4 innovative materials improving the impact of fashion on the environment

Shopping with these in mind is a good start.

Shopping with these in mind is a good start.

(Courtesy of Allbirds)

It has been said many times, but it bears repeating: fashion is the second largest pollutant in the world after big oil. And if that statistic isn't enough to get you to rethink your shopping habits, well, here are a few more. A recent study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, states since the year 2000 global clothing production has more than doubled, and the average person now purchases 60 per cent more clothing every year and only keeps these pieces for half as long. Also, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than actual fish (wrappers from online shopping, plastic tags etc., all contribute to this titanic mess).

But how are we to actually move forward from this era of over-consumption? "We should all be mindful about how much we're consuming and what we're putting our dollars behind," notes Tim Brown, co-founder of San Francisco-based, sustainable footwear brand Allbirds. "Do your best to research brands when you can before you buy, and keep sustainability in mind when looking for new products."

One way to add value to how we think about sustainability and fashion is through looking at innovations coming from that side of the industry, especially when it comes to what actually makes up fashion in the first place — fabrics and other materials. The latest tech advances are mostly being used by smaller brands looking to disrupt the game for the greater good. Adidas has released a shoe in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, made of ocean plastic that has sold over 1 million units, but like with most major brands, there is little transparency on how this will change the brand on the whole.

We looked at four new innovations that could help to change the way fashion brands operate, for the better. And that should help change the way you shop.

What is it: SweetFoam EVA from Allbirds​

Why it's great for the environment: EVA stands for ethylene vinyl acetate, its main ingredient being petroleum. And Allbirds recently turned this ubiquitous material on its head. EVA is used in everything from car bumpers to helmets to the soles of most shoes, particularly sneakers. Working with Baskem, a petrochemical company based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the past three years, this partnership resulted in sugarcane being used in place of petroleum, creating a material that is actually carbon negative (sugarcane plants eat up CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow). "We knew we wanted to create a sustainable sole when we launched Allbirds over two years ago, but it took time and a huge amount of R&D to create SweetFoam," Brown told "When you approach sustainability as a non-negotiable, you're willing to put in the time and effort to develop better solutions."

Who uses it: So far just Allbirds, who recently secured Leonardo DiCaprio as an investor. They have kept SweetFoam as a proprietary material, but are hoping that other brands will follow suit in using this new technological advancement. "To have a real environmental impact, more big brands need to stop paying lip services to the idea of sustainability and make it a true priority for their businesses," Brown said. "Hopefully, providing a green alternative to a traditionally oil-based material will make it easier for other brands to reduce their carbon footprint."

What's next: Allbirds introduced SweetFoam earlier this month with their Sugar Zeffer sandal, which practically sold-out immediately (keep an eye out, as the brand did a limited run that might pop back up). Next up on the brand's schedule is to roll out SweetFoam in all their shoes, which will fully take effect in the next few months. And they haven't ruled out bringing the Sugar Zeffer back next summer.

What is it: Tipa​

Why it's great for the environment: When we think of plastic waste, we often imagine water bottles and straws floating around in our waterways, and what gets overlooked is packaging, yes, from food purchases, but also from all our online shopping habits. Enter Tipa, a female-fronted company from Israel that makes flexible plastic-like packaging out of bio-materials that actually biodegrade in just 24 weeks.

Who uses it: "Sustainability shouldn't be a moment," designer Gabriela Hearst, who uses Tipa for packaging all her clothing, says. "Sustainability is a daily practice. I realized that every garment that we wear comes wrapped in plastic. It started to freak me out." Hearst started using Tipa as early as 2017, and Stella McCartney jumped on board later that year.

What is it: Econyl​

Why it's great for the environment: Created five years ago by an Italian company called Aquafil, Econyl has been popping up frequently, thanks to its planet benefiting attributes — the material itself is made from nylon waste found in landfills and in the ocean. And it can be recycled and reused multiple times over, which is just one of the reasons why, with years of production, Econyl is becoming more widely known and utilized as a fabric.

Who uses it: H&M uses Econyl in some of their conscious collection wares, and multiple swimwear (think Mara Hoffman, and Candice Swanepoel's new bather line called Tropic of C) and athleisure brands use the fabric as well (like the just launched Girlfriend Collective line of sports bras and tights that come in super saturated colours). Want Les Essentiels, a brand of leather goods originally started by Canadian design duo Byron and Dexter Peart, just released a line called the Recycled Nylon Collection, consisting of a fanny pack, backpack and messenger style tote.

What is it: Hemp

Why it's great for the environment: While hemp is certainly not a new fabric, it is in the midst of getting a makeover, similar to the cannabis industry itself. Earth Alive Clean Technologies, a Canadian company that focuses on clean technology products for the agriculture and mining industries, announced in July that they have created the Clean Fibre Initiative, a research project in conjunction with farmers in Canada, the United States and beyond, to help improve the production of natural fibre crops. "Sustainable agriculture isn't just about producing nutritious food to eat, it's also about producing safe and environmentally responsible clothes to wear," chief agronomist at Earth Alive, Simon Neufeld, said in a statement from the company. Earth Alive notes that hemp is a high yield crop that doesn't use as much water as other crops.

Who uses it: So far there are a few fashionably chic brands using hemp in their wares, including Laura Siegel, Ozma of California and Wallis Evera, but the industry can only benefit from research being put into the many uses of hemp as a sustainable fabrication.