Advances in Textile Research Making Clothing More Sustainable

As environmental concerns rise, more researchers and organizations are looking for creative ways to become more sustainable. Many people within the textile industry are experimenting with new materials and different ways of producing and recycling fabrics. From fashion students to scientists to leading brands, here are two of the sustainable projects being developed in the industry.


From tea to textile


Since 2014, students and researchers at Queensland University in Australia have been growing vegan leather from kombucha tea. While the tea ferments, a curd forms on the surface. It can be harvested after a few weeks, and is then washed, oiled, and air dried to create a material with similar qualities to leather. The result is a flexible sheet that can be sewn, glued, or woven.


This fabric takes the shape of the container it is grown in, making it possible to reduce or eliminate waste by producing it in molds shaped for a specific garment. It can also be shaped while it dries, making it possible to create more complex designs by cutting it into strips and layering it over a form. The strips fuse together as they dry, creating one continuous piece.


The leather can easily be dyed while wet. It can also be painted, oiled, and waterproofed — although a truly waterproof coating requires a chemical sealant, preventing the material from being safely biodegradable. Water resistance can be achieved with natural oils or beeswax without affecting sustainability, but the fabric will be unable to withstand a significant amount of rain.


It remains uncertain whether this kombucha leather is viable on a large scale. The challenge of waterproofing is one hurdle, and another is the scent. The fabric naturally has a strong, sweet smell, and while this can be mitigated with products such as oils and beeswax, it is difficult to eliminate altogether. However, even if the material does not become viable in the mass market, it still has value as something that can be easily made at home. It is an affordable, accessible way of making vegan leather that benefits the environment.


Growing a sole


Reebok is also looking to become more sustainable. The company’s president says that their philosophy is to “Be More Human,” and they see sustainability as an important part of that. With that in mind, Reebok has partnered with DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products to create a pair of biodegradable sneakers. DuPont Tate & Lyle has created a petroleum-free product made from industrial corn, called Susterra propanediol, that Reebok is using to make the sole of the shoe. The upper section of the shoe will be made from cotton.


These materials have lent the project its name: the Cotton + Corn initiative. These sneakers are the first products in the initiative, with plans to introduce a wider variety of shoes in the future. The company’s aim is to consider every part of the product’s life cycle: it is made with sustainable materials, but should not suffer in quality because of this. The goal is to produce sneakers that look and perform the same as those made from other materials when in use. And at the end of the product’s life, the entire shoe is compostable.


There are many other materials currently being experimented with, with textiles being created out of everything from wine-making leftovers to manure. As industry leaders such as Adidas and H&M become more involved in the creation and use of these materials, sustainability will become more widespread both within the market and beyond it.


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