Aniela Hoitink’s atelier in the Dutch city of Amersfoort is nothing like that of a conventional fashion designer’s studio. There are no sewing machines, rulers, or fabrics, no shears or cutting tables. Instead, there’s a lab with an incubator, a microscope, a scale, and, in a second room, a 3D printer, as well as other paraphernalia she doesn’t want to disclose.
NEFFA, the company cofounded by Hoitink, is on the cutting edge of a technological race to transform the textile and fashion industry. Backed by two investors and a manufacturing partner (the 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 from cutting and sewing.
The company is not alone. The Material Innovation Initiative estimates that the global wholesale market for next-gen materials reached US$980 million in 2021, double the previous year’s market value, and will be worth approximately US$2.2 billion in 2026. That’s still only 3% of the US$70 billion materials market, but it is large enough to attract investment to well-known names like Adidas, Puma, Hermès, and Nike, as well as automakers General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.
The textile industry has seen a number of technological upheavals over the years, starting with the introduction of the spinning jenny during the industrial revolution. Oil-based synthetics revolutionized materials in the postwar period—60% of all materials use polyester today. That innovation brought down costs and increased durability, but it is now a source of unwanted emissions.
The big challenge is not only finding sustainable materials that consumers will accept and that can be manufactured at scale. It’s also coming up with creative possibilities for reusing them—a challenge that requires thinking systematically about the trade-offs and impacts of fast, cheap fashion. The fashion industry alone produces nearly 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 derived from oil, gas, or coal in an energy-intensive chemical process. Producing a pair of jeans requires about 2,000 gallons of water, more than enough to supply a person with eight cups of drinking water per 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 on the biomaterials
The solution lies in developing 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 that range from cactus and seaweed to pineapple, cork, and flowers. Many developers are focusing on fungi. At NEFFA, mycelium, the understructure of a fungus, is grown in a mix of water, sugar, and minerals to create a paste that is then formed around a 3D model based on a body scan submitted by a customer using a smartphone app. The result? A seamless, custom-made garment that fits well and does little to no harm to the environment. “It changes everything,” says Hoitink. “It takes dozens of steps to make a leather or fake leather shoe. We make it in two steps with almost no carbon footprint.”
Bolt Threads, a biotech company based in Emeryville, Calif., formed a consortium in October 2020 with four well-known fashion brands—Adidas, Kering, Lululemon, and Stella McCartney—to bring its mycelium material, Mylo, to market. The partnership produced a yoga mat, a handbag, and an Adidas concept shoe (not available for sale). Since then, Danish fashion label Ganni and Japan’s Tsuchiya Kaban have launched limited-edition Mylo wallets and bags. The Mylo shoulder bag, at around US$3,500, is comparable to one from a high-end label made with conventional materials.
Brands are testing, prototyping, and weighing up what can go into supply chains. “Scale and continued innovation are our biggest priority right now to bring Mylo to more consumers,” says Dan Widmaier, the CEO of Bolt Threads.
A neighbor of Bolt Threads in Emeryville, Mycoworks, raised US$125 million in 2021 and in August broke ground on a full-scale production facility in South Carolina that will enable initial production volumes of several million square feet per year of its trademark mycelium product, Reishi. Mycoworks has contracts with a number of luxury brands, including Hermès.
It’s not just new materials, but also the process for making them, that is coming into focus. Faber Futures from the UK, as well as TextileLab and Kukka in the Netherlands, are using naturally pigmented bacteria to create chemical-free dyes. Other companies are betting on bioengineering to alter 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 basic toolkit for programming cells, in order to bring down production costs.
Not all bio-based materials are necessarily good for the environment. If you have to grow and harvest large amounts of cactus, cork, or other plants just for the purpose of making clothes, the carbon footprint could become significant. One trick is to use waste or by-products instead of a farmed crop. Milan-based Vegea, for instance, makes eco-leather from grape marc, the leftovers from winemaking. Vegea has been featured in shoes, belts, and wallets by Calvin Klein, bags by Tommy Hilfiger, and products from other big fashion names.
“All the wine you’ve been drinking during lockdown has been turned into a handbag,” Stella McCartney, who works with several biomaterials, said at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2022 during the presentation of her fall collection. Meanwhile, brands such as Hugo Boss and Paul Smith have experimented with Piñatex, an eco-leather made primarily of surplus pineapple leaves.
Using waste or by-products touches on the larger question of recycling. Making the garment industry more sustainable is not only about the manufacturers but also about changing consumer behavior, according to Alexander Bismarck, professor of material chemistry at the University of Vienna. “Wearing a coat made from polyester for six years may have the same C02 footprint as wearing one from recycled fibers for six months,” he says. “So, the question is, how long you are willing to wear your clothes.”
According to the UN, the average consumer buys 60% more pieces of clothing today than 15 years ago, and uses each item only half as long. That means we’re throwing away more clothes than we know what to do with, as the mountains of used garments washing up on African beaches attest to. According to one estimate, consumers in the UK keep their clothes only 2.2 years, on average. Other surveys show garments being tossed after being worn only seven times. Around the world, a truckload of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second, according to a European Commission strategy paper on sustainable textiles. The paper predicts that the consumption of clothing and footwear is expected to increase 63% by 2030, making recycling a more urgent imperative than ever.
In one promising development, recycling cotton for more than rags has become feasible in recent years through technological breakthroughs. Simco Spinning & Textiles Ltd. has been taking cutting waste from garment manufacturers, shredding it up, and spinning it into its trademark yarn Cyclo. This yarn is still blended with other fibers, such as recycled polyester, viscose, and acrylic, but there’s at least 50% recycled cotton in the final product.
Some companies have recently taken things a step further. Renewcell transforms textile waste, such as worn-out jeans or production scraps, into a pulp that can be used to make viscose and other regenerated fibers that can serve as a substitute for virgin cotton. Swiss company HeiQ AeoniQ makes yarn from different cellulosic raw materials and bacteria in a process that emits oxygen and captures five tons of carbon for each 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 for 2025.
Transparency and truth
Regulators, too, are pushing for higher standards from manufacturers. In March 2022, the European Union, one of the world’s biggest textile markets, with imports of US$80 billion, published a strategy paper that proposes binding requirements for the durability, recyclability, and content of recycled fibers, as well as a ban on the destruction of unsold or returned textiles. The European Commission, which published the paper, will also review ecolabels (labels that describe a garment’s environmentally friendly content) and the use of plastic polymers in apparel, and is considering introducing a digital label that explains an item’s environmental impact. These moves were prompted by research made public in 2020 revealing that 39% of sustainability claims by companies in the textile, garment, and shoe industries could be false or deceptive.
Companies are taking action. Adidas, for one, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15% by 2025, 30% by 2030, and reach climate neutrality across operations by 2050. H&M announced a commitment to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, while Patagonia’s objective is to eliminate virgin petroleum sources from its supply chain by 2025. What these companies say about their progress to reach these goals may soon need to be independently assured and printed on a label.
What’s clear is that the push to invest in producing sustainable materials at scale will continue. As Bismarck says, “Biomanufacturing has a bright future. The kinks are being worked out. It’s a matter of time and money.”
- Raymond Colitt is a journalist with three decades of experience reporting, writing, and editing stories from around the globe, including Brazil, Germany, and the US. He has worked for the Financial Times, Reuters, and Bloomberg and currently divides his time among Berlin, Los Angeles, and Brasilia.