is just one of the materials that causes animal cruelty in the fashion industry. Fur, angora, goose down, wool and silk are also materials that involve animal exploitation and abuse. Traditional silk, for example, is obtained from silkworms that are killed in the production process. And although there are now so-called “peace silks” that are produced with non-violent methods, a number of fashion brands have turned to plant-based alternatives. Stella McCartney, for example, uses a lab-grown version of silk, and Salvatore Ferragamo uses a silk-like cellulose fabric made from citrus peels (Orange Fiber). The latest innovation, however, is silk made from rose petals. Dyed with natural pigments, the biodegradable fabric is made from petal remnants that are broken down and spun into fibers. Rose silk is soft and lustrous and is grown entirely without chemicals.
Although wool can now be sourced sustainably and transparently, there are often non-transparent supply chains involved, with cashmere production in particular being associated with mass deforestation of native grasslands in Mongolia. This is where the athleisure brand KD New York stepped in and paved the way for plant-based cashmere in 2019. The wool is made from waste soy protein from tofu production, which is then broken down into cellulose and spun into fiber. The wool is not only an ethical and biodegradable product but is even antibacterial, moth resistant and machine washable.
With these latest developments in bio-based materials and biofabrics, there are now more than enough sustainable alternatives to revolutionize the fashion industry in the long run and close production cycles. The future of sustainable fashion is now in the hands of the people buying, in the form of a shift in our purchase decisions. You can read more about why sustainable fashion is so important and what makes a fashion brand truly sustainable here.