Image credit: Stella McCartney
Ever looked at a garment label and not recognised the material your dress was made of? As more brand-name sustainable fabrics are launched, fashion brands are jumping at the opportunity to incorporate them into their products. It’s an easy — if sometimes one-dimensional — way for businesses to promote their brand as more sustainable.
New research shows consumers are fairly sceptical about sustainability claims. A recent survey by Ipsos MORI for the Changing Markets Foundation and the Clean Clothes Campaign found that only 19% of shoppers in the UK trust a brand’s sustainability credentials on face value — the vast majority want verification to back up their claims. This is where branded fabrics, which come with a swathe of sustainability certifications, come into play.
By using brand-name fabrics, businesses are able to bolster their claims by tapping into the growing cohort of innovative fabric mills that are creating fabrics that have a smaller environmental footprint than their commonplace counterparts. There are plenty of them on the market, offering sustainable alternatives to both natural and synthetic materials.
But buyer beware, they’re rarely the sustainability silver bullets brands would have you believe.
Below, we’ve highlighted the most common branded fabrics to help you understand exactly what’s behind the name.
Instead of: rayon viscose
TENCEL is the brand name for Lenzing’s lyocell fabric, a popular sustainable material being adopted by fashion brands in all price categories, from H&M to Mara Hoffman and Stella McCartney. While it may seem like a relatively new material, lyocell was first invented in the 1970s but reached name recognition more recently after Austrian company Lenzing acquired the brand in 2004. Lyocell is made from eucalyptus, birch or oak wood chips that are processed into a pulp then dissolved, filtered, and spun into fibres. The end result is a super soft fabric that feels like cotton or silk and is durable, absorbent, and breathable.
TENCEL is considered a sustainable fabric because it doesn’t use the toxic chemicals used to process synthetics and 99% of the process water and solvent used in its production are in a closed cycle. In contrast, the production of viscose, TENCEL’s closest counterpart, uses various harmful chemicals that continue to poison waterways. Lenzing says their lyocell technology uses a third of the process water that viscose production uses. Because both viscose and TENCEL are made from wood, deforestation is a key issue to consider. Lenzing ensures that the majority of their wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and they support the preservation of endangered forests like the Amazon, Canada, and Russia by not procuring from these regions. Lenzing has two biorefineries that use raw material waste to generate thermal energy and electricity, and the company has lofty goals to become carbon neutral by 2050. TENCEL is widely commercially available, so when you buy your next garment, look for TENCEL over rayon or viscose.
Piñatex by Ananas Anam
Instead of: leather, PVC, and polyurethane (PU)
Invented by Carmen Hijosa and formally launched in 2014, Pinatex is a material owned by the company Ananas Anam that is made from the leaves of pineapple plants, a by-product of fruit harvests. With a flexible, wrinkled texture, Pinatex was one of the first plant-based leather-like fabrics on the market, marketed as a more sustainable alternative to both animal leather and petroleum-based “pleather”.
Now a certified B-Corp, part of the company’s mission is to provide “an additional income stream” to pineapple farming communities in the Philippines, where it’s harvested and the fibres are extracted, mixed with polylactic acid, dried, and made into a non-woven mesh. Rolls of this mesh, called Piñafelt, are then transported by boat to Europe, where they’re finished and sold. Ananas Anam has been commercially producing Piñatex for fashion, footwear, and accessories brands like Hugo Boss, Paul Smith and even H&M’s Conscious Collection, but you’re more likely to find this material being consistently used by smaller independent brands like HFS Collective.
It’s worth noting that while the base material is plant-based, the end product has a synthetic coating finish, so it isn’t biodegradable. If you do want to buy something made from Pinatex, look for the ethical brands that are using the material as part of a wider commitment to sustainability, not just as a marketing gimmick.
Instead of: virgin nylon
ECONYL is recycled nylon created by an Italian company called Aquafil, which began regenerating nylon waste like fishing nets and industrial plastic into new yarn in 2011. ECONYL is made using a closed-loop system. Aquafil says that ECONYL reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 90% and saves 70,000 barrels of crude oil, the base for traditional nylon, for every 10,000 metric tons of ECONYL produced.
It’s a material that is used largely by small swimwear, activewear and accessories brands, but more recently has been picked up by luxury players like Gucci for the Off the Grid collection and Longchamp’s Green District range. However, there are some red flags with ECONYL. While Aquafil is developing the technology to recycle the fabric for reproduction, which would make it a circular product, this isn’t possible at the moment, so the end-of-life destination is similar to that of a regular nylon garment: landfill.
Instead of: silk and generic cupro
Bemberg is the most recognizable brand name for cupro, a rayon fabric created from recycled cotton linter, the fuzzy fibres around the cottonseed. The origins of this fabric date back to 1897, but Asahi Kasei bought and has been manufacturing Bemberg in Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture since 1931. Bemberg is made by treating cotton linter with chemicals like ammonia, copper sulphate, and caustic soda, which turn it into a sheer silk-like fabric. Because of its elasticity, moisture-wicking and breathability, Bemberg is most often used to make saris, scarves, suit linings, and lingerie.
This fabric sits somewhere between a natural and synthetic material, making it difficult to classify as sustainable or not. While Bemberg is biodegradable, compostable and made from pre-consumer waste using Asahi Kasei’s closed-loop system, the same can’t be guaranteed of all forms of cupro. The fabric’s scientific name, cuprammonium rayon or ammonia silk, are largely made in China to unverifiable standards of sustainability, according to sourcing expert Sewport. Considering the manufacturing process is incredibly chemical-intensive, it’s advisable to choose Bemberg over unbranded cupro to ensure you’re buying a product that hasn’t contributed to toxic chemical pollution.
Instead of: virgin cashmere
Re.Verso is the result of an initial collaboration between three textile mills in Italy that partnered in 2014 to collect, shred and regenerate pre and post-consumer wool and cashmere into recycled yarns and fabrics. With an emphasis on transparent and circular manufacturing, Re.Verso is certified by the Global Recycled Standard. The fabric was assessed by Prima Q, which found that it uses 76% less water, 89% less water, and produces 96% less Co2 emissions than regular wool, reports the CFDA.
Initiatives that create materials like Re.Verso are hugely important, considering the huge rise in demand for cashmere over the last decade. It’s thought that about 70% of the grassland which covers most of Mongolia, the world’s second-largest producer of cashmere after China has been damaged by overgrazing. Because of its quality and made-in-Italy seal of approval, Re.Verso is largely used by luxury brands like Stella McCartney and Filippa K.
Instead of: cotton
Spinnova was founded in 2015 as the brainchild of Juha Salmela and Janne Poranen, who were inspired by the way spiders spin their webs. Wondering if this process could be applied to wood fibre to create textiles, they’ve spent five years researching and developing a material that, unlike most cellulose fabrics (rayon, viscose, and others listed above) uses no harmful chemicals, 99% less water than cotton production and minimal Co2 emissions. The wood pulp is made using FSC wood that is refined into a fine paste, then pushed through a high-pressure nozzle which creates fibres ready to be dried and spun into yarn. The entire process is unique to Spinnova, meaning no one else in the world has the technology to create a rival material.
The result is a fabric that Spinnova says “stretch and strength qualities of cotton and the insulation of lamb’s wool” that can be used in clothing, footwear, textiles and furniture. Because the material is in the final pilot stages and isn’t yet commercially available, it’s hard to say for sure what types of garments it could be used in, or what materials it will replace. It won’t be long until we find out — Spinnova has secured partnerships with some of Europe’s biggest fast-fashion retailers like Bestseller and Marimekko as well as the incubator Fashion For Good.
Sweetfoam, Trino & TrinoXO by Allbirds
Instead of: EVA (synthetic rubber), pure virgin wool
Sweetfoam, which Allbirds introduced in 2018, made Time Magazine’s Best Inventions list that year. It’s made in Brazil by a petrochemical company called Braskem from sugarcane waste and is used as a replacement for commonplace petroleum-based footwear soles made from ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). Why sugarcane? The crops rely on rainwater, rather than irrigation, grow quickly and remove carbon from the atmosphere, says Allbirds. First introduced in the Sugar Zeffer flip flops, Sweetfoam can now be found throughout the footwear offering. It’s also open-source, meaning the recipe is available for any company in the industry to adopt. Allbirds says that the green EVA used in their shoe soles removes 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per tonne produced.
Trino, a portmanteau of tree and Merino, is a hybrid material used by Allbirds to make their socks, which came out last year after the brand’s claims that you could wear their shoes socks-free left many customers with a “suboptimal experience” of the footwear. Bringing together FSC certified eucalyptus tree fibres and ZQ certified Merino wool, 18 months of development reportedly went into creating these moisture-wicking, odour minimizing socks. It all sounds great, but take a closer look at the Trino products and you’ll find the majority of the fabric content is actually recycled nylon — only 50% of Trino socks are actually made from merino wool and tree fibres (which is actually just Tencel). While this isn’t the end of the world, it slightly takes the shine off Allbirds’ snappy branded fabric.
The same can be said for Allbird’s TrinoXO material, which is used to make their apparel line. The XO is for exoskeleton because this material contains Chitosan, a compound which comes from crab shells. While this isn’t particularly unique to Allbirds (a company called Swicofil had already invented Crabyon) the TrinoXO fabric only contains 5% of Chitosan — hardly enough for it to be the key selling point on Allbirds’ product pages.
It’s undeniable that Allbirds is taking huge steps in the right direction, but what this goes to show is that when fabrics are invented and patented by the same company that sells the final product, they can be marketed to seem more revolutionary and exciting than perhaps they really are.
Instead of: leather, PU, or PVC
The debate over whether vegan leather or genuine leather is better (or worse) for the environment has raged on for years, and there are lots of arguments for each side. When it comes to vegan leather, it’s important to know that it can be disguised under many different names, most of which boil down to being polyurethane (PU), polyester or PVC (vinyl) — a material so toxic, Greenpeace called it “poison plastic.” The good news is, there are slightly more sustainable alternatives appearing on the market all the time.
Stella McCartney, a brand which has committed to making all its luxury products out of cruelty-free materials, calls their faux leather “alter-Nappa”. It’s made from both PU and polyester, with a recycled polyester backing. The brand uses solvent-free, water-based PU, which means it uses significantly less water and energy to produce than regular vegan leather. Stella McCartney recognizes that these materials are by no means 100% eco-friendly, so they say they’re continually exploring innovations in the material world.
It’s also worth mentioning the huge growth in innovation around natural leather alternatives, which are made from all manner of plant-based fibres — cactus, mango, apple, cork, and mushroom are just a few that are now available commercially. However, many of these still rely on synthetic binders or coatings, so they aren’t always biodegradable.
Instead of: cotton canvas, technical fabric
The team behind Swiss bag brand QWSTION first came across abacá, a plant of the banana family, in 2015, and spent three years developing it into a biodegradable canvas-like fabric called Bananatex. The abacá plant is mostly grown without the need for pesticides, fertilizer and does not need additional water. It’s often used in the Philippines to reforest areas that have been devastated by palm plantations.
The raw materials are turned into yarn by the brand’s textile partner in Taiwan, after which it is woven into a material that is strong, flexible and durable — perfect for backpacks. Only 1% of the material is off-cut in production, which they say is also biodegradable. QWSTION also coats the material in natural beeswax which makes it waterproof, creating what they say is “the world’s first technical fabric made from banana fibre.” When investigating the impact, Bananatex found a single banana tree offsets the carbon emissions from production and transport at least 10 bags.” Like Allbirds’ SweetFoam, Bananatex is an open-source fabric, with the hopes that more businesses will embrace the innovative material, although there’s not much evidence to suggest Bananatex is commercially sold by any other brands yet.
Instead of: EVA (synthetic rubber)
In 2016, Mississippi-based company Algix released Bloom, the world’s first EVA made partly from algae. The result of almost 10 years of research and development, Bloom is made by harvesting, drying and heating algae until it becomes a kind of bio-plastic, which can be used in footwear and sporting products. Bloom is cleaning waterways and removing carbon from the atmosphere in the process — to date Aglix projects it has cleaned almost 850 million litres of water and more than 524 million cubic meters of carbon from the air. In other words, for every 200 grams of Bloom used, 45 liters of water and 28 cubic metres of carbon is cleaned. A 2015 Life Cycle Assessment of Bloom found that it has fewer negative impacts on ecosystems, climate change, water and energy usage than the plastic it’s blended with.
With algae blooms becoming more common and harmful to the environment, Algix’s transformative technology is a timely innovation. Algae blooms, while also a natural occurrence, can be caused by polluted wastewater and is therefore harmful to people and marine life. To create Bloom, the algae ingredient is mixed with regular petroleum-based EVA, so it’s not a biodegradable material, but it does less than half the carbon footprint of regular EVA. It’s also widely used in the footwear industry by brands like Adidas, H&M, Puma, Red Wing Shoes, Reformation and many more.