Fabric of the Future: High-tech Clothing Better for the Planet

3D printing, nanotechnology, and embedded sensors: the future is now when it comes to wearable tech. And though we welcome the possibilities that it brings, does it help us lower our carbon footprint? Much of the flashy stuff actually relies heavily on components that are not that great for the planet, thus for us. But innovations in sourcing and manufacturing are giving fashion designers and retail corporations more options that could green up the industries quite a bit.

It is like that old saying: “not all progress is good progress.” Nanoparticles have been introduced into clothing, especially silver, to resist stains, and imbue clothes with antibacterial and antifungal properties. But just as zinc was popularized in nano form to absorb better when used in sunscreen, it was shown to have potentially adverse health effects. These new substances have not been thoroughly tested, so it is unclear to say what can happen when these tiny particles are absorbed into the bloodstream.

Regarding electronics, advancements are being made not just in what we put into textiles, but how and from what we make textiles. Our most commonly used natural fibers are the same that we have used for millennia, cotton and wool. But rayon is a fabric that comes from natural sources, by very unnatural processes, and has only been around since 1891. Since then, we have discovered new ways of extracting wearable material from all manner of plants, like bamboo, soybeans, and even seaweed.

While natural fibers are for the most part the most ecologically way to create fabric, the way they are produced greatly impacts the footprint of the finished product. The above example, rayon, was originally made from wood pulp, and marketed in the 1920s as “artificial silk.” In some forms, it refers to as viscose and acetate, and in mass production it uses chemically-intensive processes to make flexible and durable threads from cellulose.

Efforts have been made to create a natural way of processing cellulose, and sourcing from sustainable plants. Fabric manufacturers have started doing this with bamboo and eucalyptus trees, both of which are fast-growing crops and considered eco-friendly, labelled lyocell, and branded as Tencel. While this fabric can be sustainable, it is important to distinguish organic, from its less healthy alternatives.

Organic rayon is made with its own crops, and making fabric from agricultural by-products is a great way to ensure less waste to be disposed of. That is one benefit from soybean silk, also known as soysilk. The processing concerns are similar to those of rayon, but brands are adopting closed-loop processes that greatly cut down on wastewater, and organic processes that use non-toxic chemicals. It is popular as a craft yarn with consumers espousing its cashmere-like softness, and garment care qualities similar to cotton.

While seaweed is famous for its culinary uses, and even as a source of alternative fuel, it can also be used to create a silk-like fabric that some brands boast would improve your skin health. While the skin health claims are still to be confirmed, brown algae forms the basis of this material that has been used in Hugo Boss underwear and in bedsheets.

Plant based fibers may provide the bulk of the material for our clothing, but what about updating leather goods?

Conventional leather is cultivated from a highly polluting source: animals, and removing that part of the equation would limit the quantities of waste that gets created by cattle. While arguably a by-product of the meat industry, Americans are eating 19 percent less beef than they did before 2005, so this industry would do well to get animal-free if those numbers continue to decrease. Additionally, so much animal skin is not usable as leather: the trimmings of irregular-shaped hides, scars and wound areas, and other variables in texture all have to be thrown away. But vegan leather does not offer suitable substitutes, as it is mostly made from petrochemical-based fabric that disintegrates after several years - it definitely does not get better with age.

Enter Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based bioengineering company that “grows” leather from DNA and collagen, began in 2011 with growing animal-free beef, but decided to focus on leather in 2013 when they received support from fashion and luxury brands. Their process cuts out reliance on cultivating resource-heavy cows and other animals, who create not only greenhouse gases, but enormous amounts of waste that needs to be treated and disposed of. The “bioleather” is grown to exact dimensions, and can be molded to take the appearance of not only common leathers but exotic skins like lizard or ostrich. After this efficient process, the material is then finished using environmentally friendly tanning methods. The result is familiar, despite its process made: it simply looks and feels like traditional leather.

These new technologies will end up producing products we are accustomed to, and the process will have an impact on our lives. While smart underwear or self-healing jackets are gimmicky and exciting, they do not do much for our air and water quality. But if we are looking to the future, making fashion green is a big step forward in creating a greener world.