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Starting at the Start for Sustainable Fashion: The Argument for Focusing on Raw Materials

By Guest Contributor

9 Mar 2021

By now, anyone who’s paying attention to the fashion industry knows that we have an urgent sustainability problem on our hands. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if we stay on our current path, the fashion industry alone will take up a quarter of the entire world’s carbon budget by 2050. To avert climate catastrophe, we’re going to need a number of different creative approaches and interventions at multiple stages in the lifecycle of a garment. But to change the fashion industry’s trajectory on the deepest level, there’s a strong case for going back to the fundamentals: the raw materials themselves. By looking to innovate the very fabric of the industry, we can move away from Bandaid solutions and greenwashed half-measures and resolve some of fashion’s toughest challenges right at the source.

A brand’s choice of raw materials has a greater impact on its environmental footprint than anything else

If we slowed the culture of fast-fashion and its excessive waste right now, we still wouldn’t have solved the sustainability problems at the heart of garment production. Fashion would still be inherently extractive, and even high-end pieces would still end up in landfills or oceans, along with the chemicals used to produce them. This is because we have yet to fully reimagine material inputs. A brand’s choice of raw materials has a greater impact on its environmental footprint than any other single element, with some brands reporting that around 80 procent of their footprint is attributable to their raw materials. While petroleum-based materials like polyester pose unique problems, even many of the materials people think of as natural have surprisingly devastating impacts on the environment. This is often because these “natural” materials aren’t produced in a very natural way at all. Leather, for example, is among the worst environmental offenders.

To make bovine leather, you first have to breed, raise, and slaughter a cow –– actually, around 1.4 billion cows a year. The overwhelming majority of these animals are raised on industrial farms, where they consume vast amounts of resources, emit methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide), pollute waterways with their waste, and degrade the land. As a significant profit driver of cattle farming, leather production shares in the responsibility for these impacts. Once a cow is slaughtered, much of its hide is wasted due to its variable shape and quality, while the hide that is destined to become leather is then put through the tanning process, which is highly polluting and hazardous to human health. This process can involve more than 250 different chemicals, including arsenic, lead, formaldehyde, and other known carcinogens like chromium, all of which can –– and typically do –– end up in waterways, endangering surrounding communities. Humans have had centuries to improve the sustainability of this material, but because improvements have always been limited to the biological constraints of a cow, we haven’t gotten far.

So why are we still using these outdated, unsustainable materials? Why are brands just adding one “sustainable” product to their roster instead of changing the raw materials they use for all of their products? The simple answer is that we haven’t invested in the R&D necessary to make materials that are fundamentally better, not only in terms of the environment, but also in performance and aesthetics. Today, it’s difficult for brands to find new options that they can slot into existing products lines. But this is changing, and fast. A new generation of innovators are developing the next-gen materials that can do just that. These materials are playing big––looking to replace the most unsustainable materials in fashion with alternatives that aren’t just better for the environment, but can outcompete the incumbents across a range of categories. Once these materials are at scale, “sustainable fashion” as a niche will be gone, since it will become the norm, not the exception.

Next-gen materials encompass multiple technologies and products, but are united by three factors: they are animal-free, high-performance, and more sustainable than the materials they replace. Netherlands-based startup Qorium is taking cells from a cow and growing them directly into leather, without having to raise or slaughter any animals. Another startup, MycoWorks, is growing mycelium on agricultural waste to use as leather, a process which takes one-to-two weeks instead of the two years required to make leather. MycoWorks’ mycelium leather requires significantly fewer inputs, upcycles a renewable resource, doesn’t require any harmful chemicals, and is fully biodegradable. Then there are startups like Ananas Anam, Desserto, and Beyond Leather, which are creating leather from plant-based sources: pineapple leaves, cactus, and apple skin, respectively.

While most of these products are not yet being produced at scale or at price-parity with conventional bovine leather, next-gen materials represent a unique –– and uniquely impactful –– path forward for the fashion industry as sustainability becomes an imperative. To push forward this solution, the whole industry will have to rally around it to accelerate development. Scientists, startups, brands, retailers, investors, and designers have the chance to collaborate to change the materials the entire fashion industry is fashioned around. Ultimately, if we prioritize building better materials from the ground up, we can solve many of fashion’s problems before they start.

Written for FashionUnited by Emily Byrd who has consulted with some of the leading startups, venture capital groups, and nonprofits in animal-free food technology, and is the current Director of Communications for the Material Innovation Initiative (MII). MII is a nonprofit that accelerates the development of high-performance, more sustainable materials for the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries. Learn more at materialinnovation.org.

Images: Utraleather-Volar Bio courtesy of Ultrafabrics