New age plant-based textiles are the answer to the fashion industry’s waste problem. Eco-consciousness has become mainstream and more consumers are turning to sustainable brands in a bid to reduce their carbon footprint. The pivotal shift in public thinking is a turning point for the industry. Sustainable brands and fabrics have moved from the fringes of the sartorial scene to become the demand of modern-day shoppers. The global ethical fashion market size reached a value of nearly $6.35 billion in 2019, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.7% since 2015. The market is expected to grow from $6.35 billion in 2019 to $8.25 billion in 2023 at CAGR of 6.8%. This impressive growth can be attributed to the increasing awareness among the public. According to sustainable fashion industry statistics, the market is expected to grow further to $9.81 billion in 2025 and $15.17 billion in 2030 at a CAGR of 9.1%.
The launch of H&M’s Conscious Exclusive line is an indication of conventional brands shifting away from synthetic fibres to organic, eco-friendly fabrics to address issues of waste and environmental impact of apparel manufacturing. Cutting edge technology is helping designers to create clothing out of fruit and vegetable waste. Vegan leather, an alternative to faux leather, is an eco-friendly material that is being used by luxury and high street brands to forge high-quality, durable leather products. Unlike traditional leather (which comes from animals) and faux leather (made from plastic), vegan leather is made from innovative materials like pineapple leaves, mushrooms, cork, apple peels, other fruit waste, and recycled plastic. Designers like Stella McCartney have shown their commitment to sustainability by featuring only vegan leather in their collections.
Some of the most talked-about plant-based textiles are Piñatex (a textile made from pineapple skins), Orange Fiber (a silk alternative made from orange peels), Fleather (a plant-based leather made from discarded temple flowers), and Desserto (vegan leather made from nopal cactus leaves). Until recently, a lot of animal-based leather alternatives were manufactured purely from recycled plastic but the advent of new-age technology has allowed innovators to use bio-waste to create a greater variety of green fabrics that have a lower carbon emission and are partially or fully compostable.
Natural fabrics like cotton and wool break down easily in the environment and have been used by the apparel industry for generations. However, cotton is a very water-intensive crop and it’s responsible for groundwater depletion in drought-prone areas. There is also a significant degree of forced and child labour in the conventional global cotton trade. Wool, on the other hand, comes from sheep. The rise of veganism in the 21st century has forced companies to think of vegan options not only in food but also in clothing. Awareness of widespread animal abuse issues in the fur and wool industry has driven customers to find more ethical and sustainable alternatives. Ethical alternatives to cotton are fabrics like lyocell and modal. These fabrics are made from wood pulp. Bamboo lyocell is one of the best cotton alternatives out there because bamboo is a very sustainable material. Additionally, another sustainable crop that is increasingly being used to manufacture clothes and accessories is hemp. The soft texture of hemp, when mixed with other materials like wool, cotton, linen, or silk, makes it ideal for woven clothing items while adding more strength and durability to the product.
Many brands are taking on the issues of waste and carbon emissions head-on. Adventure clothing brand Vollebek has created a one of a kind plant and algae-based tee-shirt that completely biodegrades in three months. The tee shirt is made from eucalyptus, beech, and spruce pulp. It also uses printable ink extracted from cultured algae as opposed to synthetic ink. So at the end of its life cycle, the tee-shirt breaks down into finer particles in the soil instead of ending up at a landfill. Shoemaker Veja is shining a spotlight on vegan shoes made with vegan leather. While not all of Veja shoes are vegan (some of them are made from sustainable animal leather), the French brand has incorporated upcycled corn waste to create its line of vegan shoes. The brand is incredibly popular and just goes to show that if conventional brands truly commit to sustainability, the consumers will continue to come to them. Even purist luxury brands are delving into plant-based textile and augmenting vegan elements in their collections to bring about more sustainability in their supply chains.
The high cost of fashion can only be counteracted when there is comprehensive action from every corner of the industry. There needs to be greater effort to reuse, recycle, and upcycle fabrics to protect the environment and keep clothes out of the landfills. For future collections, brands need to vigorously assess how they can support ethical practices and become more sustainable. Greenwashing will simply not cut anymore. The time to repair the damage is now. Everything going forward must be created with recyclability, durability, reusability, and sustainability in mind.