Mushrooms and other fashion must haves

Aniela Hoitink’s studio in the Dutch city of Amersfoort is nothing like the studio of a conventional fashion designer. There are no sewing machines, rulers or fabrics, no scissors or cutting tables. Instead, there’s a lab with an incubator, a microscope, a scale, and, in another room, a 3D printer, as well as other supplies he doesn’t want to reveal.

NEFFA, a company co-founded by Hoitink, is at the forefront of the technological race to transform the textile and fashion industry. Backed by two investors and a manufacturing partner (German shoe machinery company Desma), NEFFA aims to move from pilot to demo scale this year and to industrial scale in 2024, producing environmentally friendly materials in a process that reduces waste from cutting and sewing.

The company is not alone. The Materials Innovation Initiative estimates that the global wholesale next-generation materials market will reach $980 million in 2021, double the previous year’s market value, and will be worth approximately $2.2 billion in 2026. That’s still just 3% of the $70 billion materials market, but it’s big enough to attract investment from household names such as Adidas, Puma, Hermès and Nike, as well as automakers General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

The textile industry has seen numerous technological upheavals over the years, starting with the introduction of the spinning wheel during the Industrial Revolution. Oil-based synthetics revolutionized materials in the postwar period—60% of all materials today use polyester. That innovation reduced costs and increased durability, but is now a source of unwanted emissions.

The big challenge is not only to find sustainable materials that will be accepted by consumers and that can be produced in large quantities. It also comes up with creative possibilities for their reuse — a challenge that requires systematic thinking about the trade-offs and impacts of fast, cheap fashion. The fashion industry alone produces almost 20% of the world’s wastewater and is responsible for between 2 and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. Natural fibers such as cotton and wool require a lot of land and water; and synthetic fibers, such as nylon, are obtained from oil, gas or coal in an energy-intensive chemical process. It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans, more than enough to supply a person with eight cups of drinking water a day for ten years. If nothing is done, the fashion industry will account for more than a quarter of the world’s carbon footprint by 2050.

If nothing is done, the fashion industry will account for more than a quarter of the world’s carbon footprint by 2050.

Bring biomaterials

The solution lies in the development of materials that are sustainable and biodegradable and require fewer inputs for production. The list of biomaterials on the market or in development is long and includes native materials ranging from cacti and seaweed to pineapples, cork and flowers. Many developers focus on mushrooms. At NEFFA, mycelium, the substructure of a fungus, is grown in a mixture of water, sugar and minerals to create a paste that is then formed around a 3D model based on a body image the user submits using a smartphone app. The result? A seamless, custom-made garment that fits well and has little or no impact on the environment. “It changes everything,” says Hoitink. “It takes dozens of steps to make a shoe made of leather or fake leather. We make it in two steps with almost no carbon footprint.”

Bolt Threads, a biotech company based in Emeryville, California, formed a consortium in October 2020 with four well-known fashion brands – Adidas, Kering, Lululemon and Stella McCartney – to market its mycelial material Mylo. The partnership produced a yoga mat, handbag and Adidas concept footwear (not available for sale). Since then, Danish fashion brand Ganni and Japan’s Tsuchiya Kaban have launched limited edition Mylo wallets and bags. The Mylo shoulder bag, priced at around US$3,500, is comparable to a high-end brand made from conventional materials.

Brands are testing, prototyping and weighing what can enter supply chains. “Scale and continued innovation are our top priorities right now to bring Mylo to more consumers,” said Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads.

Bolt Threads’ Emeryville neighbor, Mycoworks, raised $125 million in 2021 and in August launched a full-scale manufacturing facility in South Carolina that will enable initial production volumes of several million square feet per year for its trademark mycelium product, Reishi. Mycoworks has contracts with a number of luxury brands, including Hermès.

The focus is not only on new materials, but also on the process of making them. Faber Futures of the United Kingdom, as well as TextileLab and Kukka in the Netherlands, use naturally pigmented bacteria to create chemical-free dyes. Other companies are betting on bioengineering to change the texture, structure and even color of fabrics by messing with the DNA of micro-organism cells. Bolt Threads recently partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks, which provides a basic cell programming tool, to reduce production costs.

Reusable, recyclable

Not all bio-based materials are necessarily good for the environment. If you have to grow and harvest large quantities of cacti, cork or other plants just to make clothes, the carbon footprint could become significant. One trick is to use waste or by-products instead of the grown crop. Vegea from Milan, for example, produces eco-leather from grape pomace, the remains of wine production. Vegea is featured in shoes, belts and wallets by Calvin Klein, bags by Tommy Hilfiger and products from other big fashion names.

“All the wine you drank during quarantine has been turned into a bag,” said Stella McCartney, who works with several biomaterials, at the Center Pompidou in Paris in 2022 during the presentation of her autumn collection. Meanwhile, brands such as Hugo Boss and Paul Smith experimented with Piñatex, an eco-leather made mostly from excess pineapple leaves.

The use of waste or by-products touches on the wider issue of recycling. Making the clothing industry more sustainable is not only about manufacturers, but also about changing consumer behavior, according to Alexander Bismarck, professor of material chemistry at the University of Vienna. “Wearing a polyester coat for six years can have the same C02 the print is like wearing one of the recycled fibers for six months,” he says. “So it’s a question of how long you’re willing to wear your clothes.”

According to UN data, the average consumer today buys 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, and uses each piece for only half as long. This means we throw away more clothes than we know what to do with, as evidenced by the mountains of used clothing washing up on African beaches. According to one estimate, consumers in the UK only keep their clothes for an average of 2.2 years. Other research shows that clothes are thrown away after being worn only seven times. Around the world, a truckload of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second, according to the European Commission’s strategy paper on sustainable textiles. The paper predicts that consumption of clothing and footwear would increase by 63% by 2030, making recycling a more pressing imperative than ever.

In one promising development, recycling cotton for more than rags has become feasible in recent years thanks to technological breakthroughs. Simco Spinning & Textiles Ltd. takes cutting waste from clothing manufacturers, shreds it and spins it into its proprietary Cyclo yarn. This yarn is still blended with other fibers, such as recycled polyester, viscose and acrylic, but has at least 50% recycled cotton in the final product.

Some companies have recently gone a step further. Renewcell converts textile waste, such as worn-out jeans or production scraps, into pulp that can be used to make viscose and other regenerated fibers that can serve as substitutes for virgin cotton. Swiss company HeiQ AeoniQ produces yarn from various cellulosic raw materials and bacteria in a process that emits oxygen and captures five tons of carbon for every ton of yarn. With the help of investors such as Hugo Boss and the Lycra Company, HeiQ AeoniQ operates a pilot plant with a capacity of 100 tons per year and plans a gigafactory for 2025.

Transparency and truth

Regulators are also demanding higher standards from manufacturers. In March 2022, the European Union, one of the world’s largest textile markets, with imports of USD 80 billion, published a strategic document proposing binding requirements for durability, recyclability and recycled fiber content, as well as a ban on the destruction of unsold or returned textiles. The European Commission, which published the paper, will also revise eco-labels (labels that describe the environmentally acceptable content of an item of clothing) and the use of plastic polymers in clothing, and is considering the introduction of a digital label that explains the item’s impact on the environment. The moves were prompted by research published in 2020 which found that 39% of sustainability claims made by companies in the textile, clothing and footwear industry could be false or misleading.

Companies are taking action. Adidas, for example, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2025, 30% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality of all operations by 2050. H&M has announced a commitment to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, while Patagonia’s goal is to eliminate virgin oil sources from its supply chain by 2025. What these companies say about their progress toward these goals may soon need to be independently verified and printed on the label.

What is clear is that the drive to invest in the production of sustainable materials on a large scale will continue. As Bismarck says, “Bioproduction has a bright future. Plots are resolved. It’s a matter of time and money.”

Author profile:

  • Raymond Collit is a journalist with three decades of experience reporting, writing and editing stories from around the world, including Brazil, Germany and the US. He worked for Financial Times, Reuters, Bloomberg and currently divides his time between Berlin, Los Angeles and Brasilia.

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