Aniela Hoitink’s atelier in the Dutch city of Amersfoort is not like that 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 the other room a 3D printer and other equipment he doesn’t want to reveal.
NEFFA, a company co-founded by Hoitink, is at the forefront of the technology race to transform the textile and fashion industry. Backed by two investors and a manufacturing partner (German shoe machinery company Desma), NEFFA aims to go from pilot to demo scale this year and to industrial scale in 2024, producing environmentally friendly materials in a process that reduces waste when cutting and sewing. .
The company is not alone. The Material Innovation Initiative estimates that the global wholesale market for next-generation materials will reach $980 million in 2021, double the market value of the previous year, and will be worth approximately $2.2 billion in 2026. That’s still only 3% of $70 billion. materials market, but it is large enough to attract investment in household names such as Adidas, Puma, Hermès and Nike, as well as carmakers General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
The textile industry has seen a number of technological upheavals over the years, starting with the introduction of jenna spinning during the Industrial Revolution. Petroleum-based synthetics revolutionized materials in the post-war period – 60% of all materials today use polyester. This innovation reduced costs and increased lifespan, but is now a source of unwanted emissions.
The big challenge isn’t just finding sustainable materials that consumers will accept and that can be mass-produced. It also comes up with creative ways to reuse them – a challenge that requires systematic thinking about the trade-offs and impacts of fast, cheap fashion. The fashion industry alone produces nearly 20% of the world’s wastewater and, according to the United Nations, is responsible for 2 to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Natural fibers like cotton and wool require a lot of soil 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 make a pair of jeans, which is 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.
The solution lies in the development of materials that are sustainable and biodegradable and require fewer inputs to produce. The list of biomaterials on the market or in development is long and includes source materials from cacti and seaweed to pineapples, cork and flowers. Many developers focus on mushrooms. At NEFFA, mycelium, the underlying structure of a fungus, is grown in a mixture of water, sugar and minerals to create a paste, which is then formed around a 3D model based on body scans submitted by the customer using a smartphone app. Result? Seamless, custom-made clothing that fits well and doesn’t harm the environment. “It changes everything,” says Hoitink. “It takes dozens of steps to make a leather or fake leather shoe. We do it in two steps with almost no carbon footprint.”
In October 2020, Bolt Threads, a biotechnology company based in Emeryville, California, formed a consortium with four well-known fashion brands – Adidas, Kering, Lululemon and Stella McCartney – to launch its mycelium material, Mylo. The partnership created a yoga mat, a handbag and an Adidas concept shoe (not available for sale). Since then, Danish fashion brand Ganni and Japan’s Tsuchiya Kaban have launched limited edition Mylo wallets and bags. At around $3,500, the Mylo shoulder bag is comparable to a bag from a high-end label made from conventional materials.
Brands are testing, prototyping and considering what can go into supply chains. “Scale and continued innovation are our biggest priorities now to bring Mylo to more consumers,” says Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads.
Bolt Threads’ Emeryville neighbor, Mycoworks, raised $125 million in 2021 and broke ground in August on a full-scale manufacturing facility in South Carolina that will allow for initial volume production of several million square feet per year of its branded mycelium product, Reishi. Mycoworks has contracts with a number of luxury brands, including Hermès.
It is not only new materials, but also the process of their production. Faber Futures of the UK, as well as TextileLab and Kukka in the Netherlands, use naturally pigmented bacteria to produce chemical-free dyes. Other companies are betting on bioengineering to change the texture, structure and even color of fabrics by tinkering with the DNA of microorganism cells. Bolt Threads recently partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks, which provides a core set of cell programming tools, to reduce manufacturing costs.
Not all bio-based materials are necessarily good for the environment. If you have to grow and harvest large amounts of cacti, cork, or other plants just to make clothes, the carbon footprint could be significant. One trick is to use waste or by-products instead of the cultivated crop. The Milanese company Vegea, for example, produces eco-leather from matolin, leftovers from wine production. Vegea has appeared in shoes, belts and wallets from Calvin Klein, bags from Tommy Hilfiger and products from other big fashion names.
“All the wine you drank during the lockdown turned into a handbag,” said Stella McCartney, who works with several biomaterials, at the Center Pompidou in Paris in 2022 when presenting her autumn collection. Meanwhile, brands like Hugo Boss and Paul Smith experimented with Piñatex, an eco-leather made primarily from surplus pineapple leaves.
The use of waste or by-products touches on the wider issue of recycling. According to Alexander Bismarck, professor of materials chemistry at the University of Vienna, making the clothing industry more sustainable is not only about the products, but also about changing consumer behavior. “Wearing a coat made of polyester for six years can have the same C02 footprint as wearing one of the recycled fibers for six months,” he says. “So the question is how long are you willing to wear your clothes.
According to the UN, 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 clothes washing up on African beaches. According to one estimate, UK consumers only keep their clothes for 2.2 years on average. Other surveys show that clothes are thrown away after being worn only seven times. According to the European Commission’s strategy paper on sustainable textiles, a truckload of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second around the world. The paper predicts that consumption of clothing and footwear is expected to increase by 63% by 2030, making recycling more urgent than ever.
In one promising development, technological breakthroughs in recent years have made cotton recycling for more than just rags. Simco Spinning & Textiles Ltd. takes waste from clothing manufacturers, shreds it and spins it into its trademark Cyclo yarn. This yarn is still blended with other fibers such as recycled polyester, viscose and acrylic, but the final product is at least 50% recycled cotton.
Some companies have recently taken things a step further. Renewcell transforms textile waste, such as worn jeans or manufacturing scraps, into pulp, which 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 releases 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 giga-factory by 2025.
Transparency and truth
Regulators are also pushing for 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 strategy 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 document, will also review eco-labels (labels that describe the environmentally friendly content of clothing) and the use of plastic polymers in clothing, and is considering the introduction of a digital label that explains an item’s environmental impact. The moves were prompted by research published in 2020 which revealed that 39% of sustainability claims made by companies in the textile, clothing and footwear industries may be false or misleading.
Companies are taking action. Adidas aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2025, 30% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality across operations by 2050. H&M has announced a commitment to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, while Patagonia’s 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 secured and printed on the label.
It is clear that the push to invest in the large-scale production of sustainable materials will continue. As Bismarck says: “Biomanufacturing has a bright future. Fractures are fixed. It’s a matter of time and money.”
- 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 and Bloomberg and currently divides his time between Berlin, Los Angeles and Brasilia.