No more synthetics fibers – removing carbon and plastics from fashion

Desynthesizing fashion: old materials from natural and animal fibers may be the answer at scale to replacing synthetic fibers

Decarbonizing the fashion industry

Chemistry powerhouse Du Pont introduced Nylon as «a new word and a new material», in New York’s World’s Fair, 1939. Since then, synthetic fibers have outpaced cotton, linen, wool and other natural or animal fiber in the global textile industry. The transformational material followed decades of new generational products such as tracksuits, swimwear, and hosiery. Eventually, it led to fast-fashion which today relies heavily on Du Pont’s inventions. 

Microplastics in human blood and lungs

The metaverse and its derivatives such as NFTs might be deemed like a future of sustainable living by some. However, the synthetic world of microplastics that do not biodegrade, have infiltrated our most intimate places. In 2019, the WWF revealed that we are approximately eating, drinking and breathing 250 grams of plastic, annually. That is approximately a credit card.  Recent reports, published within three weeks of each other, declared that microplastics are present in both human blood and lungs. More potent microscopes have made it possible to see even smaller particles of non-biodegradable plastic. These are presently flowing through our veins and bronchioles. 

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Mylo Consortium initiative

Moving away from plastics has never been more urgent, but what alternatives are there? Sebastian Boger is the Managing Director and Partner at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) office in Munich. He points out that «it goes back to the margin structure of how the industry is set up. Especially in fast-fashion and high-street fashion». You can see why synthetic fibers are so hard to compete with when they are so cheap. Yet, they offer so much versatility in design and performance. «Many innovators focus on higher priced fabrics because the margins are better. Also, the use cases are probably easier to communicate. However, especially on those volume fibers like PET, there are not too many efforts at this point to replace them». 

Mr. Boger’s comment can be ironically spotted in Lululemon’s 2020 Impact Agenda. Here, the company states they are a member of the Mylo Consortium. This an initiative launched by the rising startup Bolt Threads, known for its mushroom based leather. But if fifty percent of Lululemon’s carbon impact stems from their use of fabrics, primarily nylon and polyester, why tackle leather instead of synthetics? 

The company is quick to acknowledge that innovating a sustainable or renewable nylon «is by far our most challenging materials goal». They made promises to use recycled polyester and to find renewable solutions to elastane. However, they have nothing to show for, at least not yet.

Desynthesize to decarbonize

The search for fibers that are natural and that offer what synthetic fibers can, remains a challenge. Unmixed cotton, linen, hemp, and cellulose fibers are viable replacements to our daily wardrobes. However, they are quickly ruled-out for performance wear. This is because they don’t possess characteristics required for activewear like shape-retention, meaning no knee-bags. Or, high moisture-wicking capabilities as we transpire through our workouts. 

Putting aside closed-loop systems that have yet to work in reality, today’s solutions must focus on real human behavior. This includes the available infrastructures to deal with waste. Less than one percent of recycled materials make it into new garments. Therefore, considering the use of materials that can biodegrade seems like a more realistic option. 

Enzo Anacleto Mantellassi founder of Manteco a textile company specialized in recycling fabrics since the Second World War in Prato, Italy

Tracking replacement materials from cradle to grave

If we are to replace synthetic fibers, we must track replacement materials from cradle to grave. Here, we can systematically follow each step of their journey. Regarding the source of sustainable materials, the substitute should not come from fossil fuels if the objective is to decarbonize. 

Both plant and animal based fibers use up land that would naturally sequester carbon in its wild state. They also both use polluting fertilizers and pesticides before raw materials are processed. They use chemicals further downstream when treating for color and are finished into a final product. The carbon-footprint is significant. Very few of the solutions available today can claim carbon neutrality. However, advances to lower our impact are being made with more efficient agricultural systems. 

Still less than one percent of old garments are recycled

Forest-based fibers promise a lower carbon impact when sourced from responsibly managed forests. They produce a wood pulp that is spun into what is becoming a more popular fabric, Lyocell. Recycling garments however is likely the best available low-impact option given. The ingredients manufactures need to make new garments won’t use much more energy, water or chemicals compared to virgin fibers. However available, still less than one percent of old garments are recycled into new garments. Removing plastics from fashion is crucial. The main reason is so that it does not biodegrade when existing recycling practices are largely insufficient or non-existent. What fabrics decompose naturally if buried in soil, in your backyard, or in a landfill where the majority lie? 

The Hamilton and Causer (Sept 2011) prepared a technical report for the Wool Research Organization of New Zealand. Here, they studied the degradation of wool and polyester by calculating fabric weight and composition. The results are clear. Various samples of jersey wool were buried in individual soil pots over a period of nine months. They show rates of degradation of 100% for the light woven wool jerseys, and seventy-six to ninety-nine percent for knitted wool samples. This means that heavier wool fabrics take slightly longer to degrade. Polyester and nylon samples showed a mass loss of zero percent from start to finish. Sadly, they will continue to persist in the environment for centuries to come as microplastics. 

Can wool be a viable replacement to synthetic performance? 

According to Woolmark, an Australian nonprofit, virgin wool makes up just over one percent of the textiles available worldwide. This hardly suffices to replace the synthetic fiber monopoly. Companies like Prato-based Manteco have honed advanced methods to recycle wool from pre and post-consumer waste. However, the future of renewable materials will have to rely on various sources. This is not dissimilar to the shift the energy industry is experiencing as we move away from coal, gas and oil. 

Previous collaborations spotlight a potentially untapped area that deserves more attention. Wool is derived from an animal that evolved for millions of years. This is to deal with incredible shifts of heat and cold from the mountains it grazes on. It gives it superhero-like abilities to thermoregulate, fend off bacteria and odor, wick away moisture. All the while, it is entirely biodegradable. Unlike animal leather, sheep reared for wool are kept alive and looked after. They are sheared every twelve months. This means that a single Merino ewe can yield on average four and half kilograms of good wool per year. They can do so for about five to six years. 

Luna Rossa Prada and Woolmark

But what use cases are there? In 2021, The Luna Rossa Prada sailing team chose Woolmark as its official technical partner for the 36th America’s Cup. This collaboration comes with a double-win. The new fifty-four percent Merino wool uniforms showed advances in performance that met the excruciating tests in thermoregulation and waterproofness. They also crucially weaned off almost half of the synthetic fibers previously used to make the uniforms. In an ocean setting, that is one of the main sinks for microplastics. This is an encouraging development. 

Team sailor, Shannon Falcone, who helped design and develop the uniform, testifies for the use of Merino wool in activewear. «We tested the garments on support tenders in rough conditions at fifty [knots], by fire-hosing someone for thirty minutes to test waterproofing and sitting in the prepreg container freezer to compare thermal capabilities. Our Merino wool garments passed these tests and more».

Sheep Inc. endeavors

Emerging startups like UK based Sheep Inc., claim to be carbon negative, a huge feat in itself. At the time of meeting Edzard Van Der Wyck, co-founder and chief executive, he explained that the carbon footprint for sending Merino wool from New Zealand was relatively small compared to rearing the animals. Achieving a carbon negative product was possible only thanks to the sheep rearers he chose and later co-invested with. 

This type of mindset and long-term investment ensures that its suppliers will keep innovating to minimize their impact. Brands should take a page from Sheep Inc, and partner more closely with their raw material suppliers to decarbonize, or as with the Luna Rossa sailing team, to innovate with old fibers to remove plastic.

Christian Layolle

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.