5 Weird Fabrics That Could Cut Fashion’s Footprint

Imagine wearing a shirt harvested from the spoils of rotting milk. Or how about polyester pants from recycled soda bottles? These are just a few of the ideas unearthed by a contest to green the garment industry’s supply chain.

Try this on for size. Fabric makers produce about 400 billion square meters of material each year, or enough to cover the whole of California. Apparel makers churn out about 150 billion garments annually (almost enough to fill some fashionista’s wardrobe).


As you might imagine, the environmental impact of the industry isn’t great, between the water depletion and pollution, the clothes and shoes that clog landfills and incinerators, and so on. There’s clearly room for improvement in how we’re dressing ourselves.

All of this is why the latest challenge from Launch, a network founded by NASA, USAID, the U.S. Department of State, and Nike, is looking for a few good ideas. Following innovation contests in the areas of waste, energy, health and water, the group launched a competition earlier this year focused on the fabric supply chain. It recently narrowed the field to 20 entries, and asked for the public’s vote. What do you think?


U.K. fashion designer Suzanne Lee created Biocouture fabric. Appropriately for a Brit, her main ingredients are tea and sugar (that, and a few micro-organisms). Lee describes her mixture as a kind of “kombucha” that ferments away until it produces cellulosic threads. These eventually pile up on the surface, allowing Lee to harvest and dry the material. She can then sew the blameless fabric into any shape she wants, and even make things like chair covers.



This bio-synthetic material, developed by scientists in Australia, also uses microbial fermentation. Researchers identified proteins forming the cocoon silk of bees and ants, then combined these with genetically altered bacteria. The result: industrial quantities of silk material at little cost and almost no environmental impact. CSIRO, the group that worked on the project, says it can both weave and knit with the silk and form it into “sponges and transparent films.”


QMilk is made from rotten milk. Developed in Germany by Anke Domaske, the fabric requires a protein found in milk called casein and uses only two liters of water for every kilo of cloth. The company says QMilk is biodegradable and “naturally antibacterial,” and can be used for clothing as well as automotive and home furnishings. Germany alone throws away 1.9 million tons of milk a year, so there’s no shortage of cheap material. Domaske already uses QMilk in a fashion line called Mademoiselle Chi Chi.


Developed by Marina Toeters, Ralf Jacobs, Aniela Hoitink and Meg Grant in the Netherlands, this solar fabric “weaves photovoltaic yarn into products that can generate their own power from sunlight.” The designers have already created several garments like these. By producing electricity, they hope garments made with the fabric will yield more energy than they take to create.



AmberCycle is a startup founded by students at the University of California, Davis. They are using “engineered enzymes” to degrade PET and other plastics for reuse in cars and clothing. They claim they can produce PTA, a key industrial chemical, at cheaper prices than done in today’s processes. “Ambercycle’s technology looks to shift the source of polyester away from petroleum, and towards using the plastic trash that occupies our landfills,” its entry says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.