In the search to be more sustainable, fashion brands big and small have been jumping at the chance to innovate when it comes to materials. For many, the solution has been relying on the greener versions of traditional materials; perhaps the most popular is organic cotton, which is sustainably grown by using less water and skipping synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Other fashion brands, however, have put their scientists to work in the creation of new fabrics from a conscious approach, using everything from fruits to algae.
There’s a growing offer of sustainable materials in the fashion scene. While they all sound exciting, it’s important to know what each one brings to the table, with its pros and cons. This is why we’ve prepared this quick guide with some interesting and relevant links to help our readers make the best decisions as consumers.
Cotton is the most used natural fabric on Earth, yet its common growth practices are anything but sustainable, using huge amounts of water and harmful pesticides and other chemicals. However, organic cotton is making its way into the mainstream, and it’s a big step in the right direction.
- Uses less water
- Skips harmful chemicals in soils and the environment
- Empowers small, local farmers
- Organic cotton relies on crop rotation, which keeps soils healthier and also allows farmers to feed themselves
- It requires more land
- Natural pesticides can also be harmful to the soil
- A lot of companies use organic cotton for their greenwashing statements, doing the bare minimum otherwise
Established in Catania, Italy, in 2014, Orange Fiber is a company that focuses on creating sustainable fabrics made from citrus fruit by-products. So far they’ve worked with luxury fashion brands.
- Orange Fiber works with the leftovers of the citrus juice industry, using up resources that would otherwise turn into waste.
- Transparent supply chains.
- Currently, their supply is limited
- It’s been used solely for luxury products, so it’s not quite accessible at this point
Leather is one of the most resistant traditional fabrics, but it’s also an inherently harmful one, stemming straight from animal skin. Many brands have adopted vegan leather options, but too often these are petroleum-based and won’t biodegrade for hundreds of years. Piñatex is one of the pioneering options for those who love leather but don’t want to perpetuate the inhumane practices of the industry. This material is made from cellulose fibres from pineapple leaves. Piñatex has been around for nearly a decade, adopted by brands like H&M and Hugo Boss.
- Uses leftover leaves from the pineapple industry
- Durable, comfortable, and soft
- Far more sustainable than traditional leather
- Less durable than traditional leather
- Low elasticity, breathability, breathability, resistance to abrasion, heat, UV, and sunlight
- The textile is placed in a petroleum-based resin bath to give it more durability, so it’s not biodegradable
In the same spirit as Piñatex and Orange Fiber, Bananatex (from Swiss bag brand QWSTION) uses fruits to create fabrics – as its name would suggest, one from the banana family. This canvas-like fabric is made from the abacá plant, a low-water crop that doesn’t require pesticides and fertilizer and is often used in the Philippines to reforest.
- Company research found that a single banana tree can offset the carbon emissions from the production and transport of at least 10 of their bags
- Strong, flexible, and durable material
- It’s biodegradable: coated with beeswax, it avoids petroleum-based chemicals and is also waterproof
- It’s an open-source material, which is an open invitation for other brands to use it
- So far no brands besides QWSTION have adopted Bananatex
In the realm of bioengineering fabrics, few companies are more impressive than Bolt Threads. This startup finds inspiration in the workings of nature to create brand new materials for clothes. Their most popular technology to date is Microsilk, which replicates spider silk, with no harm to any insects; Stella McCartney used Microsilk in the making of her 2017 MoMa dress. Bolt Threads also creates Mylo, a faux leather material made from fungi.
- Fully vegan: it’s cruelty-free and non-GMO fabrics
- Great performance and sustainability
- Not easy to find and a little on the expensive side
- Due to industry secrecy, there’s little information regarding the processes and specific materials behind Bolt Threads’ products
Nylon, like every other plastic-based material, takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and will often end up in landfills. With this in mind, the Italian company Aquafil has created ECONYL, a fabric made from recycled nylon. ECONYL spins new yarn from nylon waste like industrial plastic and fishing nets to make sportswear, swimsuits, and accessories, and major brands Longchamp and Gucci have used this fabric in their designs.
- It’s made using a closed-loop system
- Aquafil claims that every 10,000 metric tons of produced ECONYL save 70,000 barrels of crude oil, which is what traditional nylon is made from
- It’s not yet a circular product, although Aquafil is working towards recycling it for reproduction
- Its end-of-life destination is the landfill
Toxic waste in the oceans has made for lethal algae blooms in different parts of the world, as ecosystems are out of balance. Mississippi-based company Algix, meanwhile, has launched Bloom, an algae-based fabric that’s a sort of bio-plastic, perfect for making sporting products and shoes.
- Algix is cleaning waterways and removing gases from the atmosphere by making this fabric; for every 200 grams of Bloom used, Algix cleans 45 liters of water and 28 cubic metres of carbon
- Its creation helps remove toxic algae from our oceans
- It’s been widely adopted in footwear by brands like Adidas, Puma, H&M, and more
- It cuts the carbon footprint of regular EVA by more than half
- Bloom is partly made from algae but it also contains petroleum-based EVA, so it’s not biodegradable
More Sustainable Fabrics & Resources to Find Out More
There are plenty of other fascinating biotech fabrics out there that we couldn’t fit into this piece to discuss at length. Cupro is a semi-synthetic rayon fabric created from recycled cotton linter that dates back to the 19th century but has seen a surge due to the Bemberg brand. Re.Verso uses pre and post-consumer wool and cashmere for recycled fabrics with a circular focus. Algalife produces algae-based dyes and fibres through a zero-waste system.
You can learn more about sustainable fabrics through EcoCult, The Sustainable Fashion Collective, Common Objective, and Luxiders.