Future Fabrics Expo 2021: Biodiversity, Natural Fibres and Regenerative Textiles

Stephanie Steele Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Future Fabrics Expo, hosted by textile consultancy The Sustainable Angle, is always an exciting showcase of trends within the ethical and sustainable textile realm. Though it could be a space that preaches to the converted - because everyone who visits is already interested in finding more responsible materials for their creative business - it is actually a space that opens up conversations and educates on current and incoming matters relating to textiles. In fact, since the last Expo just before the worst of lockdown back in February 2020, there have clearly been significant developments in the production and marketing of certain fibres, for instance with terminology "regenerative" and "indigenous" being visible on fabric hangers, and materials leaning towards slower approaches that can improve biodiversity.

In this article we highlight some of these developments. We cannot share everything we saw, but wanted to take note of what we felt had changed and improved within sustainable textiles over the last year. If you are interested in sourcing responsible fabrics, you can sign up as a member on The Future Fabrics expo showcase, or alternatively, join The Sustainable Fashion Collective® as a Professional Member to gain access to our Eco Supplier Matrix along with almost 50 full Masterclasses covering business and textiles.

Thumbnail image: from The Sustainable Angle


Main themes

The key message of the expo was how we can reimagine current industry practice so that we are valuing the resources that our Earth provides, thereby reducing and managing waste and transforming the take>make>waste linear system of now into a circular collaborative system.

Planetary Boundaries

The world's population is forecasted to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 (we're at 7.9 billion now in 2021). We are dependent on finite natural resources including fossil fuels, which helps to make 62.1% of our synthetic fibres, along with synthetic fertilisers for non-organic cotton, the energy for production of all machine-made textiles, and the manufacturing of our products. The planetary boundaries concept presents a set of nine "planetary boundaries" within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come, by decoupling ourselves from fossil fuels and using regenerative practices.

Doughnut Economics

Our drive for endless growth is pushing certain boundaries over their limits, causing catastrophic damage to levels of poverty, access to clean water, decline in wellbeing for health and mental reasons, and affect on obtaining resources in the future due to shortfalls. Kate Raworth's proposal connects social foundations with these planetary boundaries - or the 'ecological ceiling' - so that it is understand what humans need and want for their survival, and what our Earth can actually provide.

Regeneration

The textile and fashion industries can have a positive impact on the land and resources by looking to regenerative and restorative practices and systems, for instance by drawing down carbon into the soil, or by having a biodiversity in fibre use to prevent too much extraction of one type while increasing pollinating plants and boosting soil health. Our current system sees monoculture fields, genetic modification for high yields, inputs of chemical fertilisers and biocides, and intense water and energy use. There are traditional, indigenous and common sense approaches to farming that can serve to support people and planet, and the textile and fashion industries should hold themselves accountable for past damage.

Biodiversity

"Biodiversity is the variety of life that can be found on Earth, and includes plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms, as well as the communties they form and the habitats in which they live. Biodiversity underpins life and society and yet, we have lost 60% of species and ecosystem functionality in the last 50 years." ~ WWF Living Planet Report, 2018.

  • Land > Fashion and textiles can affect our ecosystem negatively and positively through its agriculture, raw material use and production processes. Current food and land use systems cause up to 30% of total CO2 emissions and are the leading cause of continued conversion of tropical forests, grasslands, wetlands and other natural habitats [Food and Land Use Coalition, 2019]. Along with this land conversion, the land management of what remains and what has been converted can have ripple effects on terrestrial biodiversity (see 'forests' below).
  • CO2 > The fashion industry, including the production of all clothing, contributes to around 10% of global CO2 emissions due to its long supply chains and energy intensive processes - more energy than the shipping and aviation industries combined [UNFCCC: Ellen Macarthur Foundation's A New Textile Economy, 2017].
  • Species > 72% of species are endangered by overexploitation, and 62% of species are endangered by agricultural activity. As a comparison, 19% of species are considered threatened by climate change (though we question whether you can separate climate change out as a non-man made system, and so whether the species threatened by human activity ought to be included here anyway) [IUCN Red List, 2016].
  • Water > agricultural residues such as chemical pesticides find their way into water streams as runoff, and dyes, auxiliaries, softening agents etc all for the most part end up directly in rivers. This causes oxygen depletion for animals, increases algal growth, and the harmful substances within runoffs find their way into food via plants and fish.
  • Forests > Only 68% of the Earth's forests that existed before the industrial revolution remain, and along with this, habitat degradation because of the loss of this forest currently threatens one million species [UN IPBES Report, 2019].

But what can we do to mitigate this?

  • Regenerative approaches > see our article on what regenerative agriculture practices are.
  • Non-intensive farming production > beneficial for food and materials, this looks to systems that support animal welfare and eliminate intense feedlots. Though not all farming exists for the material itself e.g. leather and wool, by demanding a change for one, change can driven for the beginning processes.
  • Material and process innovations > being holistic with production processes so that whatever you do has a beneficial impact on land and people e.g. traditional fibres that take agricultural waste away while supporting local livelihoods, or plant-based dyes that support crop interplanting for year-round soil health.
  • Protect natural forests > consider where the fibres you are using come from, and if they are contributing to deforestation or loss of livelihood for indigenous communities. See our interview with Satelligence to learn more about how fibres can aid deforestation.
  • Support supply chain actors > there are small and large elements of your supply chain, and there may be limited transparency in both, however, doing your utmost to investigate and then support work that is benefiting people and planet can have a knock on effect in terms of other supply chain processes and processors.
  • Conservation of key species > we would remove the 'key' and say to conserve all species, as the ecoysystem balance may not be obvious until years later. There are some occasions where conservation needs to be managed by man to prevent species loss e.g. alligators, though it can also be about parity in use of fibres, minerals, animals, forestry etc so that not one species disappears.
  • Diversify portfolio of fibres > consider wild fibres, agricultural byproducts, less-used plant and animal fibres, or just reinventing classics so that they are less damaging and intensive.
  • Fight for science > build partnerships with institutions and experts that are developing research projects and reports with science-based outcomes so that there is evidential proof of changes, both negative and positive.

Materials

Wool

Awareness of negative and positive impacts

One of the key increases we have seen over the last five years or so (as arbitrary as that number is, there has been a great surge over this time period), is awareness in the negative impact wool production can have on our land, as well as how much wastage there is by not valuing the material. Producers then, are looking at solutions that will provide benefit to people and planet, as well as of course increasing the lives of animals. Most wool and animal fibres are sheared for the preservation of animal wellbeing (so that they do not overheat or get caught in hedges), and yet there is overexploitation of these animals for the high price that their "exotic" hairs can fetch, notably cashmere goats, vicuña and yak.

Regenerative land management

The South Gobi Cashmere Project is a partnership between the Kering Group and Wildlife Conservation Society, and also the Rio Tinto mining company in Mongolia, with the aim of helping herders switch to sustainable grazing practices that will improve pasture quality, fibre quality and conserve biodiversity. You can learn more about the negative and positive impact that cashmere and exotic animal hair production has, in our conversation on responsible sourcing with woollen fibre spinning company UPW

The Savory Institute is a global movement of farmers and land managers working to implement and educate on holistic management practices in order to facilitate regeneration. Their Ecological Outcome Verification methodology is at the forefront of the Land To Market Programme, a verification for brands using regenerative solutions, and looks to protocols in soil and ecosystem health as well as science-based outcomes from the monitoring of the data from these practices. It also examines the belief that animal farming causes worse greenhouse gas emissions, by providing data on positive impacts grazing can have on carbon sequestration.

Soil health and land management varies across the globe, and so needs to be considered according to local needs within a global projection, which is where projects like the South Gobi Cashmere Project or indeed Fernhill Farm's methods in Somerset, UK can have both immediate and long-lasting positive impacts. Learn more about Fernhill Farm and responsible wool production in our panel discussion with Jen Hunter and Bristol Cloth.

Producers and suppliers
  1. C.L.A.S.S. - a marketplace that brings together a range of sustainable materials. The Italian-made Re.Verso™ fibre takes high-quality pre-consumer and takeback scheme wool and cashmere. Unfortunately a lot of recycled wool cloths do need to be blended with a synthetic fibre to improve tenacity, though at least this fibre was created from already-blue yarns so avoiding the need for dyeing.
  2. Doppelhaus® - a non-woven textile company with signature Cloudwool® materials created from British wool. They keep the Cradle To Cradle philosophy in mind, so ensuring for instance full circularity of materials, and for this particular textile that uses coloured nylon fibres as decoration we imagine it can be picked off leaving the wool intact. Non-woven textiles do not require spinning or weaving, so reducing a lot of energy intensive processes and labour. Learn more about this process and the company in our interview with Martin and Yolanda.
  3. Lebenskleidung - holisitic fabric producer in Germany. After chatting with this producer about how they create value along their supply chain, we were very pleased to see their textiles in the flesh. As with Doppelhaus above, this particular non-woven textile uses the Cloudwool® technology to stabilise local regenerative elbwolle™ wool fibres onto organic jute hessian (get it here). You can also get 100% elbwolle™ cloth from them, and a GOTS-certified organic merino boiled wool, which is very exciting.
  4. UPW - the largest woollen yarn spinner in the world, producing responsible collections that are always in stock. It was wonderful to see and touch a selection of fabrics knitted using UPW's yarn, mostly made from "noble" animal fibres including yak, cashmere and mohair. One of the key themes of this expo is increasing biodiversity of fibres, so looking to a range of less-used fibres can reduce strain elsewhere, especially when you consider the performance characteristics of wool fibres. You may also like to learn how animals are managed and fibres harvested in rural communities in our interview with Good Growth Company.

Silk

Ecological damage

While there is demonstrable negative impact on animal welfare when they are kept in intensive conditions (no matter what the animal), there is little conversation around the ecological damage that in particular silk production can have. When you consider how fine silk thread is, and how small silk caterpillars are, and how much they actually need to eat in their short approximately 42 day lifespan, you start to picture how many trees are required to keep them alive in order to cultivate their fibre. There are contrasting reports on how many silkworms are required to make an item of clothing (ranging from 1000 to 50,000), but it tends to appear that it takes 1500 kilograms of mulberry leaves per cocoon to spin 8 kilograms of thread. It is of course still difficult to envision what this looks like, but with traditional silk cultivation, the more the caterpillars are fed, the quicker they grow and the higher the yield will be - especially if they are killed inside the cocoon before they have chance to eat all of the protein and emerge as a moth.

Regenerative practices

This is where regenerative practices can be implemented so that silk cultivation can be of benefit to people and planet - as well as providing some semblance of animal wellbeing. For instance, ensuring organic pest and crop management, terrace farming or forest gardening, and intercropped alleys so that food crops can be grown too. It was highlighted very nicely by these diagrams from silk producers Bombyx:

Producers and suppliers
  1. Bombyx - sericulture producers in China who use regenerative techniques for the growing of the mulberry leaves fed to their silkworm army. This particular textile caught our eye as it is made from the cocoons; SEPALI process the 100kgs of cocoon shells each year (via 20 households) to create home and craft textiles, it seems similar to or via Ta'Na'Na. Somewhat strangely you can watch a live stream of the silkworm nursey at Bombyx.
  2. Farfarm - they take agricultural products and waste to promote social development within sustainable supply chains, one of which is this beautiful silk straw textile, mostly for home and interiors. It's not actually silk, and were you to do an online search, you wouldn't find much about it (similar to our investigation into sabra silk, a fibre from the agave plant). However, it is a paper-like textile created using mulberry leaves/stems, which is where the 'silk' part comes from. As a textile it has lustre and strength, similar to a flax fibre.
  3. Mantero - an Italian silk textile producer that has developed a recycled silk fibre, Resilk® with partner Ecotec© by Marchi & Fildi. They select pure silk excess production material, seconds, scraps, branded fabrics and obsolete stock that are then cut and shredded with appropriate machines to create silk flakes, then spun to create a regenerated pure silk yarn. For anyone wanting the characteristics of silk, but perhaps wants to shy away from the initial production processes and use a current waste stream, this could be for you.
  4. Seidentraum - a producer and retailer of peace silk fabrics that are harvested and woven within the Himalayan regions of India. For this particular jersey textile they have partnered with Alkena Silk who cultivate their silk to biodynamic principles, a term that was especially astonishing to find stated at a textile trade show. Biodynamic principles are similar to organic and regenerative, though is more rooted in recognising the spirit of nature in all we do.

Trims and components

  1. C.L.A.S.S. - as mentioned above. These are particularly interesting because they combine natural fibres to create a natural padding, one of which is an organic cotton-linen-PLA blend and the other (top one in blue) being recycled cashmere with the PLA acting as a thermal bond. Though there are specific issues in using bio-polymers like Ingeo™ as an alternative to synthetics, it is a benefit to garments requiring being all natural.
  2. HD(R) Wool Apparel Insulation - being Yorkshire wool merchants for five generations, it is compelling that this company are taking trends for biodegradable and all-natural garments and running with it to create a natural outdoor garment insulation.
  3. Inti Tech Lab - a research institution of Argentina, who have taken the native Palo Barracho "silk floss" tree as the basis for a new fibre. The cotton-like cellulose fibre within the capsules of this tree are felted together using little more than shampoo, so creating a non-woven material that could be used as lining or padding. Learn more about using unusual native plants for fibre in this interview with Faborg and their milkweed "vegan wool" fibre (unfortunately we didn't see examples of this on show at the expo).
  4. Thermore - since the 1980's this fibre producer has been researching the use of PET plastic bottles as fibre and in the last years have brought out the Ecodown® range of rPET paddings, perfect for outdoor and performance wear that is already synthetic or requires being lightweight and quick drying.
  5. The Sustainable Sequin Company - if you are looking for embellishment, the recycled polyester sequins will add an alternative to the current non-transparent nature of trims - where do sequins even get made? Rachel also produces biodegradable bioplastic sequins if you want something ephemeral. You can actually learn more about this product in our lesson from Rachel.

Cotton

  1. Circular Systems - a material science company developing a range of textiles that benefit and value existing production models, for instance agricultural and pre-consumer fibre waste. After chatting twice with the team, it was wonderful to see their fabrics in real life. Though none of the Agraloop textile (agricultural waste like hemp straw) was on show, here there were various jerseys made from yarns of Orbital™ (organic and recycled blended together for high-performance) and Texloop™ (pre- and post-consumer textile waste). Learn more about making fibre from agricultural waste with Ricardo, and how recycled fibres are processed and technologies shared within the textile production industry with Linus, two very interesting and charming chaps from the Circular Systems team.
  2. Hallotex - a production facility in Morocco with an almost fully vertically-integrated structure meaning they have control over yarn production to finished garment. They have developed The Loop™ recycling process to take textile waste that is collected, sorted and shredded within only a short distance (Catalonia and Tangier). Though recycled fibres doesn't seem to be an innovation anymore for mills, we like that Hallotex seem to not want to add the dyeing process, despite their facilities and expertise, to keep this a neutral fibre. A note as well that if you are looking for recycled fibres, to ensure you are aware of the fibre content - most do not use more than 40% recycled fibre because of the yarn integrity, and this one in particular has only 5% recycled content blended with other fibre types.
  3. Natural Dye House - another opportunity for us to see in person what we have had direct conversations about. Natural Dye House have scaled up natural dye solutions so that it is possible for plant dyes to be commercially accessible. Learn more from COO of Natural Dye House, Raaja Rajan, on why we should use natural dyes for fashion and how to scale natural dyes for fashion in these lessons.

Leathers and alternatives

  1. Barktex® - makers of tree bark "fleece", a material without any additives, barkcloth is one of the oldest known materials to grace our bodies. You can see it on show at the British Museum. They also create Barktex®, a more performance-ready version of barkcloth that utilises textile, wood, leather and polymer technologies. Barktex® have also branched out (pun intended) to rubber, where they work with the UN project Couro Vegetal da Amazônia and 200 local indigenous Amazonian communities to tap natural latex that covers cotton sheets so creating vulcanized rubber. They are also working to produce VegaPlac, a family of 1mm composite sheets made from plant fibres (residues from food industry and vegetable-based polyurethanes).
  2. Natural Fiber Welding - unfortunately another company that is difficult to get information out of, they produce a material called Mirum® from natural, biodegradable polymers that require no synthetic binders or coatings. It looks like the material is now purchasable, after the company have scaled and grown their pilot from 2015.
  3. Flavia Amadeu - they work with and support small producers and artisans in the Amazon who's livelihood and wellbeing depend on the natural resources around them, including the wild rubber trees that natural latex is tapped from. The coloured wild rubber process was developed by the Project Tecbor/Lateq from the University of Brasília, Brazil and enables the producers to create a valuable product using simple techniques and low cost substances. The result is a high quality material that can be used for producing countless design products and artefacts. Learn how wild rubber is tapped and indigenous communities supported in this Technical Tutorial from Flavia Amadeu herself.
  4. Desserto® - everyone wants to use "cactus leather" now, a material that comes from the mature leaves of the prickly pear Nopal cactus. They are one of the few leather alternative producers that are open about what they are producing and how, notably because it is commercially available. You do have to request a bio-based coating (unlike the synthetic polyurethane shown here), and at least the backing is cotton so you can have a biodegradable material.
  5. Eredi Mezzabotta - this producer has in fact switched to selling PPE on their website, and the site that listed their materials is out of action so perhaps they are no longer producing, but on show was a bonded leather created from recycled leather and virgin materials. It was flexible but stiff and after seeing Recycleather's material at Premiére Vision one year, recycled leather could be an option for many product categories.
  6. Nova Kaeru - a producer of "bioleathers", notably salmon skin. The pirarucu salmon skin comes as a byproduct of from sustainably-farmed Amazonian salmon fish, which is then dyed using a blend of biodegradable acrylic resins, polymers, synthetic tannins and vegetables. Their other product, cutely named beLEAF™ (image with notebook showing the fabric backing) sources local elephant ear leaves grown on "reforestation" farms that are then organically tanned, providing a really unique leaf-shaped material you don't even want to cut up for your product.
  7. Vulcana - as car tyres go to landfill, Vulcana mechanically recycle this wonderfully performative material in order to create new sheets known as rubbRe™. Shown here is one of the Füzun line that takes rubbRe™ and adds a nylon or hemp fabric backing to create a more pliable material.
  8. Ono Collaborations - makers of sustainable cork fabrics that use a cork top and lyocell fabric backing fixed with water-based glue. As cork has become more fashionable in recent years, these funky colours surely make this even more appeaking to various product categories, while the Tencel™ backing provides flexibility and softness. The appearance of it reminded us of the astounding company Paper No.9 who handcraft a textile from recycled paper and animal/plastic-free ingredients.

Bast and leaf fibres

Bast fibres include hemp, flax (linen) and jute, "bast" referring to the inner bark of woody plant stems. Leaf fibres include those fibres that come from the inside of leaves, including banana (abaca), pineapple (piña) and sisal.

There has been an increase in awareness that these fibres can be used beautifully for fashion and interiors, and do not need to be all neutral colours or coarse hand feels. In fact, bast and leaf fibres offer characteristics that suit trans-seasonal garments along with an array of applications that make it worthwhile pushing forward the processing infrastructure. Especially when you consider the age of these fibres, in terms of how long people have been working with them for creating clothing and shelter, the traditional processing is labour intensive with skills being passed on generationally, and usually by indigenous communities where access to machinery is limited or unwanted. For these reasons, bast and leaf fibres are becoming more appealing as the need to slow down and have less impact on people and planet increases. However, this requires an understanding too that until demand and infrastructure increases, prices will remain high and accessibility will remain low.

  1. Ananas Anam - B Corp Certified development company and makers of the popular - yet ubiquitous - Piñatex® non-woven pineapple fibre material. Pineapple leaves are a waste product of the pineapple fruit harvest, and so for millennia, the fibres from these leaves have been used to create fibre for clothing and shelter. With an increase in interest for "traditional" fibres, Ananas Anam have been able to become synonymous with pineapple fibre and have a following for plenty of fashion products. For small designers however, it is proving difficult to get hold of. It is always nice to see fabrics at trade shows to truly understand the feel and appearance, but it can be disappointing when you know you may not be able to use it - as can be seen with plenty of the leather alternatives above. Learn about how pineapple fibres are harvested and processed in our article.
  2. Huston Textile Co. - a self-titled farm-to-fabric manufacturer, they work with US-grown fibres and weave in their Californian mill, including wool from Northern California, organic cotton from West Texas, and hemp, which can only be legally grown in a few countries across the world. The minimums are high at 600 yards, but for a fashion label making a small production run of high quality comfortable garments, this is a realy super textile. They also state that they do bespoke runs.
  3. Vegan Textile and Innovation - there are many elements of the textile production process that you may not consider unless you are vegan, but even with cotton cultivation, animal products may be used, for instance in the form of manure. So this company ensure regenerative practices are used for the fibre, with plant-based compost only, and no animal fat for the processing (usually used in scouring). They say they are dedicated to manufacture silk-like luxury textiles out of plant or agricultural waste.

Footwear

Just a small exhibit at the expo for footwear, but as more fashion labels look to leather alternatives or design-for-disassembly manufacturing, textiles have become a new thing. Lenzing have then made a show of their Tencel™ yarns that can be used for the whole of the shoe - something we are hoping to touch base on for our upcoming Footwear Masterclass.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. We hope that it has brought to light some textile innovations and companies that you could source from. If you are a fashion or creative business looking for guidance and expert advice on implementing responsible practices, join our Collective as a Professional Member today.