At UOF we are committed to the promotion and education of all things related to designing fashion sustainability. Our Zero Waste series, our lessons by Noor Bchara of Upcycle Design School and our upcoming interview series where working sustainable designers talk about how they started their brand, are all part of our commitment to designing with purpose.
As consumers continue to look for more sustainable alternatives to synthetics and animal-based materials, new ‘breeds’ of fabrics continue to make a mark on the industry. This blog post is part of our series on sustainable practices and how textile innovations are providing great alternatives for designers to make a difference in helping save the planet, one thread at a time.
In a report entitled Brand Engagement with Next-Gen Materials: 2022 Landscape released by the Material Innovation Initiative (MII), they covered the most significant and progressive materials that are making a mark on the fashion industry today.
Branded as ‘Next Generation’ or Next-Gen, the products highlighted in the report offer replacements for animal-based materials such as leather, silk, wool, down (bird), and fur. Technical innovations in next-gen materials are not only present in the fashion industry, but also in automotive and home goods. In this blogpost we will cover leather and silk alternatives. Stay tuned for our coverage of other Next-Gen materials.
Frequently, producing Next-Gen materials utilize various biomimicry techniques to replicate animal-based textiles, which are then implemented into the supply chain of various industries. Next-Gen methods have risen in popularity due to consumer demand and the need for sustainably-sourced materials, with investors reportedly jumping on the trend in order to secure their place in this fast-growing industry.
In the State of the Industry report, published by the MII, interest in next generation materials is steadily growing. Fifty-five new next generation firms were formed since 2014, increasing the number of operating companies in the sector to 95. By 2015, investments in this sector rose to over $2.3 billion and the number of Next-Gen material producers rose to a total of 187 unique investors. All very encouraging news, right?
Genuine leather has long epitomized luxury in the fashion world, however a major shift has taken place with growing awareness about the cruelty of mass livestock-rearing, the number of resources consumed, carbon emitted and the slew of chemicals used in it’s production, such as formaldehyde, cyanide and chromium during the tanning and dyeing processes, which can be hazardous to both people and the environment. According to a poll by market research company Morning Consult, “more than a third of people in the UK and 23 per cent of people in the US think that leather is an inappropriate material to use in clothing.”
There are now over 67 companies working on alternative versions of the material. Some of the pioneers of genuine non-leather are Piñatex by Ananas Anam (made from pineapples), Tômtex by Uyen Tran (made from waste coffee grounds and discarded seafood shells), Palm leather by Tjeerd Veenhoven (from the leaves of the areca palm), Desserto’s Cactus Leather, the latest innovation in sustainable fashion, is a vegan leather made from the leaves of nopal cactus – a plant that grows abundantly in Mexico, without even needing any water (seems like a great option for those of us constantly killing our plants).
Bio-leather by Shahar Livne (from discarded animal fat and bones), Beyond Leather (Leap™ from upcycled apple waste) and Mylo by Bolt Threads, (created from mycelium, the branching filament structure that mushrooms and other fungi use to grow. The material reportedly consumes substantially less water than is needed to produce animal leather while emitting fewer greenhouse gases). In fact, Adidas, Stella McCartney Lululemon and Gucci’s parent company have all teamed up and invested in Mylo.
Cruelty-Free Silk Altermatives
For thousands of years silk, like leather, has been associated with luxury. Although silk is biodegradable, the process of creating silk involves boiling the silkworm alive to save the integrity of the silk. Finding this to be cruel, various designers to find alternative ways of making silk.
Did you know that those spider webs in your home are five times stronger than steel and more elastic than rubber bands? Bolt Threads makes a fabric molecularly equal to natural spider silk (since spider silk is not yet widely available) made from yeast, water, and sugar. The resulting raw, purely vegan silk is produced through fermentation, much like brewing beer, except instead of the yeast turning the sugar into alcohol, they turn it into the raw stuff of spider silk. Bolt Threads recently reported partnerships with the eco friendly outdoor brands Patagonia and The North Face.
Lotus silk is another silk alternative and made from the stems of lotus flowers. Although it eliminates the torture of silk worms, creating Lotus Silk is a highly laborious process, with some 6,500 lotus stems required to make a single length of hand woven fabric. Art silk is another silk-alternative, made from bamboo fibers that are crushed then combed and spun into yarn with a lecture more like raw silk. Ramie is another silk alternative that comes from a flowering plant in the nettle family. Orange silk, made from discarded husks of oranges squeezed from the juicing industry. Called Orange Fiber Fabric, the material made its high fashion debut with Salvatore Ferragamo. And also in the Orange Fibre x H&M Conscious Collection, which launched worldwide in 2019.
Meanwhile, Next-Gen silk now has a total of 12 producers, wool and fur have seven, down materials have six, and exotic skins have one. In 2021, MII reported that 980 million dollars was raised in total, double the amount that was invested in 2020. The organization said in its report that we can expect to see larger deals within the industry as companies continue to develop and provide proof of concept.
Today, a growing number of brands are starting to incorporate Next-Gen materials. A very good sign. The MII report reports that 38 out of 40 leading fashion companies are actively seeking textile alternatives, with a wide variety of fashion labels already counted among the organization’s “First Mover” list. Labels such as Ganni, Pangaia, Karl Lagerfeld, and Adidas are among the 150 highlighted by the MII for their already prominent work in the industry. These selected companies are projected to increase revenue “by exemplifying their positive effect on the environment and animals” according to MII.
Consumer demand is one of the most important considerations to implement these innovative materials into collections, with most consumers willing to pay more for products made from materials that align with their values. In addition, each individual Next-Gen material holds a 50 percent potential market share when compared to conventional materials, according to MII.
Regardless of revenue being an obvious factor, the environmental positives cannot go unnoticed when it comes to Next-Gen materials. As documented in the MII report, much of a brand’s environmental impact comes down to raw materials, leading many to turn to plant-based products instead. It also states that independently certified materials from trusted companies can guarantee both environmental and ethical qualities of the product at hand. In fact, animal welfare has seen an increase in importance among consumers, making it MII’s third most prominent reason to utilize Next-Gen materials.
Investigations into supply chains have repeatedly uncovered troubling cases of animal cruelty within brands and many fashion companies have banned animal products altogether. As more guidelines and industry standards are put into place, fashion is starting to move towards a more animal-friendly future, in which consumers are increasingly demanding.
As the fashion industry becomes more sustainable-minded, there is also the risk of greenwashing (the practice of making misleading statements or claims about the sustainability of a product or a service). A recent exposé on fast-fashion retailer H&M in Forbes reported that “the company’s environmental promise is undermined by greenwashing. H&M was using a scorecard system to inform customers about the environmental soundness of each product, but a report by Quartz claims that more than half of the scorecards portrayed products as being better for the environment than they actually were. The report also found some instances in which H&M’s scorecards allegedly gave information about the sustainability of a product that was completely opposite from the truth.” Hopefully this will be a lesson to other brands who might try to fool customers with slick advertising and false claims.
Do you know of any other vegan leathers and silks we didn’t mention?