Innovative fabrics might be the future of the fashion industry, and startups play a key role in this landscape. But before diving into the solutions, let’s understand the problems: the production and trade of textiles generates over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, releases 35% of all microplastics into the environment, and consumes a tremendous quantity of water.
These figures not only demonstrate the outsized environmental impact of the fashion industry, but also guide the revolutionary research on emerging solutions.
In this article, we will discuss the most significant environmental consequences related to the textile industry, while exploring the future-thinking solutions that startups in the innovative fabrics landscape are pioneering to diminish them.
Greenhouse gas is heavily emitted throughout the manufacturing, dying, and selling of the most common fabrics used in the fashion industry. Transportation and the type of textile used are the two factors contributing the most to these emissions. That’s why the best way to tackle this problem is to go straight to the beginning of the value chain: the manufacturing of our clothes. Here, fabrics play a key role. Let’s see two examples.
Polyamide (Nylon) which represents 12% of global synthetic fiber production, gives outstanding properties to our clothes: elasticity, strength, durability. But its production also emits nitrous oxide, a chemical with much stronger greenhouse gas effect than carbon dioxide.
Semi-synthetic fabrics such as Rayon, a regenerated cellulose fiber usually made from wood pulp, consume large quantities of trees, also impacting climate change.
Innovative Fabrics Startups Helping Reduce Greenhouse Gases
Scientific advancements have made it possible to produce innovative fabrics without toxic chemicals. New solutions aimed at producing fibers in laboratories and from waste are emerging all around the world.
- For example, GALY is a San Francisco-based startup working on new technologies to engineer and grow cotton in labs rather than farming.
- Azolla, another early-stage biotechnology startup, is developing sustainable, affordable fabric options by converting pollutants into usable biomaterial. Their proprietary process involves an organism that transforms CO2 into nanocellulose material for the textile industry.
The fast fashion industry consumes a tremendous amount of water, mostly due to the growth of raw materials and the dying process which require 25 billion and 35 trillion gallons per year, respectively (4,5).
These figures can vary based on the nature of the materials, crops, growth periods, and regions. For example, in order to produce 1 kg of fiber, cotton requires 265 gallons of water, while hemp needs 100 gallons.
However, the quality and properties of each resulting fiber differ significantly. While cotton is still the choice in the industry, accounting for 90% of natural textiles used, it also accounts for over 16% of insecticides used globally.
Innovative Fabrics Startups Helping Reduce Water Consumption
Organic cotton, or any organic crop, avoids the use of these pesticides and lessens their environmental consequences.
- ECOfashion Corp is a B2B and D2C sustainable apparel & home startup, whose four brands (MetaWear, RESET, Farm to Home & YES AND) seek to use organic cotton only. ECOfashion Corp is committed to elevating everyone along their certified organic supply chain and embedding values from farm to finished product.
Other startups focus on reducing water consumption rather than water pollution.
- SaltyCo is an early-stage startup engineering innovative fabrics from salt-tolerant plants grown freshwater-free, enabling them to offer optimum sustainable accolades.
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Microplastics are small particles of plastic found not only in the environment, but also in a number of living organisms. While their level of toxicity is still a matter of debate, avoiding microplastics is a declared objective of the fashion industry. Up to 63% of our clothes contain plastic, most of which polyesters, to obtain stronger fiber properties and cost reduction.
While recycling the fibers is a potential solution, it remains challenging due to garments’ blended composition. Indeed, most of our clothes are made of multiple fabrics woven together in order to obtain specific properties. Nevertheless, this makes the recycling process more challenging due to non-compatibility between fibers. Recycling a blend lowers the quality of certain reprocessed polymers, reducing the strength of the overall recycled fabric.
Innovative Fabrics Startups Helping Fight Microplastics
Separating the blends prior to recycling is an intriguing alternative currently being employed by some exciting startups, such as BlockTexx, Circ, Vivify Textiles, and Worn Again — thanks to their work, this technical challenge no longer appears impossible. These companies found innovative solutions, such as chemical recycling, to economically recover both cotton and PET to promote circular fashion.
Synthetic fibers are frequently used to replace wool, cotton, silk, and cashmere. Their synthesis from fossil feedstocks requires high levels of energy in order to mimic the properties of natural fibers. These synthetic polymers, like PET or acrylic-based fabrics, are undoubtedly a significant source of microplastics, which once released into the environment, can stay there for up to 200 years.
It is important to note that any kind of plastic - petroleum-based, bio-based, recycled plastic bottles, or fishing nets - can become microplastics. The key strategies to avoid the release of microplastics are to:
- limit the usage of plastics
- create a closed-loop system in which 100% of the plastics can be recycled continuously.
Dropel is not only a producer of water & stain resistant high performance cotton garments, but also a pioneer in research of innovative and natural fabrics, enabling new solutions to industrial waste and microplastics.
Kintra Fibers is a material science company that makes high-performing, 100% bio-based and 100% intrinsically compostable polymers for textile use, formulated to keep our oceans microfiber-free.
Techniques and technologies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, limit water consumption and pollution, and stop the release of microplastics do exist and are currently being developed in the industry. From carbon footprint calculators and carbon offsets to improved irrigation techniques, short circuit models, and plastic recycling techniques, an array of tools are emerging to make the textile industry greener.
However, the solution with the greatest potential impact is to change the source - the primary materials. Today, startups are creating innovative fabrics with these challenges at the core of their innovations and business.
Are you a corporate partner looking to connect with startups developing innovative fabrics? At Plug and Play, we fast-trackinnovation in sustainability. Reach out to connect with a carefully-curated selection of startups that meet your needs.