Why should consumers be interested in alternative fabrics?

 This article is an analysis of the current state of fashion and the importance of innovative materials in the industry, done by Natalija Jovasevic for Fix that Shirt. Natalija is also a collaborator at Hecho por Nosotros and Animaná (an NGO working in the domain of  sustainable development).

Through this article, we aim to spread awareness about alternate materials in the textile world, which might be traditional or are the recent discoveries that can actually change the course of fashion industry from an incredibly polluting one to a more clean and sustainable one.

So if you are a fashion student, educator, researcher, enthusiast, or a stakeholder in the fashion industry in any way, we invite you to give it a read.

What Are Innovative Materials?

Sustainable fashion has been largely focused on promoting the need for recycling, mending, animal rights, and lower consumption levels. However, the concept of innovative materials has become a core emphasis of the industry. With natural materials such as cotton becoming increasingly problematic due to the immense quantity of water or chemicals needed during the production process, fibre technology and materials science has expanded into the realm of everyday fashion.

Innovative materials include; bio-fabricated materials, biodegradable textiles, closed-loop recycling, and e-textiles. There are now many different examples of innovative materials, with some of the most well-known being; Piñatex – a fibre made from the waste of pineapple leaf, Orange Fiber – a soft silky material made from orange peel, which is a waste product of Italy’s orange juice production, and Parblex – a bioplastic made from the potato waste of McCain (Pinnock, 2019).

Why are innovative materials important?​

The fashion industry is known to be the cause of many issues. For example, approximately 80% of textiles end up in landfills around the globe, with only 20% of textiles being reused or recycled (McCarthy, 2018). This equates to 92 million tonnes of textile waste per year (Beall, 2020). And unfortunately, these figures are only expected to increase further, as by 2030 figures suggest a rise to 134 million tonnes of textile waste per year (Beall, 2020). As the majority of our clothing is made from synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester, which are made from chemical oils, these garments are not natural and are non-biodegradable. This means that all these millions and millions of tonnes of textiles can remain in these landfills for up to 200 years (SustainableFashion.Earth, 2019). These figures are simply shocking, especially when considering that the average lifetime of a piece of clothing is only 2-10 years (Beall, 2020). However, landfills themselves are extremely problematic: 1 – they are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases; 2 – leachate (the liquid formed from garbage) results in highly toxic chemicals and toxins seeping into the land, water, and ground water.

While many of us seek natural materials such as cotton or wool, due to their seemingly eco-friendlier appearance, natural materials also pose great issues. As mentioned, cotton uses a shocking 3,900 litres of water for the average T-shirt (Erdem, 2015). Furthermore, the production of wool has been increasingly criticised for its animal rights abuses. Consequently, innovative materials have become essential. A McKinsey survey reveals that 45% of clothing companies plan to introduce more bio-based materials, whilst over 67% of sourcing executives agree that sustainable materials are crucial (BOF and McKinsey & Company, 2020).   

What has been the driving force of the materials revolution?

The driving force of the materials revolution is largely down to three factors: 1 – changing consumer habits, 2 – increasing regulations, 3 – increasing investment in R&D.

With scientists constantly reminding us of the environmental impact of our daily behaviour and the threat of a ‘tipping point’, which marks the point of irreversible changes to our planet, people are becoming increasingly focused on sustainability (Leahy, 2019). The long-term survey on ‘Climate Change in the American Mind,’ conducted by researchers at Yale and George Mason University, revealed that in 2019 national concern for global warming was at an all-time peak, reaching 72% (Revskin, 2019). Due to consumers increasing awareness and concern for environmental issues, both lawmakers and companies have had to adapt in order to ensure that they are abiding by environmental standards and practices, whilst also investing in the creation of alternative fabrics. The demand is clear as each year The Sustainable Angle organises the Future Fabrics Expo, which is the largest trade show for sustainable materials. This year it held its 9th event, promoting the work of many, including MycoTex, which produces textiles from mycelium mushroom roots (Hendriksz, 2018).   

How are governments supporting R&D for alternative fabrics?

Lawmakers and fashion companies are not the only ones grasped by the need for innovative materials. Governments across the globe are beginning to participate in the materials revolution. For example, the EU has provided great support for the development of textile recycling, through its Trash-2-Cash Project (T2C). More specifically the research project aimed to produce new fibres from both pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. Rubbish is overflowing our planet, however, rather than thinking of it as the end result, T2C emphasises the need to think of waste as a resource. Whilst the concept of recycling may seem like a modern concept it is actually a very natural concept that has been used by people for thousands of years. Recycled paper and bottles have become gradually more and more popular, whereas recycled textiles have been largely limited to industrial uses such as insultation. However, T2C developed a new system that would recycle paper and textile waste chemically, in order to produce high-quality materials, comparable to brand new materials. Thus, this new process ensures that products are continuously recyclable. The project lasted three and a half years and included 18 partners from across 10 countries. It was a highly collaborative process that required material scientists to produce the materials, and designers and industry to create prototypes (Trash2Cash, n.d.).

How can young consumers have a positive impact on the development of sustainable fashion?

Over the last few years, we have seen a rise in awareness amongst younger generations. During the Extinction Rebellion protests we saw many young people come together to fight for our planet. Over 7 million people joined the Global Climate Strike in September (Rosane, 2019). While this a great step in the right direction, we all need to act on our words and promises. For instance, the majority of Gen-Z and Millennials have expressed a great concern for sustainability during shopping. However, only 31% would actually be willing to pay more for sustainable products. This is not a considerable different to the 12% of baby boomers who answered similarly (BOF and McKinsey & Company, 2020).

We have seen that consumers are crucial to the future of sustainable fashion, as they ultimately control how fashion brands and governments act. They are finally listening and responding to the demands of consumers, especially younger consumers, but it is now all of our responsibilities to help. There are so many things we can do to reduce the damage we have caused, whether it is by buying innovative materials, investing in more expensive yet high-quality goods, mending or even renting clothing.

 Like this article? Join us in creating a more ethical fashion ecosystem by spreading the word!  

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Beall, A. (2020). Why clothes are so hard to recycle. [online] BBC. Available at: bbc.com.

BOF and McKinsey & Company. (2020). The State of Fashion 2020 Report. [online] The Business of Fashion. Available at: businessoffashion.com

Erdem, S. (2015). Q: How much water does it take to produce a T shirt and a pair of jeans? A: 20,000 litres. [online] The Times. Available at: thetimes.co.uk

Hendriksz, V. (2018). ‘Innovative materials will become more mainstream if they fulfill consumers desires’. [online] FashionUnited. Available at: fashionunited.uk

Leahy, S. (2019). Climate change driving entire planet to dangerous ‘tipping point’. [online] National Geographic. Available at: nationalgeographic.co.uk

McCarthy, A. (2018). Are Our Clothes Doomed for the Landfill? [online] Remake. Available at: remake.world

Pinnock, O. (2019). 5 Innovative Fashion Materials Made From Food By-Products. [online] Forbes. Available at: forbes.com

Revkin, A. (2019). Most Americans now worry about climate change—and want to fix it. [online] National Geographic. Available at: nationalgeographic.com

Rosane, O. (2019). 7.6 Million Join Week of Global Climate Strikes. [online] EcoWatch. Available at: ecowatch.com

SustainableFashion.Earth. (2019). Synthetic fibres used in 72% clothing items can sit in landfills for 200 years. [online] SustainableFashion.Earth. Available at: sustainablefashion.earth

Trash2Cash. (n.d.). New fibres from pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. [online] Trash-2-Cash. Available at: trash2cashproject.eu

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