Ethical Fashion News

Technology is Key to Driving Sustainability in Fashion

technology drives sustainability in fashion

Are you aware of the tremendous negative environmental impact of the fashion industry?

“The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil. It is a really nasty business,” Eileen Fisher, clothing industry magnate and environmental award recipient declared.1

Indeed, the glamorous world of fashion is a major contributor to environmental degradation. This comes off as a grim surprise to a lot of people who often picture the dirty world of coal power plants, mining and sewage as the major causes of climate change. This is because consumers haven’t really looked beyond how clothes come into being.

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Beth Greer, bestselling author and environmental health advocate, puts it into perspective. A single cotton t-shirt “takes almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow one pound of raw cotton; and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt. During the conversion of cotton into conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the product, including heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, phthalates and formaldehyde, just to name a few. These harmful chemicals pollute the air, water, soil and get into the fabrics we put next to our skin everyday.”2 Of course this is just for one t-shirt and does not take into account a person’s normal everyday wear such as jeans, jackets, shoes, underwear and what-have-you.

Fortunately, there is an ongoing revolution in the fashion industry to move into ethical and sustainable fashion. Recent technological innovations present alternatives that lower the carbon footprint of the industry and green lights its sustainable future.

Here is a round up of the technological advancements making the fashion industry more sustainable.

Pineapples are set to save the world

Yep, you got it right. Pineapple textile or Piñatex™(piña is Spanish for pineapple), which is derived from pineapple leaves — is turning out to be a literal lifesaver for animals grown or hunted down for the production of leather. What’s more, it helps reduce wastes because pineapple leaves are considered as waste materials, usually left in the ground to rot or thrown away by farmers after harvesting the fruit.

pinatex-bags-and-picture-by-smith-matthias

SmithMatthias bags and picture, 2014, Source: SmithMatthias

Carmen Hijosa, a Spanish national, realized the potential of using pineapple fibres in the Philippines where she used to be a consultant for the leather industry. In the Philippines, it is usual for men to wear barong tagalog, a thin traditional garment made from pineapple fibres, during special occasions.3

Hijosa noted that with the proper treatment, pineapple fibres can closely resemble leather and can be used as its alternative for shoes, bags, chairs and sofas, depending on its thickness.

Currently, Piñatex™ has been used by Puma and Camper for their sneakers, Ally Capellini for bags and Smithmattias for a backpack and gadget cover.4

Cow poo — the new building block of high fashion?

This may seem like one of those ideas that make you scream “holy shit” from the high heavens, however, Jalila Essaidi, developer of the fabric called Mestic — which comes from the Dutch word ‘mest’ which means manure — proves that it is possible for cow poo to power up the fashion industry.

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Essaidi is based in Eindhoven, Netherlands known for its booming dairy industry. Unfortunately, this same industry has already “outstripped the so-called phosphate ceiling of 172.9 million kilograms per year”5 mandated by the European Union. This is dangerous because too much phosphate poses risks to human safety because of algae bloom threats, leads to unstable fish communities, disruptions in food web and energy flow, among others.

Fortunately, Essaidi’s research led her to “completely deconstruct manure and to utilize the cellulose derived from this for new biomaterial products”6 such as textiles, plastic and paper.

In June this year, Essaidi launched a fashion show featuring Mestic-derived fabric proving her claim that “manure is worth its weight in gold.”7

Fashion goes bananas

Banana fabric is another sustainable alternative. It comes from the stalk of the banana plant and has been used in Japan and Southeast Asia since the 13th century.8 The stalk is generally considered as a waste material, usually left on the ground to rot after a harvest.

Technology is Key to Driving Sustainability in Fashion

The beauty of the banana fabric lies in its luster, strength and durability. It has two types of fibres: coarse fibre coming from the outermost part of the banana stalk and fine fibre from the inner part of the stalk.

Depending on the fibre type, banana fabric can have different uses — Ecosalon reports that finer banana yarn is used for clothing, medium grade yarn is used for table cloths, curtains and cushion covers, while thicker, coarser yarn is used for basket weaving, floor mats and bags.9 In Japan, banana yarn has been used to produce beautiful and silky kimonos; in the Philippines, it has been used for producing traditional attire and in Nepal, it has been turned into silky-looking rugs.

The good thing about banana fabric is that it is generally considered to be carbon-neutral and requires only 37 kilograms of stems to produce a kilo of fibre. The Guardian reports that according to the Philippine Textile Research Institute, banana plantations in the Philippines alone can generate over 300,000 tonnes of fibre.10

Growing clothes is now possible

The latest technologies now allow the possibility of growing clothes — yup, no need for the usual sewing and cutting — through bio-fabrication. This process refers to growing fabric or material from bacteria and fungi, such as Mycelium, the vegetable part of mushrooms.11

mushroom-myocelium-fashion-technology-sustainability

Angela Hoitink, a Dutch fashion designer, was able to apply the process in growing a dress through the use of petri dishes and creating discs of mushroom roots that were then overlapped to form a fabric called MycoTEX. Another designer, Erin Smith, grew her own wedding dress from mycelium and tree mulch. Still another designer, Suzanne Lee, works with Bioculture in using the bio-fabrication technology to sportswear and luxury products.

While there are great possibilities for the bio-fabrication technology, it can be quite time consuming and labor-intensive. But who knows how this technology can be improved in the years to come.

Kombucha tea couture

A bit similar to the use of fungi for growing clothing is growing cellulose material through a fermentation method using a simple sweet tea solution combined with bacteria and yeast to brew Kombucha.12 Originally, Kombucha is known as a health drink.

 

The Kombucha fabric is being developed by Lee with Bioculture and is known for its tensile strength or the strengthened ability to withstand breakage.

According to Dean Brough, Australia’s Queensland University of Technology’s head of studies, kombucha is the ultimate in sustainable couture and has great potential. “In principle you could actually make a garment out of Kombucha fabric, put it in a blender, reblend it and make another garment because it’s just a cellulose fabric,”13 Brough said.

kombucha-tea-fabric-fashion-technology-sustainability-innovation

These are but a few of the new sustainable solutions being looked into in the fashion industry. It is worth noting that key players in the fashion industry have rallied together in the Copenhagen Fashion Summit held May 2016 this year to ensure sustainability through responsible innovation, sharing new solutions and new business models in the midst of climate change challenges.

However, while new technologies are welcome, it is also alarming to note that there are new ways of doing things — such as the invention of a robotic sewing machine by SoftWear Automation, a textile-equipment manufacturer based in Atlanta in the United States — that spells trouble for hundreds if not thousands of workers in developing countries.

Show 13 footnotes

  1. EcoWatch. (17 August 2015.) “Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil.” http://www.ecowatch.com/fast-fashion-is-the-second-dirtiest-industry-in-the-world-next-to-big–1882083445.html

  2. Greer, Beth. (01 July 2013, updated 31 Aug. 2013). “The Truth About the Clothes We Wear: How Fashion Impacts Health and the Environment.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beth-greer/fashion-environment_b_3527049.html

  3. Hickey, Shane. (21 December 2014). “Wearable pineapple fibres could prove sustainable alternative to leather.” https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/dec/21/wearable-pineapple-leather-alternative.

  4. ibid.

  5.  Chua, Jasmine Malik. (26 July 2016). “Dutch Designer Turns Cow Manure Into Clothing (It’s Not as Gross as You Might Think)”. http://www.ecouterre.com/dutch-designer-turns-cow-manure-into-clothing/.
  6.  Essaidi, Jalila. “Mestic®: Revolutionary bioplastic manufactured from manure.” https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0B2wj3geDipp8X0NJYUszSUREcGs
  7.  Chua, Jasmine Malik. (26 July 2016). “Dutch Designer Turns Cow Manure Into Clothing (It’s Not as Gross as You Might Think)”. http://www.ecouterre.com/dutch-designer-turns-cow-manure-into-clothing/.
  8.  Bucci, Jessica. (08 December 2013). “Textile Spotlight: Banana Fabric.” https://startupfashion.com/banana-fabric/.
  9.  Oijala, Leena. (9 March 2013). “Fiber Watch: Fabric from Bananas?” http://ecosalon.com/fiber-watch-fabric-from-bananas/
  10. McEachran, Rich. (3 Marc 2015). “Forget about cotton, we could be making textiles from banana and pineapple.” https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2015/mar/03/wearable-pineapple-banana-fruit-fashion-material.

  11. Ross, Charlie. (24 August 2016). “Fabric Made From Fungi.” http://theswatchbook.offsetwarehouse.com/2016/08/24/fabric-made-fungi/.

  12. Fashioning Circuits. (18 March 2014). “Sustainable Fashion: Kombucha as Couture.” http://fashioningcircuits.com/?p=2127.

  13.  Small, Stephanie. (01 August 2016). “Kombucha clothing: Scientists, designers work to make fermented tea into a textile.” http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-31/kombucha-tea-scientists-designer-work-to-make-clothing-textile/7674892.

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About the author

Polly Michelle Cunanan

Polly Michelle Cunanan

Polly Michelle Cunanan is a results-driven media and communication expert with over 15 years of experience and proven track record in working with the Philippine Government and donor agencies such as the USAID, World Bank, UN-FAO, ADB, European Union (EU) and media. Political and strategic communication, messaging and campaigns are among her expertise. She spearheaded the communication program on the Bangsamoro peace process which led to a conducive environment for the signing of the historic Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. She is a graduate of BA Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines and has completed the academic requirements for MA Communication Research from the same university. She is a UK Chevening scholar currently studying MA International Public Relations and Global Communications Management at Cardiff University.

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