A new wave of innovative and sustainable textiles is emerging, and manufacturers are working to scale up production for mainstream use
“Leather” made with everything from apple skins to mushrooms, silk grown in laboratories and cotton created from repurposed fibres: as sustainability soars up consumers’ priorities, brands and retailers big and small start to consider alternative textiles for their ranges in an attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of some traditional fabrics.
However, these textiles are unfamiliar to manufacturers and consumers alike, and can behave differently from their traditional counterparts. So the question is, are these innovations viable at scale?
Many of the new wave of innovative and sustainable fabrics rely on finite initial resources, such as “leather” made with apple skins discarded in the food industry or “wool” made from coconut husks. Although this enhances their sustainable credentials, it limits the amount of each material than can be produced at any one time.
The demand is higher than what is available in the market at the moment
Daniel Odermatt, Ventile
In 2019, Swiss textiles company Ventile launched a 100% recycled cotton – the first cotton on the market to use entirely recycled fibres, which the company sources from pre-consumer waste. Last year, over a quarter of Ventile’s sales were of sustainable or organic products, and while it cannot share the names of retailers using their fabrics, it has seen a huge increase in demand and interest in these materials.
However, Ventile’s product and marketing manager, Daniel Odermatt, notes that as there is a limited supply of pre-consumer waste cotton, a limited amount of the final material can be made. At present, demand is outpacing availability. “It’s a huge market, but there is a is a technical limitation to how much we can produce,” he says. “There is always a limited amount of [pre-consumer waste cotton] fibres available. The demand is higher than what is available in the market at the moment, and we have to increase our sourcing base before we can increase our output.”
For Ventile to increase the production and supply of its 100% recycled cotton, it will need to source more fabric – and Odermatt says the business is in the process of increasing the number of suppliers it works with to do this.
Other manufacturers are facing similar challenges. Increasing demand presents opportunities to scale up production for some, which further enhances the sustainability credentials of their products – enabling them to directly aid communities in the production process.
In February 2020, childrenswear brand Infantium Victoria says it became the first company in the world to produce commercial ranges using “vegan wool” – a fabric made by the Indian textile manufacturer Faborg that is created by blending fibres from the calotropis plant with organic cotton.
The plant – commonly known as milkweed – grows natively in India, and is crucial for soil regeneration. Faborg harvests the calotropis to make way for other crops and uses the fibres to create its vegan wool. The fibres can be processed and spun on traditional cotton weaving equipment, so is simple to produce in conventional factories.
“The wool-like quality comes from the fibre from the [seed] pods,” explains Infantium co-founder Julia Gaydina. “This is mixed with stem fibres to create both strength and fluffiness: this gives us the lush, plush feeling of wool. As well as a durable quality. The microscopic structure is the same as wool – with air pockets that create a microclimate in the fibre”
Gaydina explains that scaling up use of the fabric would require working to increase the amount of calotropis harvested. This is done by local community groups, and Faborg is working to increase its supply and simultaneously increase employment in the rural areas of India where the plant grows wild.
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Another potential barrier to the scalability of sustainable fabrics is that they are not direct alternatives to traditional textiles. Apple or pineapple leather, for example, will not behave the same way as animal leathers.
Berlin-based womenswear brand Nove uses “peace silk”. The fibres are obtained from discarded silkworm cocoons, so no worms are killed in the production process. Founder Janina Waschkowski explains that although the material is versatile and luxurious, there are differences from conventional silk and fewer options for weights, so its usability is limited to lightweight scarves.
“The material shows no lack of the luxurious look and feel, but as the thread is manually fixed [on to the loom], you sometimes see tiny marks,” says Waschkowsi. “You would only see them with a magnifier, and we take the parts with the marks for samples.
“Unfortunately, the variety of peace silk fabric types is not as broad as for conventional silk. However, I was excited to finally find a heavy peace silk after several months of research.”
This new, heavier silk will be introduced into collections for autumn 20 onwards.
Some brands and designers use the fabrics’ uniqueness to their advantage, and create products that capitalise on the benefits of new materials.
Contemporary accessories brand Mashu works with sustainable fabrics including Piñatex – a leather alternative produced using byproducts from pineapple farming.
Founder and creative director Ioanna Topouzoglou explains that she takes advantage of its specific attributes: “What I like about Piñatex is that it’s not trying to be like leather, it’s its own thing. For example, it is quite thick – so has a good structure for bags. You have to treat it as a material in its own right.”
“Our Greek production team are leather specialists and originally hated working with it because it didn’t have the right flex,” she continues. “So, we reworked the bags based on how the materials work. That’s the tricky part – it takes a while to learn the new material. You have to be more creative and think of ways around it.”
Topouzoglou says that the substantial time, cost and effort required to instil this approach may not be an option for larger brands, and introducing alternative textiles into established supply chains may be a challenge. She also observes that while Mashu is a premium brand, with prices to match, the prices of many of these textiles is a barrier for use on a wider scale.
Unless you can bring those costs right down, it is very challenging to produce and supply at scale.
Alex McIntosh, Create Sustain
Alex McIntosh is CEO of sustainability consultancy Create Sustain and was a founding member of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. He agrees that cost and commerciality are two key barriers preventing universal use.
“Developing a new fabric is an expensive process,” he says. “It can take many years of development and there may be a lot of associated cost in development. Unless you can bring those costs right down, it is very challenging to produce and supply at scale. The low margins of fast fashion, for example, allows less for cost of materials.”
Although luxury companies could theoretically better manage the higher costs of these innovative materials, McIntosh flags commercial perceptions of quality as a barrier: “These alternative fabrics don’t have the associations that people want for a luxury product. People drive the commercial conversation first. If [alternative materials] don’t sell very well then brands will not invest in them.”
He highlights Stella McCartney as a luxury brand that is reversing these perceptions: “Stella has done a very good job of convincing people that luxury doesn’t need to be made from animals. She has made people believe it is modern, cool and desirable to care about the environment. It has been a consistent drum beat from the beginning of the business.”
Educating consumers on new materials and how to care for them effectively is key to reversing these perceptions, says McIntosh: “If you don’t help people to understand the value these materials have from a sustainability and quality perspective, they won’t pay for them or look for them. Consumers need to know how to care for them or they will end up being damaged.”
To this end, McIntosh was instrumental in creating a care guide with home electronics manufacturer Siemens, which aims to inform consumers how best to care for a range of sustainable textiles such as Tencel, banana taffeta and Econyl recycled nylon.
Although it may be some time before consumers are more likely to buy grape leather bags than conventional ones, increasing interest, education and innovation mean sustainable textile suppliers are poised to scale up and make their way into the mainstream.