Green is the New Black: Biodegradable Fashion
In 2017, the Global Fashion Agenda, a global leadership forum focused on fashion sustainability, published its Pulse of the Fashion Industry, scoring the fashion industry with a low 32 (out of 100) with supply chain value scoring an even lower 22.
According to the report, “The raw materials stage has a disproportionately large impact on sustainability, partly because of the effect it has on recyclability.”
A Call to Action for Circular Fashion (i.e. better sustainability practices with reduce, reuse, recycle at its core) was issued and global fashion brands (such as Adidas, ASOS, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Marks & Spencer, Target, and VF Corporation) were quick to sign up.
The pressure is on for the Fashion Industry to solve its green challenges.
Are Bioplastics Our Salvation?
“Imagine 3D printed jewelry created at the beginning of summer that dissolves when you go for a swim in salt water at the end of the season” mused Manufacture NY’s CEO and Founder Bob Bland at the 2016 Product Innovation Apparel Conference in NYC, NY, USA.
But does instantly biodegradable fast fashion really exist?
In a word, no.
Yes, the 3D printing industry is hailed for its lack of waste. But most of the filaments used to create 3D printed product are manmade, i.e. plastic. And these do not easily biodegrade. Like plastic bags and bottles, these items can take anywhere from 10-450 years to decompose.
“The future of bioplastics lies in demonstrating that plant-based materials can outperform their traditional, oil-based counterparts,” explains Sally Morley, Sales Director at Biome Bioplastics.
Any natural fiber decomposes faster than man made, explains Till Boldt, Managing Director of ENKA Group, a manufacturer of viscose.
“In general, biodegradability depends on environmental conditions such as climate (temperature, oxygen, humidity, and light), microbial activity and diversity—and, of course, on the condition of the degrading material itself, be it compact or crushed,” he says.
Wool and silk, which are protein-based and which contain fibrin (silk) or keratin (wool), are more resistant to environmental conditions in general and degrade at a slower pace. Due to the content of fibrin, silk degrades a bit faster, while wool is more on the same side as human hair—degradation time is a couple of years, Bolt said.
As viscose is 100% cellulose, and like an apple core, newspaper, or paper tissue, it degrades within a couple of months.
Mixed Messages about Fiber Blends
Mixed fibers are one of the industry’s challenges to recycling and biodegradability—separating the fibers is required for recycling and biodegrading.
“Consumers are understanding more about fibers and garment end of life,” says Christina Dean, Founder and Board Chair of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry.
“We aren’t going to get away from mixed fibers overnight, and some will remain because of performance,” Dean says. She believes research into chemical technology will make the impact here.
Worn Again, an innovation company, in partnership with H&M and Kering, is developing a chemical textile to textile recycling technology that will enable end of use clothes and textiles to be collected, processed, and made back into new yarn, textiles, and clothes again creating a ‘circular resource model’ for textiles.
Food, Glorious Food
At last year’s 44th International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) received a gold medal with jury’s commendation for the conversion of food waste into polylactic acid fiber (PLA) using a fermentation process to yield lactic acid that is then polymerized and spun into fiber. PLA is biodegradable, with final textile products degrading to H20 and CO2 after useful life.
To address the more than 700,000 tons of citrus waste are produced each year and create a circular raw material loop, Orange Fiber, a portfolio company of Fashion Tech Lab Ventures, have developed a cellulose yarn they make into twill, poplin, and jersey fabrics. In collaboration with Italian print designer Mario Trimarchi, Ferragamo produced a capsule collection for SS17 using the fabrics.
Seven years of R&D have resulted in Piñatex, a natural and sustainable leather substitute made from pineapple leaf fibers, a by-product from the pineapple harvest. The waste from fiber extraction goes back to the farmers as compost, making this a fully circular raw material process.
“The pineapple is the second most popular fruit in the world, but the majority of the harvest is wasted,” explains Carmen Hijosa, founder and CEO of Ananas Anam, last year’s recipient of the UK Arts Foundation Award for Material Innovation.
Associate Professor of Apparel, Merchandising, and Design, Young-A Lee is developing another leather substitute from the Kombucha mushroom at Iowa State University. She aims to use industry waste from the manufacture of Kombucha tea.
“It’s very sensitive to weather conditions because it tries to absorb water from the environment,” explains Lee. “We’re trying to reduce the water absorbency and increase the strength of the material so that it is similar to leather, to make it more viable to the market.”
Lessons from The Caveman
Man has been using another leather substitute for at least 5000 years—the amadou mushroom, explains the 2016 Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion recipient Irene-Marie Seelig. “Otis the Iceman was carrying 3-4 pieces of this material that when hulled out can be used to haul fire for several days,” she says.
Seelig’s work has resulted in the creation of a suede-like leather substitute for footwear and accessories. The product is not yet commercially available, as research to improve durability and harvest responsibly are still underway.
“Yak have been on this planet for 10,000 years!” exclaims Nancy Johnson, founder of Tengri, a design house that specializes in products made from Mongolian yak fibers—soft as cashmere, warmer than merino wool, breathable, hypoallergenic, and water-and-odor-resistant.
“Yak is indigenous and unadulterated and supports the livelihoods of people who live the most sustainable form of living…nomads,” she says.
“I think the industry is still looking at this in the wrong way,” Johnson says. “Instead of seeking ways to make fast fashion biodegrade more quickly, we should be looking at educating consumers to buy for life.”