Food waste is being remade into fashion
Businesses are finding new ways to put some of the world's 1.3 billion tons of wasted food to good use: taking the fibers from food and turning them into fabric. You read that right. Instead of contributing to the world's greenhouse gas emissions, estimated by the United Nations at seven percent of the total output, food waste can become fashion.
Nau of Portland, Oregon has been spinning coconut husks into insulation material for down jackets since 2011. Orange Fiber of Sicily, Italy uses the city’s wasted orange byproducts to create silk-like fabric and clothing. Madrid-based Ecoalf mixes coffee grounds into recycled polyester or nylon polymers to create yarn. And Tidal Vision, in Alaska, is turning discarded crab shells into shirts and salmon skin into bags and wallets.
At least one new company, Circular Systems is aiming to help farmers as well. Its technology takes food crop waste, like banana by-products, pineapple leaves, flax and hemp stalk, and the waste from crushing sugar cane, and turns it into a natural fiber. What would ordinarily be burned or left to rot, releasing carbon dioxide and gas into the atmosphere, gets a second life as fabric. Just these five key waste products, says founder Isaac Nichelson, offer around 250 million tons of fiber each year, and could meet 2.5 times the global demand for fiber currently. As an added bonus, the system can be used by crop farmers to turn crop waste into extra revenue.
reinventing leather and reusing plastic
The food waste-to-fashion trend is part of a larger biofabrication movement whereby companies remake readily available products to be more environmentally friendly. Many companies, for instance, are focusing on removing plastic from the supply chain and design process. “The fact is that we don’t believe that plastic can be contained by recycling structures,” says Cyrill Gutsch, founder of the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans. “That’s the design failure. The material itself needs to be reinvented.” Among other successful collaborations, Parley worked with Adidas to develop best-selling shoes knit entirely from plastic ocean waste.
Other companies are developing more humane, environmentally friendly alternatives to leather. Bolt Threads of Emeryville, California, is turning mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms, into a leather-like material called Mylo. Unlike leather, says the company, “Mylo doesn’t involve raising and sacrificing livestock, or any of the associated greenhouse gases or material wastes.” Modern Meadow in Nutley, New Jersey, has just released Zoa™, a product inspired by leather that starts with an animal-free process. Modern Meadow designs, grows, and assembles collagen, the building block of skin. It's then assembled into a network of fibers, and tanned.
sustainable production is just better for business
Most of the food waste-to-fashion companies are still new enough that their product hasn't hit the market, like Modern Meadow, or are figuring out how to scale up production. But Hugo Boss recently launched a "vegan" menswear shoe produced with natural-based material made of pineapple leaf fibers. The company is anticipating demand for sustainable clothing will grow, thanks to young people. In fact several studies have confirmed that upwards of 65 to 70 percent of consumers under 35 around the world report that they will choose brands or retailers based on their ethical practices.
But the real push for a more sustainable means of sourcing and production may come from within the fashion industry itself. A Business and Fashion survey conducted by McKinsey, predicted the “industry will see losses of of 3 to 4 percent across the board unless companies can rethink their supply chains to provide for more resource efficiency and less waste” and that “sustainability will be an integral part of the planning system” for fashion brand economies.
Circular System's Nichelson, who became interested in using natural materials to create fabric in the 1990s after he walked past a textile facility in Portland, Oregon and nearly passed out from the fumes, is optimistic. “All of our industries need to be retrofitted for real sustainability and become regenerative by nature," he says, "and it will be better for business.”
Takeaway: Want to support this planet-friendly trend? Search for sustainably produced clothes to buy, and show them off to your friends.