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A new generation of natural fabrics offers food for thought

Man-made fabrics and chemicals used as clothing materials have become a matter of grave concern for the huge impact they have had on the environment.

The fashion industry where chemical processing and synthetic dyes are a standard is facing a major problem.

Man-made fabrics have spread pollution to the ends of the earth, with microplastics turning up in oceans and Arctic sea ice, while chemicals from garment production like chlorine and arsenic have contaminated drinking water.

new-generation-natural-fabrics
Figure: Industry is innovating production processes and finished materials to create a new generation of natural fabrics.

From 2000 to 2015, global clothes production doubled, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This rise was partly due to growing wealth and the popularity of “fast fashion,” which encourages a quick turnover of styles to boost sales. Most unwanted clothes ended up burned or in a landfill — the equivalent of one full garbage truck every second, the report said.

The more clothes we produce with synthetic fabrics — which now account for 60% of clothing worldwide, according to Greenpeace — the more microfibers end up in laundry wastewater and the vast landfill sites where almost 70% of clothing and footwear in the US eventually end up.

This opens the door for traditional, biodegradable materials like linen and wool, to return as eco-friendly materials of choice. But sustainable designers are looking to minimize the environmental impact in the production of such materials.

They are innovating production processes and finished materials to create a new generation of natural fabrics.

Wool sweater, free sheep

The clothing company Vollebak makes some of the world’s most technologically-advanced fabrics, and uses cutting-edge materials like graphene (a substance that won a Nobel Prize for the two scientists who researched its properties), alongside natural fibers.

Vollebak’s plant and algae T-shirt is made from linen mixed with engineered lyocell fibers spun from pulped eucalyptus and beech. It’s soft, light and strong, and if you bury it in the ground, it will turn to compost within 12 weeks, the company claims.

Other designers have proposed even more surprising concepts.

When Edzard Van Der Wyck set his sights on producing straightforward, sustainable clothing staples, he founded Sheep Inc., which will sell you a wool sweater it claims will last a lifetime.

The company will even throw in a free sheep — each sweater comes embedded with a chip that its owner can use to track their “adopted” animal on the New Zealand farm where the start-up sources its wool. Customers get updates to their phones, detailing their sheep’s major life events, including if it gives birth and, when it eventually dies.

Wool farming can do massive damage to the earth if farms are run unsustainably, said Van Der Wyck, pointing to cases reported in Mongolia, where overgrazing cashmere goats have devastated pastures.

Instead, Sheep Inc. says it works with farmers committed to restorative farming techniques that minimize greenhouse gas emissions while aiming to sequester carbon in the soil.

Sheep Inc. claims to offset emissions tenfold — meaning that for each kilogram of carbon the company produces, it invests in capturing 10 kilograms — while contributing to initiatives that promote local biodiversity.

The wool itself is shipped to Italy, where it is spun into a soft yarn at a 160-year-old mill that runs on renewable energy.

While that’s a lot of mileage, Van Der Wyck argues that transport makes up a relatively small part — around 1%, he claims — of Sheep Inc.’s carbon footprint, and allows the company to improve transparency at each step of the chain between sheep and consumer.

Cotton

Cotton, the world’s most common natural fiber and the basis of around 30% of clothing produced globally, according to the World Resources Institute, is off-limits for some of the most committed sustainable fashion brands. That’s because cotton production uses vast quantities of water and insecticides, and its supply chains often involve toxic processes, such as bleaching and dyeing.

But Seattle-based textile producer Evrnu believes it can sustainably use the material, by treating cotton as if it were gold.

“Almost all of the gold ever produced is still in circulation,” said co-founder Christo Stanev. “We can do the same thing with cotton.”

Rather than chopping up old cotton clothing to recycle it, which significantly weakens the fabric, Evrnu aims to “reclaim the raw material” by melting it down like gold.

Evrnu’s fabric, named NuCycl, is made by extracting the molecular building blocks of cotton and reforming them into new fibers, which the company says are up to three times stronger.

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