Photograph by Ryan Molnar / Connected Archives
Words by Sophie Benson
A new wave of innovative materials is emerging to tackle the many issues associated with fashion’s lengthy supply chains, including its dependency on coal and oil. Can they live up to their promises?
This story was published as part of a wider series that delves deep into the fast-developing world of material solutions. Discover more from Fabricating Change here.
On a recent visit to Ganni’s flagship store in Copenhagen, I encountered a tailored jacket made from Celium, a material by Polybion grown from agro-industrial fruit waste. Yellow-ish in tone with a green patina and earthy “veins,” it was malleable, almost sticky to the touch. Next to the Celium jacket was a selection of purses, decorated with graffiti-like branding, made from Bolt Thread’s mycelium-based material, Mylo.
Positioned front and centre in the store, the products showed Ganni’s commitment to investing in material innovation. The Danish brand sits within a growing cohort of fashion brands and groups, including Stella McCartney, Adidas, H&M, Hermès, Kering, and Balenciaga, all turning to next-gen materials in the quest to build a healthier fashion system.
The spinning of fiber, the weaving of cloth, and the sewing of garments are all central links in the fashion supply chain, but so too are fossil fuel extraction, chemical production, and industrial agriculture, and they’re causing the industry’s impacts to balloon.
Virgin fossil-based synthetic fibres continue to increase in volume, growing from 60 million tonnes in 2020 to 63 million tonnes in 2021. As a result, fashion accounts for approximately 1.35% of global oil consumption. Monocultures for tree- and shrub-based fibres (think viscose, cotton) can lead to deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, and soil degradation, and intensive cultivation can rely upon excessive water use and high chemical inputs. Animal agriculture, meanwhile, is known for its significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the leather industry has been put under the spotlight for contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon as trees are cleared to make way for cattle.
With brands clamouring to find ways to reduce their impact in the face of consumer, shareholder, and legislative scrutiny, next-gen materials like those on display in Ganni are coming to the fore as potential solutions to fashion’s manifold problems.
Phasing Out Oil and Coal
“Biomaterials offer a more sustainable alternative by reducing carbon and water footprints, minimising waste, and contributing to a circular fashion economy,” says Jennie Rosén, CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council, which organizes Ekman’s Challenge the Fabric conference, an event focused on promoting and innovating man-made cellulosic fibres. (For context: widely-known man-made cellulosic fibres, or MMCFs, include viscose and lyocell and they are often, but not always, derived from wood pulp). “They can significantly reduce the industry’s reliance on synthetic materials and fibres such as polyester. It may not be an immediate full replacement, [but] with ongoing research and investment, biomaterials have the potential to gradually replace these problematic materials.”
Marvin Strüfing, sales director of renewable glycols at UPM Biochemicals is a little less diplomatic. “There is no mercy for any brand out there using fossil [fuel-based] polyester anymore,” he says. From the end of this year the company will produce, at scale, a bioglycol that can be used to make polyester. The “bio” refers to the fact that it is made from residues of the forest industry, generally trees from FSC and PEFC certified forests which have been thinned during the growing process and were destined to be burned. While biochemicals derived from the likes of sugarcane and sugar beet already exist, Strüfing says they pose their own problems in that they create competition for food production. UPM’s wood-based method, he says, not only reduces reliance on fossil fuels but eliminates food chain competition and negates the need for fertilisers and pesticides.
The product is what those in the industry would call a drop-in solution: it can be manufactured using the same equipment and it performs identically to the fibre it’s replacing. But the issue with a polyester replacement that acts exactly like polyester—physically and chemically—is that polyester is a blight on our environment, often exported to countries that have little or no infrastructure to recycle or reuse it.
“There is no mercy for any brand out there using fossil fuel-based polyester anymore.”
So why make it at all? For Dr Kate Riley, fiber and materials strategy lead of synthetics at non-profit Textile Exchange, it’s about moving away from oil- and coal-derived inputs. “Our primary driver here is to meet climate plus goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030. Bio-based synthetics are an important step within that journey,” she says. According to the organisation’s 2022 Preferred Fibre and Materials Market Report, synthetic fibres represented 64% of all global fibre production in 2021 and polyester alone had a market share of 54%. Because of that monstrous market share, Textile Exchange has a goal of eliminating fossil fuel inputs for synthetics by 2030.
Clothing manufacturing giant MAS Holdings hopes to expedite that move by investing in HeiQ AeoniQ, “the world’s first climate-positive cellulosic yarn,” which is an alternative to polyester and nylon and, in the right conditions, biodegrades in 12 weeks. MAS has agreed to a five-year agreement, which will see it purchasing 5,000 tonnes of the yarn annually by 2026. It’s a big step—but to put that into context, around 61 million tonnes of polyester fibers are currently produced each year.
UPM is betting big on bioglycol too, investing €750 million in its biorefinery, which will be able to produce 90,000 metric tonnes of various glycols annually. And this could theoretically create up to 300,000 metric tonnes of what Strüfing calls “partial polyester.” The definition is important. A fiber made with UPM’s bioglycol would still contain around 30% to 40% conventional polyester and while that could be from a recycled source it still relies upon the availability of non-bio feedstocks.
Building Circular Systems
The need to mix innovative new fibres and materials with problematic synthetic ones is an issue that plagues the next-gen materials landscape.
Celium, for instance, requires a polyurethane coating for durability, plus a backing that could either be synthetic or bio-based. Mylo, too, needs a polyurethane finish, while other famed biomaterials such as Piñatex, made from pineapple leaf waste, and Desserto, made from cactus, also require plastic in the form of coatings, finishings, or blends.
The addition of plastic doesn’t necessarily negate all the benefits provided by these materials. Celium is grown by feeding bacteria with fruit waste, which would emit methane if sent to landfill, and the company’s Life Cycle Assessment showed the material to have lower Global Warming Potential than bovine leather (although this does not take disposal into consideration and was based upon a theoretical scale). Equally, mycelium—both the root system of mushrooms that provides one of the world’s largest carbon sinks and the material—is abundant, fast growing, and customisable, offering an alternative to animal leathers and 100% plastic “vegan” leathers. This, in turn, reduces the fashion industry’s reliance on oil and fracked gas.
But the need for supplementary synthetics remains a stumbling block that must be overcome—and one company trying to do just that is Natural Fiber Welding. “What makes NFW unique is that we actually know that one biomaterial would never be good enough,” says Luke Haverhals, founder and CEO of the company “NFW are really the only people out there assembling materials from an abundant plethora of other bio ingredients.”
“We don’t have the perfect solution in any area of materials, but it’s about learning what we have and using the right thing in the right place.”
In taking a pick and mix approach, NFW can pick its raw ingredients according to the properties it wants its materials to provide. These finely tuned materials, which include a leather alternative and a natural foam, are 100% plastic-free, meaning they return safely to nature as nutrients if dumped. Haverhals concedes that brands using the materials may add synthetic elements to their final product—a possibility beyond NFW’s control—but it also is possible to make an entirely plastic-free product.
While NFW wants its materials to return safely back to nature, Spinnova wants to feed its material back into the manufacturing cycle. The company’s MMCF is primarily made from wood pulp, but unlike other MMCFs the production process for Spinnova is mechanical, therefore avoiding the use of often toxic chemicals. Making Spinnova involves grinding the pulp, turning it into a paste, and extruding it through nozzles to create fine, thread-like fibres, which can then be spun into a yarn. Of the water used in the process, 99.5% is reused, and any excess heat created is sent to a local district heating network.
Bolstering the low impact nature of Spinnova in terms of water, chemicals, and emissions, is the fact that it can be recycled over and over without losing any quality. “The reason is that we will again go to the paste level. Typically, if it’s, say, a cotton fibre, the recycled fibre is not as good because the length gets shorter,” says Chief Sustainability Officer Shahriare Mahmood. “But in the case of Spinnova, we don’t depend on fiber lengths, we go back to the micro level.”
Like UPM, Spinnova is scaling. Alongside pulp producer Suzano, the company has launched Woodspin, a plant which aims to produce a thousand tons of Spinnova fiber each year. Getting more Spinnova out into the market will be the key to unlocking, and proving, the fiber’s much-touted recyclability. Mahmood notes there will need to be much more Spinnova in the system to recapture and play with, and much more R&D under the company’s belt to establish a circularity precedent.
A Long Road Ahead
But while some are scaling, others are struggling. A 2022 report revealed that investments in next gen materials designed to replace animal products in fashion fell by more than 50% last year, and Bolt Threads announced a cease of production of Mylo in July 2023 due to failing to secure necessary funding.
Much like any system change, the path for the development, scaling, and adoption of biomaterials is paved with obstacles and a single, perfect solution simply doesn’t exist. Although there are headlines galore about these materials, their market share is relatively tiny, so the onus is on brands with spending power to splash some cash and support promising new biomaterials while simultaneously working to roll back over production and instigate end-of-life solutions.
“We don’t have the perfect solution in any area of materials,” says Riley. “but it’s about learning what we have and using the right thing in the right place.”
September 13, 2023 1:20 pm
This article was edited to state that Woodspin can produce a thousand tons of Spinnova fiber each year, not a million.