Do you wonder where your clothes come from? The material they’re made of and how they are produced? Most of us don’t, but if we did, we might get a bit uneasy. Luckily, research is helping the fashion industry take the lead in embracing the circular economy.
If you take an inventory of your closet, chances are you’ll have several garments made at least partly of polyester and nylon. These two low-cost textiles are staples of fast-fashion and currently make up about 60% of clothing and 70% of household textiles.
Polyester and nylon are synthetic fossil fuel-based fibres, meaning they are derived from oil and natural gas. The production of these fibres, their dominant position in the fashion industry, and the fact that they are not biodegradable, means that they have a huge impact on our environment. They also contain harmful microplastics that make their way into every conceivable corner of our land, oceans and waterways.
As a natural fibre, cotton is more easily recycled and requires fewer fossil fuels for its production compared to nylon, for example. However, the cotton industry demands mass land areas for cultivation; worldwide, cotton crops are sprayed with the most chemicals; and, finally, growing cotton requires vast amounts of water
Where does this leave us?
Fewer toxic chemicals in ‘natural’ textile production, please
Bio-based textiles are emerging as a solution. There is a wealth of innovation in this area, with new – and old – technologies turning waste and residues of other industries into sustainable, biodegradable materials that are kinder on our planet.
Viscose and lyocell (cheaper, more durable alternatives to silk) are both produced from wood and touted as more sustainable alternatives to natural cotton and synthetic polyester. They are man-made, semi-synthetic fibres: while they have a natural base and require much less land cultivation and water than cotton, heavy processing and solvents are needed to turn them into wearable textiles.
Stina Grönqvist, research team leader at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, is a specialist in bio-based materials, and she is not impressed by today’s viscose and lyocell production methods. ‘At the moment, the raw material base is limited, the solvents used, and required chemicals are not safe or environmentally friendly, and the production value chain, especially finishing treatments of the textile fibres, causes extensive freshwater pollution.’
For example, in the production of viscose, the wood pulp is treated with chemicals, a solvent is applied, and the resulting wood-pulp is spun into a fine thread. This highly polluting process releases many toxic chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding production plants.
Production of lyocell is similar, but uses a direct solvent, N-methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO), that does not require the chemical modification step needed for viscose. While lyocell production is considered less harmful on the environment than viscose, NMMO is explosive and highly unstable, limiting its applicability.
The GRETE project, coordinated by VTT, is developing new non-toxic and recyclable solvents that will boost the safety and sustainability of making textiles from wood. This new technology will remove many of the current risks to both human health and the environment embedded in current manufacturing processes, and also open the door for producing high-quality textile fibres from a much broader range of sustainable raw materials like paper grade pulp, recycled paper and textiles.
‘The use of paper grade pulp instead of dissolving pulp would be an environmental and economic benefit because it is a less processed raw material,’ explained Grönqvist. The project is also developing fibres with completely new properties that can reduce the amount of water used in the production cycle.
Mushrooms are coming to a closet near you
While the innovative technology Grönqvist is working on is still in its infancy, she hopes similar solutions will be upscaled and embraced by the fashion industry, so that more sustainable textiles will become price competitive with synthetic, fossil fuel-based fibres.
Bringing about change in an industry as massive as fashion is no easy feat, though. ‘We don’t realise that the clothes and textiles we are using have been developed in decades of incremental technological steps,’ said Gianluca Belotti, head of innovation at Mogu S.r.l. Years of industrial innovation have made us capable of producing clothes ‘in crazy amounts with very minimal production time, very efficiently, and at a really low-cost. So, switching to a new paradigm is quite a challenge’.
It’s a challenge that Belotti is taking on by focusing on a relatively new natural material that can be added to the growing global arsenal of sustainable, biobased textiles: mycelium.
Mycelium is the vegetative stage of mushrooms, the pre-mushroom stage, if you will. Belotti is currently coordinating the My-Fi project, which is developing and scaling up a new way of producing mycelium-based materials. Taking agro-industrial residues as their starting point, the mycelium fibres are produced with Mogu’s proprietary technology that generates minimum carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, requires very limited energy input, and recycles the water used in the process.
This technology also has the potential to simplify the complex, globalised supply chain of the fashion industry. ‘When you can use residues of local industry and create a local manufacturing plant that can grow your raw material, that you then can process and sell nearby, this simplifies the logistics of the textile industry a lot,’ said Belotti. ‘You can even gather many steps of the value chain in one single manufacturing plant, and make sure that everything is produced according to the best practices of the day.’
The environmental benefits of mycelium fibres are hard to overlook, and several leading fashion brands have already started using it as a leather alternative. Belotti believes that the fashion industry is indeed ready for change and ‘craving new sustainable solutions that are viable in the market’. A key aim of the My-Fi project is therefore to solve some of the current limitations of working with mycelium and spur the market uptake of this sustainable and versatile bio-based textile.
Innovation is vital in bringing about fundamental change in how fashion brands and consumers think about textiles. Yet, in our ambitions to revolutionise the industry and mitigate its impact on our environment, we should also look at practices used for thousands of years before the advent of modern innovative technology.
So, how about a fish skin handbag?
According to Ayelet Karmon, coordinator of the FISHSkin project, there is evidence that for 6,000 years, people have been using fish skins for clothing.
Fish skin offers several significant advantages: the tanning process is shorter and requires far fewer chemicals and less energy than for leathers from cow hides, for example. And although the skin is extremely thin, it is actually very strong.
All these properties make fish skin a very attractive material for the fashion industry, bringing the sustainability and circularity to the sector that consumers increasingly want.
Fish skin is also a resource we have – and will continue having – in high abundance: Karmon notes that the production of fish has steadily grown over the last decade and is expected to continue rising. Assuming that fish skins are a residue of marine aquaculture, acquiring them does not require fresh water, almost no land is used, and it leaves a markedly lower carbon footprint compared to other forms of agriculture.
‘More than 50% of the total fish capture remaining material is not used as food, resulting in almost 32 million tonnes of waste. A substantial amount of this waste is the skin of the fish,’ explained Karmon.
Combining the expertise of fashion designers, industrial designers, material scientists and aquaculture scientists, as well as companies directly connected to the market, the FISHSkin aims to advance the uptake of fish skin by the fashion industry.
Karmon believes we need to completely rewire our idea of how textiles are sourced and produced: ‘I see no reason to grow something specifically for the fashion industry, and I wish all our raw material would be used beforehand for some other purpose, and only afterwards for fashion. By the end of their life, all materials, if processed correctly, should be biodegradable or available for further manipulation for future uses.’
This is the circular economy in a nutshell, and in line with the idea of giving back to the planet more than we take, as outlined in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan.
As the textiles industry is the fourth highest user of primary raw materials and water in the EU, it is a key area for innovation, and one with broad consumer appeal.
So, the next time you buy a shirt or bag, try checking the label to see what it’s made of. While we still have a way to go before fish skin handbags and mushroom shirts are widely available, it’s never too early to start changing our mindset about where our products come from, and the impact they have on planetary and human health.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.