Biomaterials: Fashion’s Future or Passing Fad?

spider silk as a biomaterial

Demand for fast fashion is rocketing at just the same time that consumers want the apparel industry to reduce its environmental impact. It’s a dilemma, but are biobased materials the answer?

Synthetic leather made from mushroom roots, nylon processed from castor oil and fabrics spun from spider silk. A slew of novel materials has hit the market in recent years, aiming to give brands more environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional fibres.

These innovative new textiles have been welcomed by high profile designers and retailers who are blazing a trail for the wider industry and bringing them to the attention of consumers.

Among the leaders has been H&M, which every year since 2010 has unveiled its Conscious Collection, a range of clothes and footwear created from unconventional materials that aim to drive down fashion’s environmental impacts. This year, the collection featured fabric developed by Italian company Orange Fiber that is made from, as you might expect, citrus fruit waste.

Stella McCartney’s best-selling Falabella bags, meanwhile, are made from alter-nappa, a faux leather whose coating is processed using over 50 per cent vegetable oil. The North Face has released a prototype ski jacket made from a synthetic version of spider silk, one of the strongest and most flexible of all natural fibres. Although still in development, the potentially revolutionary fibre is produced by genetically altered bacteria.

The Rise of Biobased Alternatives

What all these fabrics have in common is that they are part of a growing family of products known as biobased materials.

The range is evolving all the time. It includes among others Piñatex, a faux leather fashioned from pineapple leaf fibres. Mycelium is another alternative to leather, produced from the roots of mushrooms. Among the best developed biobased materials are bio-polyesters and bio-nylons, with variations processed from corn starch, castor oil and a range of other plant-based raw materials.

For some of the new biobased materials, one of the environmental advantages is that the journey from crop to fibre can be more efficient than traditional production processes – meaning less water, less energy and lower carbon emissions. For example, according to the London Textile Forum biobased polymer fibres like nylons are generally considered to contribute much less in carbon emissions compared to conventional polymers. During the crop phase they act as a carbon sink, reducing life cycle carbon emissions by as much as 60 percent. Like all plants, as crops grow they absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Some brands are also taking steps to ensure that their feedstocks are more fully sustainable. Gap, ASOS, Arcadia and H&M are among those signed up to Fashion Loved by Forest, a programme run by not-for-profit environmental group Canopy that commits companies to sourcing fabrics that do not contribute to deforestation. For fans of the new alternatives to traditional leathers, meanwhile, the main appeal is clear: often described as ‘vegan leather’, they feature no animal products.

Are Alternatives Always the Answer?

It’s easy to understand this mounting desire from both brands and consumers to see fashion reduce its environmental impacts. Every year the industry produces an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste and is responsible for 20 percent of the wastewater produced worldwide and ten percent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. Biobased materials offer a way to start addressing these huge challenges.

But it’s worth noting that some of fashion’s best loved fabrics, like cotton, silk and wool, have always been ‘biobased’. The fact that the industry is looking for alternatives is a sign that the sustainability impact from biobased materials may not be quite as straightforward as it appears. The reason is that sustainability is about looking in detail at every stage of a product’s life cycle, from raw materials to manufacturing, transport, use and disposal.

When it comes to raw materials, although biobased fabrics can be made from sustainably sourced feedstocks or the waste from other industries – like orange peel or pineapple leaves – they can also be made from specially planted crops. These might be seeded on land that could otherwise be used to produce food for the world’s growing population. Where the crops are grown and how they are transported can also have a significant impact on how sustainable they are. Plus, agriculture doesn’t always have the best record on sustainability, relying on high inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and potentially sucking in large amounts of water and releasing pollution to both the soil and watercourses.

Manufacturing the raw materials into finished biobased materials can also be less benign than consumers might think. Complex chemical processing is sometimes required. Even when the biobased fibre is ready, it’s often blended with other fibres to produce the finished fabric. These may themselves be the product of complex manufacturing that falls short on sustainability.

With the raw materials sourced and the finished biobased materials manufactured, they are ready to be turned into new dresses, handbags, shoes and other apparel and sold to consumers. But for sustainability, a key concern is what happens to these products when they reach the other end of their life cycle – in everyday terms, when people are ready to throw them away.

Consumers could be forgiven for thinking that because biobased materials start with things like vegetable oil or mushrooms, they should be easier to dispose of than traditional fabrics. Just chuck them in the compost bin, right? Sadly, it’s not so easy. PLA, for example, is a type of biobased polyester made from corn starch that only biodegrades when exposed to high humidity and temperatures over 60 degrees. Many other biobased fabrics are mixed with non-compostable elements like plastics during manufacturing. The upshot is that many biobased materials are currently difficult to compost using existing waste management services.

Maybe they are at least easy to recycle? Unfortunately, the chemicals and constituents that are often added to biobased materials mean recycling them is rarely straightforward. So far, experts have little experience of working with these materials and products to determine their impact on the environment.

Even materials that may be theoretically recyclable may not be recycled in practice. In many cases, biobased materials have not reached ‘critical mass’ to trigger a change in how we collect and manage them as waste products.

Not as Simple as it Seems

Biobased materials turn out to be complicated. The industry needs to communicate very clearly to people where the material comes from, how much biobased matter is included, and that recycling them can be challenging.

In fact, it may turn out that other options are more sustainable than biobased materials. One alternative is fabrics that contain fibres made from recycled plastics, like PET bottles or packaging. These have the advantage that the recycling systems and expertise they need is better developed. That’s why brands like The North Face, Vaude, Stella McCartney and H&M are pursuing both biobased and recycled materials, hoping to source sufficient materials to make an impact and learning alongside consumers which path might turn out best for fashion.

So while there are definitely some plus points to biobased materials the story is not as simple as it might seem.

And that’s really the point. The environmental challenges facing an industry as big and fast moving as fashion are bound to be significant. The answers are multiple and complicated. But new ideas, coupled with detailed analysis and understanding, can move us forward towards a more sustainable future.

Even if biobased materials are not on their own the answer to making fashion sustainable, they signal a growing willingness from some of fashion’s biggest brands to make major investments in tacking the challenges of sustainability.

This article first appeared in Apparel Insider, July 2019.

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