The fashion industry as we know it is not sustainable. The industry produces over 92 million tonnes of textile waste yearly. It also consumes tons of raw materials and energy. Fast fashion alone produces 10% of annual global carbon emissions.
We must live a slow fashion lifestyle to curtail these terrible environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Sustainable fashion creates a safer environment and ethical fashion products.
Sustainable fashion uses natural and renewable resources like cotton, lotus silk, bamboo fiber, pina fabric, etc. It also uses recycled textiles, preventing excess waste.
Over the past decade, many sustainable fashion innovations in the fashion industry have emerged. This article explores many eco-friendly textiles making waves in the global fashion sector.
Moving away from the fast fashion trend, Koen Meerkerk and Hugo de Boon worked together to create fruit leather in Rotterdam in 2015. They aimed to turn something that might otherwise be discarded into a valuable item. They also sought to reduce the carbon footprint of the leather manufacturing process.
So, they collected mango fruits from the market and removed the seeds. Next, they cut the mango fruits up and mashed them all together. They boiled the mashed fruit to eliminate all bacteria in the fruit, and then they used the dried pulp to produce mango leather sheets.
The resulting vegan leather forms part of the sustainable textile industry supply chain worldwide while reducing food waste.
In the sustainable fashion industry, pineapple leaf is a raw material slowly making waves. The Philippines' fashion industry undertakes the production of pineapple fabric.
Pina fabric weaving is an ancient tradition of the Philippines that goes back to the 19th century before cotton production became the norm. Pina fabric almost became extinct because of the cheap production costs of cotton.
To produce pineapple fiber, locals harvest the leaves of pineapple plants. Then they pull the fibers away from the leaves. The fibers are usually long and stiff. Each fiber strand is painstakingly hand-scraped and knotted into a long, continuous form. However, some commercial applications use chemicals to speed up the process of extracting fiber from pineapple leaves1, reducing its sustainability credentials.
Then, they weave the long filaments into clothes. It is more delicate than any other natural textile material. A kilo of pineapple leaves produces up to 18 filaments. These filaments are up to 60cm long and easily keep dyes.
Pina fiber because it requires a lot of labor to make it right. About 30 people create pineapple fiber.
However, it promotes fashion sustainability with its sustainable production process. It has a better structure and texture than silk. Fashion brands can use it to create bags, yoga mats, and all forms of clothing.
Cactus leather is from the nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear. Manufacturers harvest mature cactus leaves twice a year for production.
Then, they clean and smash the leaves into small pieces. After drying the small cactus pieces in the sun for over three days, they separate fibers from the dried mulch.
Next, they extract powdered protein and process it with various non-toxic materials and natural dyes. This process creates a bio-resin solution. They add bio-resin solutions to organic cotton, recycled cotton, and polyester. When these materials bond together, they create cactus leather.
Cactus leather is sustainable because it doesn't require much water. It also creates an excellent source of income for farmers. Cactus plants also help the environment by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. The process is carbon sequestration.
Another sustainable alternative to animal leather is leaf leather, a leather-like material from tree leaves. It is as strong and water-resistant as animal leather, and the manufacturing process produces a minimal carbon footprint. The fashion industry uses it to create bags, eco-friendly wallets, and other accessories.
To produce leaf leather, manufacturers harvest teak leaves. The production process requires soaking the leaves in water and dying them. Then, they arrange the leaves together and leave them to dry.
This process dries the leaves and joins them, producing a large sheet of leaf material. It becomes a fabric when they add it to cotton. They seal moisture on the leaf layer using a thin layer of non-toxic Biaxially Oriented (BO) Polypropylene material.
Also referred to as grape leather, it is a soft and sustainable fabric introduced into the fashion industry in 2016. Gianpiero, an architect based in Milan, founded Vegea, a company that championed the creation of grape leather.
They produce it from pomace, the waste of the Italian wine industry. Pomace is the by-product of grapes, including grape skin, pulp, seeds, and stems. The sustainable production method requires little water, while the wastewater from production is also reusable.
As a vegan leather, there is zero animal cruelty involved in production. They extract bio-oil from grape seeds and mix it with dry grape seeds, pulp, and stems. After mixing it all into a smooth pulp, they added it to an organic cotton fabric. The dry form of this process is grape leather.
The fashion footwear industry uses this vegan leather to make sustainable shoes. Others use it to make bags, accessories, and clothing. This sustainable fashion innovation helps deliver closed-loop recycling in the wine industry.
Another notable sustainable fashion innovation that aims to reduce the fast fashion trend is apple leather. Alberto Volcan created apple leather in 2004. He started his experiment by creating ecological paper using 15% apple waste. This creation reduced carbon emissions by 25%.
He created apple leather after joining forces with Frumat, a company that recycles industrial waste. The raw materials used to produce apple leather are apple seeds, stalks, and seeds. The end product is 50% apple and 50% resin, making it a biosynthetic material.
They crush these waste products into a fine powder and mix it with a type of resin known as polyurethane. Next, they spread it into thin sheets, leaving it to dry.
It is not completely biodegradable but produces less carbon footprint than synthetic and animal leather.
Mycoworks, a biotech company, created vegan leather from mushrooms to promote a slow fashion lifestyle. Mushrooms are one of the many renewable resources abundant in the environment.
They turned mycelium threads from the roots of mushrooms into a leather-like material. They use engineered mycelium cells that grow in 3D structures, forming a densely intertwined, strong material.
This production process doesn't require the use of toxic chemicals. Hermes was the first brand that used mushroom leather to create bags in the fashion industry.
Orange fiber is one of the natural fibers making waves in the fashion industry. Adriana Santonocito created the Orange Fiber brand in 2014. They use pastazzo, a term used for citrus fruit waste products.
They process orange peels using a patented method to extract cellulose. They then spin the extracted cellulose into yarn that looks and feels like silk. It is soft and shiny.
The resulting yarn is mixable with any other form of fiber. It is highly beneficial to the environment and the human skin. The textile industry mainly uses it to create clothing items.
The fabric contains vitamins A, C, and E, which are absorbable by the skin. Keeping our skin healthy.
Recycled polyester is a synthetic material created from recycled plastic water bottles. The sustainable fashion industry uses recycled polyester to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy consumption.
It also saves tons of plastic materials from polluting the environment. Many global fashion labels use it to create jeans, shirts, pants, activewear, and sports apparel.
Manufacturers sort, chop and melt plastic bottles into polyester chips. Then, they melt these polyester chips and spin them into long filaments. They weave the long polyester fibers into yarn and mix them with other fabric forms to create clothes.
It is better to recycle polyester than manufacture polyester from scratch because it can save about 20% of carbon emissions3, according to WRAP. However, as recycled polyester is still derived from oil-based products and requires many chemicals and energy to reconstitute, it is not a truly sustainable fabric.
However, while demand for polyester continues to exist, lessening the requirement to produce new polymers from oil is a win for the environment.
Manufacturers use the waste from harvested lotus plants to create lotus fabrics. Lotus silk is a rare fabric that originated in Myanmar. However, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and India also manufacture lotus fabric.
The fabric is soft and breathable. Lotus silk is superior to other forms of fiber. The material is soft and breathable. It is water-resistant, wrinkle-free, strain and pilling-resistant. They use natural dyes like jackfruits, bark, seeds, and lotus leaves to give them a vibrant color.
The collection of lotus stems has been done primarily by women for many years. A woman named Daw Sa OO discovered lotus fabric after weaving the fiber together. They have passed the method of skill production through generations for years.
They pick lotus stems in the early hours of the morning. Next, they make marks on the stems and pull them apart to reveal the fibers beneath. They roll the fiber into a ball to avoid tangling.
Then, they wash the shit threads and weave them on a traditional Cambodian frame loom. The maximum width of the woven fabric is 25 inches. They spend a month and a half weaving 90 meters of fabric.
Creating a single garment requires up to 1,20,000 lotus stems. A lotus stem can produce up to 30 fibers. The supply chain of lotus fiber is short because of how tedious its production is2.
Banana fiber is a lignocellulosic fiber derived from the pseudo-stem of the banana plant. The extraction of banana fiber from banana stems requires extra care. Manufacturers extract them using the hand scraping method and by using a raspador. However, scraping the fiber by hand produces fibers with the best quality.
After extracting the fiber, they remove impurities such as cellulose coatings, pigments, and broken fibers. Then, they hang the fibers in sunlight for approximately five hours.
The following process is to spin the fibers. They use filament yarns to spin the banana fibers and weave them on looms. Most fashion establishments use banana fabric to make clothing, ropes, curtains, mats, and rugs.
Bamboo fabric is a plant-based fiber made from bamboo. Manufacturers create bamboo fiber by extracting cellulose from broken-down bamboo stems.
They spread the extracted cellulose into sheets and pass it through spinnerets to create strands. Then, they soften the strands and process them into yarn that will later turn into bamboo fabric.
Multiple brands make bamboo clothing like pajamas, bedsheets, pillowcases, and underwear.
As sustainability enthusiasts, we should avoid fashion brands that use non-sustainable production methods. They are incredibly harmful to the environment. Instead, we should practice more conscious purchasing, and many of these innovations point toward more sustainable alternatives.
Jose, S., Salim, R., & Ammayappan, L. (2016). An overview on production, properties, and value addition of pineapple leaf fibers (PALF). Journal of Natural Fibers, 13(3), 362-373.
Dhama, Aditi. (2022). Lotus silk fabric - A luxurious fabric for high fashion (Indian Silk-30-33). Indian Silk. 12. 30-33.
Introduction to more sustainable fibres: Recycled Polyester (pdf), WRAP
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.