"Fashion retailing and manufacturing has takein a tragic turn over the years. Statistics reveal, today, about 80 billion new pieces of clothing are made each year, which is around 400 per cent higher than what it used to produce 20 years back while the global population only grew about 30 per cent. A new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says cumulatively around the world a truckload of clothes get dumped every second. The average American throws about 82 pounds of textiles a year, much of which ends up in landfills or incinerated."
Fashion retailing and manufacturing has takein a tragic turn over the years. Statistics reveal, today, about 80 billion new pieces of clothing are made each year, which is around 400 per cent higher than what it used to produce 20 years back while the global population only grew about 30 per cent. A new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says cumulatively around the world a truckload of clothes get dumped every second. The average American throws about 82 pounds of textiles a year, much of which ends up in landfills or incinerated. Of the clothing that reaches second-hand stores like Goodwill—only 15 per cent of all discards—some is recycled into shoddy (filling for cheap furniture) or upcycled into things like denim insulation, but most of it is shipped to poorer countries. However, they too have limits—African countries including South Africa and Nigeria recently banned Western castoffs, which have overwhelmed their markets, causing the decline of their local fashion business. Is it possible to retrofit a $1.2 trillion industry? Here are three revolutionary fabrics greening the industry.
Biopolymers in place of old fabrics
Two types of textiles, petroleum-made polyester and field-grown cotton, often woven together, have been the most preferred fabrics for decades. Ramani Narayan, Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Michigan State University, states much of what we wear now is a blend of PET, a petroleum-based fibre, and cotton fibre. But these fabrics have their issues. Cotton, which makes over 30 per cent of our clothes’ yarns, is a natural material, but it consumes huge amount of water and even accounts for almost 20 per cent of pesticides and 25 per cent of the insecticides used in agriculture worldwide, before it’s even picked. The production of polyester, the demand for which has doubled in the last 15 years, is an energy intensive process that requires a lot of oil and generates harmful emissions, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases, like hydrogen chloride, all of which contribute to respiratory disease. Adding PET to a textile gives better performance, it makes fabrics more moisture-resistant and gives them more washability. But they aren’t bio-degradable. Unless PET threads are decoupled from cotton and recycled, they don’t decompose, but separating fibres is extremely challenging. Towards this end, biopolymers are macromolecules—long chains of smaller molecular units strung together. These basic units can be amino acids, nucleotides, and monosaccharaides. The most common biopolymer is cellulose, which makes up one third of all plant material on earth. Cotton is 90 per cent cellulose, but there are other, less polluting alternatives.
Biopolymers can be grown or harvested from other plants like kelp or from living organisms like bacteria or yeast, which produce biopolymers as part of their lifecycle. The resulting fibres can be woven into a variety of textiles akin to polyester, leather, or a cellulose-like yarn. To a certain extent, these materials can sequester carbon from the atmosphere, acting as wearable carbon sinks. And when they are thrown away, these biopolymers will decompose. According to Narayan, using biopolymers in clothing can reduce energy and freshwater use and reduce climate change resources.
Sea to the rescue with Algiknit,
AlgiKnit uses kelp, a type of seaweed, to produce a biopolymer called alginate, which is then used for textile production. Kelp grows all over the world, forming offshore kelp forests. Some kelp species grow quicker than the fastest-growing terrestrial plant, bamboo, and are inexpensive to farm. As it sprouts, kelp cleans water too—absorbing phosphorous, nitrogen, and five times more carbon dioxide than land plants—so farming it near seaside cities can improve polluted local waters. Tessa Callaghan, co-founder, AlgiKnit, stated that the team’s big challenge has been to get their end fibre to be strong and flexible enough for use on an industrial knitting machine. It took a lot of experimentation to ensure compatibility between yarns and machines, but one of the team’s goals is to be able to use the yarn in the existing fibre and textile infrastructure, to streamline the new material’s acceptance.
Leather from yeast
Modern Meadow’s yeast-produced collagen is another biopolymer that is about to make its runway debut in a form of a leather product named Zoa. The New Jersey-based company designs DNA that can yield collagen, the protein that makes up leather. Susan Schofer, VP – business development, Modern Meadow, informed the company designs DNA that can make collagen, the main building block of leather, then purify it, and then use an assembly process to turn it into leather. Compared to traditional leather industries, Zoa’s production has a lower environmental impact and more fashion design opportunities. Modern Meadow will be introducing Zoa to market in 2018.
California startup Mango Materials makes its fabrics by feeding wastewater methane to methanotrophic bacteria that eat it and produce PHA-based polyester that can be woven into threads or molded into various shapes. Unlike the oil-based PET fabrics, PHA threads are biodegradable. Anne Schauer-Gimenez, VP – customer engagement, Mango Materials, highlighted since methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, clothing made from Mango Materials’ fabrics has the potential to mitigate global warming, if used on a larger scale. When Mango Materials makes its polyester fabrics, the methane is essentially sequestered from the atmosphere, for as long as the clothes remain intact.