Rose petals, algae, and even human sweat—these are just some of the natural materials being used to create more eco-friendly materials in fashion right now, thanks to a wealth of young designers and fabric makers who are looking to reduce the industry’s climate impact head-on.
“Materials matter—they account for highly significant impacts across the supply chain,” explains Amanda Johnston, curator and consultant for The Sustainable Angle Future Fabrics Expo, pointing to the use of non-organic cotton and petroleum-based nylons as an example. “As we move into this new decade, it’s imperative we look [for material alternatives],” adds Nina Marenzi, the founder and director of The Sustainable Angle.
New biodegradable textiles created using natural byproducts are being developed, too, in response to fashion’s waste problem, which sees millions of garments ending up in landfill every year. Meanwhile, the rise of veganism across the globe has also led to a number of cruelty-free, plant-based fibres being produced.
Here, Vogue rounds up five of the most innovative, new-gen materials that could change our closets—and its impact on the climate—forever.
1. Rose petal silk
As traditional silk is often harvested from silkworms that are killed (although peace silk, produced using non-violent methods, does exist), some fashion brands have turned to plant-based alternatives, with Stella McCartney using a lab-grown version and Salvatore Ferragamo opting for one made from orange peel.
Rose petal silk, though, is the latest offering. “It derives from an Indian rose bush,” explains William Lundgren, CEO of London and Stockholm-based brand Bite Studios, which uses the silk in its signature shirting. Dyed using natural pigments, the biodegradable fabric is made using waste petals that are broken down and spun into fibres. “It’s smooth and lustrous in its touch and the rose bushes do not demand chemicals in order to grow,” he says.
2. Algae bioplastic
© Courtesy Charlotte McCurdy
The materials used to make our clothes could actually have a positive effect on the planet, by taking CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, which is where algae—the type found naturally in our ponds, rivers and oceans—come in.
“Algae are the most efficient organisms on earth,” says New York designer Charlotte McCurdy, who has created an algae-based weatherproof fabric by mixing powdered seaweed with fats from differing kinds of algae, before buffing with plant-based waxes to create water resistance. “It feels like something between a waxed canvas and a PVC vinyl,” she explains.
There’s also the potential for your underwear and T-shirts to be made from algae, as Berlin-based company Algalife has proven with the development of their cotton-like material.
3. Sweat crystals
Sweat is the more unlikely natural resource being turned into crystals to adorn garments, thanks to sustainable material innovator and London Royal College of Art graduate Alice Potts. “Mined crystals are a non-renewable resource; there are issues around labour, linked to human rights violations,” she explains, describing how she has instead developed a technical process that allows crystals to naturally grow from sweat.
Potts harvests sweat from a human using an object they have worn before (say, a pair of socks). In the lab, she separates the bacteria and grows it naturally back onto different garments, such as an evening dress, or a collar—crystals can form within four hours. Each is entirely unique—“like human diamonds”.
4. Pineapple leather
Mariam Al Sibai AW20 made with Piñatex.
© Photography Michelle Terris
Piñatex—or pineapple leather—is one of the most popular alternative leathers on the market (mushroom and cactus leather being other options), used by brands such as H&M, Hugo Boss and Paul Smith. Crafted from pineapple leaves, Piñatex was conceived in the 1990s by Dr Carmen Hijosa, a former leather goods consultant working in the Philippines, after she discovered the impact of mass leather production and chemical tanning.
“It’s a durable material that doesn’t use the petro-chemicals commonly used for ‘faux leather’,” explains The Sustainable Angle’s Marenzi. Fibres are extracted naturally and sun-dried, before being mixed with a corn-based material to create a felt-like fibre, which has a wider grain than that of conventional cow’s leather.
5. Soy cashmere
Wool can be sourced sustainably and transparently—as through Australian nonprofit The Woolmark Company—but there are often murkier supply chains involved, with cashmere production in particular linked to mass deforestation of grasslands in Mongolia.
Enter KD New York, an athleisure brand that in 2019 pioneered a plant-based cashmere. Made out of waste soy protein from tofu production that’s broken down into pulp and spun into fibres, the wool is anti-bacterial, moth resistant and machine washable.