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10 Sustainable textile innovations everyone should know

By Simone Preuss


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Excessive water and chemical usage, overproduction and the inability to deal with overstock - the garment and textile industry, ever so anxious to be fashion forward, is far behind when it comes to processes and environmental consciousness. Yet, it is also the industry that astounds with groundbreaking innovations like resource-conserving alternatives to cotton and petroleum-based fibres like acrylic, polyester, nylon and spandex; fibres that self-heal, that can be broken down completely and that have a healing effect on the wearer and the environment.

Amazing, isn’t it? And in view of the world population growing and people demanding better and longer-lasting garments, all these innovations seems to be popping up just in time. In a series that started more than year ago, FashionUnited conducted research into some of the most innovative and accessible sustainable textile solutions and has put them together below for an easy overview.

Versatile cotton alternatives: hemp, lotus and nettles

It is no coincidence that we are starting our list with this dynamic trio as all three materials are champions in their own right. Take hemp, for example: It is a fast-growing plant that requires very little water and no herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. As an added bonus for the environment, the cultivation of hemp improves soil health by replenishing vital nutrients and preventing erosion. Hemp fabrics kill bacteria, making them naturally anti-microbial, have the best heat capacity ratio compared to all other fibres, merge easily with dyes and do not discolour easily. So, what’s not to love? Well, unfortunately, there is the association of the Cannabis sativa plant as a recreational drug, which has hampered the production and use of industrial hemp especially in the western world. But given that mainstream brands like Adidas, Quiksilver, Patagonia and others have added products made of hemp to their offer has helped popularise hemp as a garment fibre.

In countries like Thailand or Myanmar, lotus fibres have been used for rare fabrics for centuries as the time-consuming process produces a luxurious fabric that feels like a combination of silk and raw linen. Today, enterprising companies are re-discovering the material, for example for plain white formal shirts that are light-weight, soft, silky and extremely breathable and have a calm and peaceful, almost meditative effect on the wearer. Maybe offices should buy them in bulk and reap the benefits for their employees? Wearing a lotus shirt regularly is also said to heal headaches, heart ailments, asthma and lung issues.

Like lotus and hemp, stinging nettle fibres are extremely versatile and keep the wearer of nettle clothing cool in the summer and warm in winter. Unlike with hemp, there is no legal issue with the cultivation of nettles, which has made the plant a viable and legal cash crop. Plus, like hemp, nettles use much less water and pesticides to grow.

Leather alternatives that will make you go vegan: apples, pineapples and mushrooms

Leather is a messy product; not only referring to its production process but also the fact that animals are killed for their hides just to turn them into vanity products for humans. Thus, more and more consumers want to have no part in this brutal practice any longer and look for vegan alternatives. Given the stylish choices, this makes sense.

Take these fashionable handbags, for example, that look and feel like something between leather and faux leather that has even industry experts stumped. Yet, they are made out of apples, apple waste from juice production to be precise. The process is by now means simple but given the end result, completely worth it.

Even pineapples, their leaves to be precise, a by-product of the pineapple harvest, can be turned into a natural and non-woven textile known as Piñatex, which is remarkably similar to leather. The centuries-old tradition of making a leather-like substance out of mushrooms has been revived because mushroom leather is organic, gluten and chemical free and has a marbled, velvety surface. It also has highly absorbing, antibacterial and antiseptic properties, is light and has an insulating effect at the same time. What’s not to love?

Breakfast staples that make great textile fibres too: coffee and bananas

Coffee and bananas spell breakfast for many like few other ingredients. But did you know that they also make jaw-dropping sustainable textile alternatives? Coffee grounds can be turned into a yarn that offers excellent natural anti-odour qualities, UV ray protection and a 200 percent faster drying time than cotton. Needless to say that the multi-functional yarn can be used for a variety of products from outdoor and sports performance wear to household items used everyday.

Not to be outdone, people have been making fibres out of banana stems since the early 13th century. In Japan. Then, the practice declined as other fibres like cotton and silk from China and India became increasingly popular. But now banana fibre is making a comeback in the fashion industry and is used all over the world for multiple products ranging from tea bags to car tyres to saris and Japanese yen notes. And this is something not only minions get excited about.

Unusual but packing a punch: kapok, kelp and squid genes

Last but not least, we have three more textile alternatives that will make you want to know more. Take kapok for example, a natural cellulose fibre found in the dried fruit of the kapok tree and the most sustainable fibre in the market today. Combine this with numerous properties like being silky soft and dry to the touch, as well as antimoth, antimite and insulation properties comparable to down and one has a one hell of a useful, sustainable fibre.

Even kelp, seaweed or algae can be turned into a compostable yarn from the readily abundant biopolymer ‘alginate’ that can be formed into wearable textiles. Squid genes possess self-healing characteristics that can be extracted as thermoplastic fibres in an eco-friendly and low-cost process. The resulting fabric is biodegradable and 100 percent recyclable. And no need to worry about microfibres shredding off in the wash as the material also acts as a glue, thus reducing plastic pollution in the oceans.

Careful readers will have noticed that these were actually eleven amazing sustainable textile innovations and the list claims to be by no means exhaustive. The great news is that there are more incredible materials out there that are being discovered as sustainable textile alternatives as we speak. So keep your eyes open and stay tuned for more to come.

Photos: Coffee - Singtex Industrial CO. LTD.; lotus - Samatoa Lotus Textiles website; nettles - Gesine Jost collection via Gesine Jost website; apples - happy genie; pineapples - Piñatex; kapok - Flocus Facebook; squid - Tandem Repeat website
Sustainable Textile Innovations