Designer Fashion and Sustainability: Can Material Innovation Change the Industry?
As an industry, the designer fashion world has long since acknowledged there are plethora of problems when it comes to commonly used fabrics and materials, mainly the ones derived from animals. With sustainability and animal rights becoming an outstanding issue in past years, multiple brands and retailers have been boycotted by organisations such as PETA and Humane Society of the United States for using fur and exotic skins. However, animal-based materials and their usage is not exclusive to luxury fashion.
Data taken from the Higg Materials Sustainability Index shows that four out of the five worst materials for the environment are animal materials. To process animal byproducts into fabrics big amounts of energy are needed as well as usage of harmful chemicals. And those are outstanding issues if we ignore the ethical aspects that touch upon cruelty in animal-based agriculture.
To change designer fashion approach and to increase sustainability of produce, innovations are needed. And that’s the mission of the Material Innovation Initiative – introducing brands to alternative materials to eliminate or at least reduce the need for anima-based fabrics.
Traditional fabrics such as silk, wool and leather are not in demand because of their aesthetics or performance – they’re just the easiest and most affordable to source. They have been used for thousands of years due to them being byproducts of food and nowadays, using the technology of our century, the biological constraints of the animal can be exceeded therefore improving the performance of the materials.
Referring back to Higg Materials Sustainability Index, 80% of designer fashion brands’ environmental footprint originates from usage of raw materials in production. This leads to a conclusion that any brand that wants to become more environment-friendly needs to focus on material innovation.
The advice given by the Material Innovation Initiative is to pay attention to precision fermentation – the process of creating alternative material. For example, making leather or silk by adding animal-based protein into a bacteria or yeast. This would lead to multiplying the protein at the high pace and at low cost, therefore allowing designer fashion brands to use real replicas of the material instead of looking for an alternative. Additionally, this approach is cruelty-free and doesn’t use as much energy or chemicals.
Not only will this be beneficial for the environment but also for the brand. Changing the material on molecular level can make it stronger and more durable. All in all, precision fermentation would allow the manufacturer to reduce not just waste but also cost by being able to produce fabric for the specific needs or a particular order.
Precision fermentation is a process of creating alternative materials, such as a manufactured leather or silk, by inserting an animal-based protein into a bacteria or yeast. The protein then multiplies very quickly at low cost. This process allows brands to utilise real replicas of a material rather than finding a different alternative, yet it is cruelty-free to animals and better on the environment in terms of energy and chemical usage.
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