[Above image courtesy of Ganni]
- The fashion industry is well-known for its detrimental impact on the environment, particularly due to the use of materials that are non-biodegradable and release microplastics, such as synthetic fabrics.
- Even natural fibres like cotton, which may seem more sustainable at first glance, have their own set of environmental consequences. The cultivation of cotton requires vast amounts of water and often involves the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, further contributing to ecological issues.
- Another major concern is the production of leather. Not only does it involve the exploitation of animals, but it also poses significant threats to the environment and the people involved in the process. The production of leather consumes large quantities of water, energy, and relies on the use of dangerous chemicals, making it an incredibly resource-intensive and harmful practice.
- Although there have been attempts to seek alternatives to traditional fashion industry materials, widespread adoption and industrialisation of these alternatives remain challenging. Additionally, the development of innovative materials often faces limitations in terms of funding, hindering progress in the industry’s sustainability efforts.
When it comes to the fashion industry’s net negative impact on the environment, materials are major culprits. Across categories, the most ubiquitous are cotton, wool, leather, rayon, spandex, nylon, acrylic, and polyester – the latter four synthetic fabrics being non-biodegradable. Synthetics also now make up 60% of the world’s clothing, a position they’ve earned through their ability to be cheaply mass-produced, leading to their low prices for consumers, and for being durable, easy to maintain, stretchy, and absorbent – making them key parts of material mixes in a range of different performance applications. But aside from their incredibly long decomposition lifetime, synthetic fabrics leave their own footprint in other places: each time synthetic fabrics go into our washing machines, and during pre-consumer treatment, they shed plastic fibres (or microplastics) that eventually end up in the ocean, where they are being measured as having a toxic effect on marine life.
They may not exhibit the same properties when worn, but from an environmental point of view, are natural fibres therefore just plain better? Not necessarily. Conventionally-grown cotton, for example, has a pronounced environmental impact due to its high water consumption, with(2,700 litres of water being needed to make just one cotton t-shirt, reports the WWF. (We should note that different cotton industry bodies are investing in regenerative strategies, innovations, and new technologies to mitigate much of this impact – and that the modern cotton industry has gained significant ground in digital transformation.)
Across a broad range of crops, the runoff of harmful pesticides and fertilisers used in non-regenerative and non-organic agriculture can pollute the air and contaminate nearby water sources; and the repeat planting and harvesting process can cause severe soil erosion and degradation. The raw material trade has also been linked to numerous human rights violations throughout history, and global imports are under scrutiny for the same reasons today.
Similarly, the production of leather is harmful not only for animals, the environment, but also the people who produce it. Turning animal skin into leather requires extensive amounts of water, energy, and dangerous chemicals – including formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various dyes, some of which contain cyanide. And while there is a fair argument to be had about whether leather is “sustainable” from the point of view of its being a by-product of the dairy and meat industries, the reality remains that the chemicals used during the tanning and post-tanning treatment processes also leave many of today’s leather products unable to naturally decompose, which adds an extra layer of complexity on top of the already-divisive drive to use leather simply because hides already exist as a source of material.
None of this is news. The fashion industry has long been aware of the environmental issues associated with both natural and synthetic materials – and thanks to the acceleration of interest and investment in sustainability, there has been significant progress made in textile innovation as a way to find alternatives (or at least complements) to these long-standing materials.
Efforts have been made to create recycled textiles from post-consumer fashion waste, but this remains a significant challenge as facilities that are able to do it are few and far-between, and large-scale swaps from traditional to novel, recycled materials are still commercially complicated decisions to make. Typically, recycled materials in fashion come from manufacturing waste or other sectors, like the use of plastic bottles, since there are clearer routes to repurposing these materials – even if the precise environmental impact of doing so is perhaps not as clear-cut as it initially seems.
But while there is a significant amount of time, money, and effort being poured into identifying and commercialising new alternatives to traditional materials that can sidestep some of their more problematic elements, large-scale use and industrialisation (something readers will find being discussed elsewhere in this report) are still far from commonplace, and the chance is that it may still be a while until we see sourcing processes shift their emphasis to these alternatives. And what happens in that gap between vision and commercial reality is, in many cases, a chasm that leads to the collapse of the original idea.
For instance, Bolt Threads (the lab that created mycelium-based, leather alternative Mylo) was closest to wider commercialisation but recently ceased production because of funding issues. And over the past two years, much of the fashion industry’s funding has been funnelled to companies that have something to do with AI, 3D or digital product creation (DPC)) – something those working on the frontier of developing new materials are acutely aware of. There has been, then, more interest in digitising existing materials to improve the efficiency and transparency of supply chains that incorporate them, than there has been in pursuing genuinely novel new materials that could – if they’re permitted to really take flight – rearchitect how we think about those supply chains to begin with.
But even in spite of the odds being stacked against alternative materials, the industry as a whole does appear to be making progress – albeit in isolated islands. There are brands, chemistry disruptors, and inventors who are all starting to successfully challenge fashion’s preconceived notions around materials. But how far have they really been able to advance? How viable it is to scale new materials in today’s fashion market? And what more needs to be done by brands, manufacturers, and consumers to help potentially revolutionary new fibre, process, and material ideas to take flight?
A classic two piece: high standard and unrealistic expectations
Theoretically, the fashion industry is on board when it comes to the creation and use of new materials – especially if they are recyclable, biodegradable, and are waste-derivative. That combination ticks a lot of boxes that brands desperately need ticking in order to advance and substantiate their sustainability commitments. But in reality, the current fashion climate is unforgiving: everyone wants sustainable materials to replace what we already have, but at the same price, same quality, made in the same amount of time, and at the same volume. And the kicker: any new material is expected to be flexible, and built for longevity.
To put it as bluntly as possible, the barrier to entry for new materials in fashion is incredibly high. New innovations can seem compelling in academia, where the abstract use case is strong and the experimental results bear it out, but actual customers have incredibly high demands for any new material – and innovations, as we know, tend to be price-prohibitive.
And the last two years have been tough for those looking to find investors – not just in software, but in process and fibre-level inventions. Like the brands themselves, investors want data, certainty, and evidence-based information – all of which is simply not yet possible because, unlike something such as industrial cotton (which has been around for some 2000 years) there isn’t the same amount of information on how new materials will behave in the long term, or what it practically means to integrate them into the existing garment or footwear supply chains. This means that some claims made by material creators about their product’s environmental impact run the risk of being incorrect, even if there was not any intention to greenwash, simply because the process of commercialisation and industrialisation could lead to downscaling of volume at best, and compromises on fundamental ideals at worst. Not exactly what investors want to hear.
What’s more, in the state that fashion currently is in, many brands and manufacturers aren’t willing – or able, for that matter – to take risks to purchase or produce differently. And often, the same brands are not expecting the consumer to act differently either, or to be willing to part with additional money in order to substantiate the investment needed on the brand’s part to spearhead the bringing of new materials to market.
And even those that do want to make sustainable changes to the way they work, and are in the right market position to bring inspirational new products to market that justify the higher price point for their consumers, are crushed by the break-neck speed of the fashion calendar, and don’t have enough time to do what it takes to really innovate. Bringing a new product to market that contains a genuinely new fabric, for instance, would usually include rigorous regional performance, quality, and safety testing, greenhouse gas emissions tracking, and understanding the true impact of the material on the environment. For some brands, not having this data means not releasing any products using new, more sustainable materials until all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed – something that can take years.
Those working in the space, then, are faced with a barrage of criticism: either for not coming out with anything innovative and sustainable, or for greenwashing if a material is still in the experimentation phase and any claims are made. Of course, this has not deterred everyone and there are some game-changers working in the space – people who recognise that obsessing over the finer details of commercialising new fabrics is failing to see the forest for the trees, and that the pursuit of real change lies in the radical overhauling of not just fabric use, but the entire value chain. One of these is an intrepid biotechnology company looking to make a difference: Rubi Laboratories.
Speaking to The Interline, co-founder and CEO of Rubi Laboratories Neeka Mashouf (whose twin Leila Mashouf is Rubi’s other co-founder and CTO) explains: “the entire manufacturing industry needs to be reinvented in order to meet climate goals and create long-term pathways to decarbonisation.”
Rubi’s mission of converting carbon emissions into carbon-negative textiles (a zero-waste form of rayon called lyocell) has roots in the twin’s childhood. The Mashouf twins lived surrounded by redwood forests in Northern California, hearing stories about the beauty of nature from their family who fled Iran for the US in 1979. Summers were spent working for their family’s brand, Bebe Stores, absorbing insights from experts along the supply chain.
Ultimately, the twins were drawn in by the beauty of fashion, but were shocked by its environmental toll. This led to starting Rubi Laboratories in 2021, after inventing and prototyping the technology in a public biohacking lab, leveraging their scientific expertise in materials engineering and bioengineering. “Rubi is reinventing and replacing traditional manufacturing so the process no longer emits carbon. We can take carbon from very intensive processes and turn it into textile products to completely eliminate carbon emissions from production,” says Mashouf. “This is the only way we see a viable solution to getting to the carbon reductions we need as a planet.”
Rubi’s initial brand partners are Reformation, Ganni, Nuuly, H&M, Patagonia, and most recently, Walmart. Even though the company is still reaching full-scale commercialisation, Rubi looks to be on track to provide one of the first scaled, sustainable materials whose impact will be able to be measured both before and after it’s used in finished products. The company has also made it very clear that they have paid a lot of attention to price parity and the negative financial associations that new materials have. “We are at, or below the cost of making a particular product. As an industry standard, a metre or yard of viscose fabric is about $100 a kilogram – and that’s the low end of what manufacturers might be using,” Mashouf says. “As we scale, we anticipate being at price parity with some of those standard textile price points, which is just another reason why brands will want to adopt us.”
It will also be important that manufacturing new materials does not follow the traditional fashion industry and its reliance on fossil fuels. At present, about 96% of fashion brands’ overall greenhouse gas emissions fall under Scope 3 (the three ‘scopes’ are from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and are a way of categorising the different kinds of emissions a company creates in its own operations and in its wider value chain). Scope 3 emissions encompass activities upstream in the supply chain, like sourcing raw materials, fibre processing, and dyeing. Manufacturers often have limited control over their Scope 3 emissions, as these are largely shaped by the decisions made by the brands they work with, and the processes of the mills and supplier who exist upstream of them.
And while brands are shifting towards renewable energy, the path so far has been paved with more good intentions than concrete steps. This is due to something of a stalemate between brands and manufacturers. Many brands find it difficult to justify investing in upgrades for their manufacturing partners, as these partners often handle outsourced production and investments in improving their environmental footprint provides only indirect benefit for the brand – especially when compared to the Scope 1 emissions that a company is able to more directly quantify. On the other hand, manufacturers struggle to rationalise investments that typically don’t offer immediate returns or guarantees that brands will maintain their partnership, or that their value proposition will become more attractive to a wider range of potential customers.
Asking everyone involved to contribute funds to support manufacturers and mills they don’t own, and that competitors also utilise, is a big ask. And while some notable brands in apparel and footwear are verticalised to a greater or lesser extent, this setup is certainly the exception – not the rule.
Brands kicking into gear
One solution is that brands will need to put aside competition for collaboration in service of the bigger picture of sustainability – something that is definitely necessary but by no means easy to do.
Another option: they make the decisions wherever they can when it comes to responsible choices: selecting to work with more sustainable raw materials, committing to multi-year offtake agreements with fibre producers.
In practice, this could mean going against fashion’s seasonal calendars, and challenging the pace of the industry itself. LA-based Michael Fletcher, founder of DrinKicks, promotes “embracing slow fashion and going against the fashion calendar.” And DrinKicks is walking like they are talking: the sneaker company repurposes recycled waste (post-consumer plastic bottles) and biodegradable materials (by-products of the food industry like apple skin and hearts, grape skin, seeds, and pineapple leaves) into sustainable goods.
Talking to The Interline, Fletcher explained: “In sneaker culture, you have all these hype drops. Companies are producing a lot, and collaborating a lot. But I think it’s better to limit the amount of collaborations to really make them impactful. By limiting those drops
and working in a sustainable way, even if you’re scaling up, you don’t have to ever exclude the consumer and they can be part of the journey. You don’t don’t have to make a trillion shoes to have an impact. We don’t have to make thousands of colorways to give people artificial choice. We don’t have to meet the Fashion Week’s criteria. It’s all about putting people and the planet before profit.”
Along with going against the status quo of the fashion calendar, brands will need to focus on using innovative materials as well as circularity from the very beginning, in the design process: preferably using materials that can be recycled using a single technology and designing products with longevity in mind.
This is happening over in Europe, where sustainable brand TG Botanical – helmed by Ukrainian designer Tetyana Chumak – produces nature-based fabrics from nettle, flax, and hemp. Inspired by her family’s history in farming, Chumak ensures every step of the production process is environmentally-responsible, by using high-quality organic materials and integrating herbal dyeing techniques. On scaling, Chumak told The Interline; “The first trial capsule, which was an example of showing that production could be made in a different and more environmentally-friendly way, had an astonishing success and was sold fully out! This gave me inspiration to create the next collection and Copenhagen as a capital of sustainable fashion was a perfect place to receive a fair assessment of our pieces.” TG Botanical went on to win the Zalando Sustainability Award and has now had two successful shows in the Danish capital.
As for post-consumer waste, better design will also help the problems that exist today when it comes to textile-to-textile recycling. At the moment, when it comes to recycling clothes, there are few facilities for textile recycling in the world, for any materials. For example, polyester recycling also isn’t widespread yet, so the industry can only claim emission reductions by shifting to polyester made from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles used for food. It’s a positive step, but it requires more support. Another problem is that there is a lot of material mixing when it comes to synthetics, and the more mixed an item of clothing is, the more challenging it is to have a technology that actually works to recycle it.
Swedish textile-recycling company Renewcell is working in this space, producing Circulose material entirely from discarded clothing. They use renewable energy to extract the cotton from garments, dissolve it into wood pulp, and transform it into a form of viscose. H&M was the first brand to introduce a Circulose-based product in 2020, and Levi’s used it for their 501 jeans in 2022. Readers can discover more about Renewcell’s journey towards industrialisation in a first-hand piece elsewhere in this report.
Consumers and regulators dig in their heels
The two last groups who will play a role in scaling new materials, are consumers, along with policy-makers. TG Botanical’s Chumak weighed in on consumers, saying: “There always were and will always be shopaholics, that sincerely can’t be saturated by fashion, but I feel that we could make a change here. We could keep fashion and shopaholism and switch it to a high-quality organic material that will be less harmful to the environment.” In this case, the consumer does not have to make a concession when it comes to more sustainable materials being used in the products they buy. Of course, there will be consumers who will be prepared to pay a higher price for products made with innovative materials, but it seems that the majority of consumers will still prioritise style, price, and fit ahead of sustainability.
Beyond the consumer (and beyond brands regulating themselves), policy is going to be a push that manufacturers and brands need to embrace supply-chain wide sustainability. The EU is considering some 16 pieces of regulation focused on the fashion industry, with a variety of bills also on the table in the US at both the state and federal level. While most in the fashion industry believe this is going to be the most serious push towards sustainability, the years it might possibly take is a concern. But just sitting around in the meantime is simply ot an option.
Ganni, the Copenhagen-based fashion label and sustainability pioneer, unwaveringly stands by this philosophy. Renowned for its playful and feminine approach to the Scandinavian aesthetic, the ability to balance between cult and mass appeal, and – uncommon for a company of its size making relatively affordable clothes – their commitment and success when it comes to sustainability. The brand is focused on reducing its carbon footprint by 50% by 2027 by actively engaging in carbon insetting, (a proactive approach involving nature-based solutions like reforestation, agroforestry, renewable energy, and regenerative agriculture) and promoting using alternative materials. Ganni became a B-Corp organisation in 2022 and debuted an alternative materials initiative called Fabrics of the Future in June of the same year to test and scale innovative materials.
“The global fashion industry, us included, continues to have a largely negative environmental impact. We believe that research and data such as the upcoming legislation and overall systemic change will move the needle and see us all implement better sustainable practices, which will have a huge impact on the materials we use,” says Lauren Bartley, Sustainability & CSR Director at Ganni speaking to The Interline. “But we can’t just do nothing or wait for legislation to kick in. We have created a solid framework where research, innovation, and cross-industry knowledge sharing can come together – which we believe will also have a positive impact on the industry,” This approach prioritises action over excuses about costs, collective brand efforts, or waiting for others, and focuses on channelling resources effectively to meet climate goals and build supply chain resilience.
While traditional materials like cotton and synthetics can have significant environmental drawbacks depending on how they are grown, harvested, and used, developing and scaling new, eco-friendly alternatives is a formidable task – even with the backing of brands big and small, and the drive to invention of process and science pioneers like Rubi and Renewcell.
Although advocating for collaboration over competition is a nice ideal, the reality is that a big shift needs to take place in the mindset of the industry as well as consumers when it comes to the rapid pace of fashion. After all, sustainability isn’t a commodity; it’s a fundamental shift towards coexisting harmoniously with our environment and not taking more than we need.
This is the long-term goal, but in the interim, legislation will be the driving force for change in the material space as much as it will be elsewhere in fashion. This change, ideally, will drive increased circularity and promote responsible design, enabling consumers to access sustainable products without the need for sacrifices, particularly higher price points.
The future of fashion materials should centre around durability, biodegradability, and recyclability which likely will progress in the next decade. To get there, however, all actors involved – brands, manufacturers, innovators – will need to go beyond innovating with sustainability’s potential in mind, and instead operate from a place of creating new materials from a practical, all-encompassing, and enduring perspective.