As the population grows, prime farmland is diminishing. The combination of these two opposing realities makes larger questions about how to source the fiber we use to make clothing much more difficult to answer.
For one, natural fibers like often cotton require the same farmland and resources as food crops. And while the global demand for synthetic fibers is more than double that of natural fibers, most of it is petroleum-based polyester, a non-renewable resource.
“Existing textiles will not be able to satisfy the increasing demand in quantities and quality,” says fiber entrepreneur Enrica Arena. They key, she adds, is to focus on reusing natural byproducts that are not rival to food consumption, but that can provide sustainable resources. In other words: making clothes out of food waste and food by-products.
“We have to solve the problems of food and clothing for a world that is expanding,” says University of Nebraska Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design professor and textile chemical engineer Yiqi Yang. Yang and his team have been researching two main food products and their potential to be turned into fiber: corn husks and chicken feathers, both by-products of large food industries.
Cotton accounts for about a third of overall fiber consumption, and is a crop whose production demands huge quantities of water and chemicals to grow. Finding innovative ways to turn food waste into fiber is an opportunity to maximize on space available for crops, reduce the amount of waste and agricultural by-products entering landfills, and reduce dependence on petroleum-based products.
In Italy, two designers have focused on the potential of one of their country’s big agricultural crops: citrus. In 2011, Adriana Santanocito was studying Fashion Design in Milan, writing her thesis on sustainable materials. She and Arena began to research the potential of oranges, which are processed for orange juice in Sicily, resulting in 700,000 tons of annual waste.
“This waste represented a cause for the closing of some citrus juice companies,” says Arena, either because of illegal disposal or because correct disposal is too expensive to sustain. The two women also knew that an ever increasing percentage of people in the fashion industry were in search of sustainable materials. “We wanted to leverage oranges, which are typical of Sicily, and Italian excellence in textile, developing a disruptive technology,” says Arena. Their fiber line, Orange Fiber, was born.
The resulting yarn has a soft and silky feel, which Arena likens to silk and viscose. The process for turning citrus waste into yarn—which depends on the peel’s cellulose content—isn’t reserved just for oranges.
While for now, Arena and Santanocito are solely focused on citrus derivatives, “in theory, every vegetable contains cellulose, so we might try to replicate and adjust our process to a number of other foods,” says Arena. Given that cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on earth, accounting for about 33 percent of all vegetable matter, it has a wide variety of potential for fibers. Fiber is already being made from crops like corn, hemp, and wood pulp.
In terms of developing new fibers, food waste in particular has “tremendous value” says Anke Domaske, the founder of QMilk. Five years ago, when Domaske’s stepfather was diagnosed with cancer, her family began looking for fabrics that weren’t chemically untreated. While they couldn’t find any on the market, they did find an old method of developing fiber that sounded promising.
“In the search, we found an old process of creating milk fibers from the 1930s, but the process was very chemical intensive,” says Domaske. “We decided to reinvent the process with 100 percent natural resources, food waste, and an eco-friendly process.” Working with the dairy industry to use milk that cannot be sold for consumption, QMilk produces a biodegradable yarn that can be used for textiles. The company also has its eyes on biopolymers based on milk proteins and other natural materials.
“Qmilk is just going to be one of the pioneers, but there are many new materials from food waste in development,” says Domaske, who believes the potential of such technologies is huge.
Pineapple Leaf Leather
In the late 1990s, when Carmen Hijosa was running a company manufacturing leather goods, she traveled to the Philippines to help update their leather fashion export markets.
“When I arrived there and started to research the leather manufacturing processes and see the ecological consequences, I started to look at what the country had that may give me the opportunity to develop an alternative to leather,” says Hijosa. What she found was pineapple leaves, a by-product of the fruit’s harvest.
Hijosa’s company Pinatex now uses those fibers to make a leather alternative, providing a sustainable alternative for purses and shoes, and also giving local farmers the chance for additional income from their pineapple plantations by selling a product that otherwise would have gone to waste.
“The social and environmental benefits of Piñatex enable the farming communities to benefit from the added income from the extraction of the fiber,” says Hijosa. To put into perspective how much waste can be used, one square meter of Piñatex uses 480 leaves or the leaves from just 16 pineapple plants.
In the fashion world today, “sustainability” can certainly be a buzzword, but as the University of Nebraska Yang points out, this isn’t just a question of providing new fibers for the fashion world’s entertainment. Finding low-resource solutions to both food and fiber is a crucial part of a sustainable path forward. As is focusing on multipurpose crops, or those that can be grown for both food and fiber. This way, precious agricultural space doesn’t go to crops that are solely destined for fiber, and instead, the land can play a dual role.
As Yang sees it, solutions like these are pressing. “If we don’t solve the problem, we’re not going to have enough food or enough textiles. But, if we can use the waste—certainly that is the future.”