From fire-retardant infant sleep-suits to designer T-shirts, the use of chemicals such as teflon and formaldehyde in clothes is ubiquitous, while heavy metals including chromium are widely used in leather tanning. However while the presence of hazardous chemicals in cosmetics and household cleaning products is relatively well-known, consumer awareness of toxic elements is rather low when it comes to fashion.
It is not an entirely new problem, either. Like The Mad Hatter character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, many milliners and factory workers in nineteenth century England suffered from the mad hatter disease after inhaling toxic mercury fumes which was widely used to cure felt at the time.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the situation has not changed that much for the millions of garment workers and cotton farmers around the world who are routinely exposed to heavy metals, pesticides and other chemical ‘nasties’, which seriously damage people’s health as well as the environment by finding their way into soil, water streams, and oceans.
But the situation is starting to change. Responding to recent name-and-shame consumer awareness campaigns, such as Fashion Detox by Greenpeace (read my interview with the Fashion Detox campaign manager here), a number of leading brands have committed to clean up their act by 2020. This is a positive step, and no doubt consumer and NGO watchdogs will keep these companies accountable.
At the same time, a growing number of companies are investing in new fibers which not only reduce negative impacts, but actually benefit the environment and people’s health.
Among these new ‘eco-textiles’ are algae, banana and milk fibers, which have hypoallergenic and UV-protective properties, as well as clothes made out of corn and discarded crab shells. It is an exciting development in the textile industry which opens up sustainable business opportunities.
Algae (seaweed) clothing: I already wrote about algae clothing here. Seacell it a renewable fibers with great potential for use in fashion. It has proved to be effective against damaging UV rays, making it ideal for swimwear and sportswear. While seacell is not yet common on the runway, designers like Linda Loudermilk have long been using it in her luxury eco collections.
Banana fibers: Derived from the cast-off stems and leaves of the banana tree, the inner, silky layer of the banana fiber is ideal for delicate dresses, wraps and blouses. Filipino designer Dita Sandico Ong had the vision to embrace an ecologically-friendly design and production process, transforming the use of banana and other natural plant fibers into a fashion art form.
Milk fiber was invented in 1930’s and widely used in both Italy and America in the 1940’s as a substitute for wool, which was needed by men on the frontlines. New milk processing technology, developed by a German biologist and fashion designer, Anke Domaske, has made Qmilk into a luxurious and hypoallergenic fiber. By using milk that is no longer fit for human consumption, Qmilk is also helping reduce waste.
Crabyon: Crabyon is a fabric derived from chitin, which comes from crab shells. With its strong antibacterial properties, Crabyon has proven to be popular for sports clothing, underwear, baby clothes and even medical dressings.
Ingeo: Made from corn, which is already used in bio-plastics for, say, packaging, Ingeo is another innovative fiber that has made its way from farm to fashion. The developer, NatureWorks LLC, says the fiber is stain-resistant and wrinkle free, breathable and odour-resistant. What’s more, it looks great on the runway!
With so much potential for sustainable innovation, let’s hope that the textile industry will respond to the detox challenge, and that the green trend in fashion is here to stay.