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By Swathi Sriram
If you’ve been up to date with fashion news, you’d know that the last few weeks have been all about iconic luxury brands partnering with bio-material research companies to launch plant-based products. This kindled a few questions about the direction in which the fashion industry is heading and if plant-based is the new luxury. What can be a better day than Earth Day to talk about plants?
If you’re thinking ‘oh, plant-based means vegan!’ Stop. Plant-based is plant-based. When animals aren’t in the picture, it’s marketed as vegan. We wrote about it last year. Yes, murky waters. Paddle (peddle, specifically) carefully. Speaking of vegan, the food industry moved into plant-based diets eons ago with meat and milk substitutes. The shift was long pending and purely organic. Plant-based is when accessories or apparel are made primarily using materials derived from organically produced natural material such as pineapple leaves (Piñatex), cactus pulp (Desserto), cork bark, banana fibre, linen, bamboo, latex, hemp, etc. It’s an ever-growing list!
This is the big question out there and one that needs to be honestly answered.
We now know that the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. It uses toxic and environmentally damaging materials like plastics, synthetic fibres, chemicals; and materials like coal that while reducing production costs, increase carbon emissions. When we destroy the environment today, there’s nothing left for the future generations.
Plant-based materials have a significantly lower environment impact. In most cases, they successfully grow in the earth’s natural minerals, use little to no plastic, need less water or cultivation space. Piñatex, for instance, comes from post-harvest pineapple leaves which is agricultural waste Their use engages the farming communities and helps them earn extra income. Cork when ethically harvested does not harm the tree and in fact absorb CO2 during the regrowth making it a carbon neutral process. Most organizations working with bio-materials are mindful across the entire production process, using chemical free dyes, lower energy, minimizing waste and as far as possible creating materials that are recyclable.
The luxury fashion industry is surely moving in that direction. Hermès, a luxury leather brand that prides itself in using leather from crocodile hide to lambskin, has taken a giant swerve and moved into the cruelty-free zone. The brand has partnered with MycoWorks to turn mycelium, the thread-like roots of a mushroom into leather. Similarly, Stella McCartney, the Kering group (parent company of Gucci, Balenciaga, etc.), Adidas and many other luxury brands have partnered with Bolt Threads’ Mylo mycelium to make clothes, shoes, and accessories. Ralph Lauren has tied up with Mirum, which makes materials from virgin and recycled plant matter. Adidas’ Reebok in 2020, launched its first-ever plant-based Fall collection in which they introduced shoes made of castor bean oil, eucalyptus tree, algae, and natural rubber. Last week, Fossil announced a new partnership with Desserto for tote bags. A week before that, Karl Lagerfeld inaugurated a sustainable accessories collection for Spring 2021, made entirely from Desserto. That’s a long list of luxury brands turning towards plant materials!
The messages are clear. Luxury fashion shouldn’t be harming the environment any more than it already has, so any change in that direction is welcome. Secondly, plant-based luxury is the next big revolution in the fashion industry.
Greenwashing is when a company or business spends more resources on marketing itself as ‘environmentally friendly’ ‘eco-friendly’ ‘sustainable’ or finds ways to tag itself as responsible instead of genuinely being one, in a bid to attract and persuade customers. Some people call it green sheen. It’s all the same. There’s no transparency on how the brand is minimising its impact on the environment— what it does, where the materials are sourced from, how the raw material is cultivated, who made it, or anything else at all. What emerges is an extremely problematic business model that misleads well-meaning customers and burdens brands that are transparent and truly work towards saving the planet. For example, in 2019, H&M launched a spring collection with apparel made from Piñatex, Orange Fiber and BLOOM Foam (algae). But we know that H&M is still a fast fashion company. If even after shifting to sustainable materials they mass-produce, the purpose is defeated. The environment will suffer. There’s no win here.
A lot of this will be determined by the extent to which big fast fashion and luxury brands adopt plant materials into their material mix. While a complete switch over is still a while away, unless this becomes a significant part of their collection, it would continue to be something they do to ‘appear conscious’ to consumers.
India is uniquely positioned and has an advantage in using plant-based materials. For centuries, Indian artisans have handmade plant-based products such as wicker baskets, winnow trays, coconut shell accessories, etc. Using science to extract leather and fibre alternatives tackles the issue at a different layer.
In the India Sustainability Report 2020, less than 10% of participants said they knew about plant-based materials. But this is a substantial number compared to a decade ago, when these materials were still being tested for use. Newer, experimental plant-based materials are picking up in India.
Malai is a biocomposite material developed by Kerala-based Malai, the company, and is grown on waste coconut water collected from the agricultural wastes of the coconut industry and is an alternative to leather.
Weganool is a type of wool made by Tamil Nadu-based Faborg, entirely from Calotropis, a wild flowering shrub that thrives on barren lands.
Similarly, Kanpur-based Phool that makes incense sticks from discarded temple flowers, is also experimenting with flowers to test their bio-leather, Fleather, from which they aspire to make wallets, bags, and other accessories.
The State of Fashion 2020 —McKinsey’s annual fashion report shows that the annual patent filings in textile innovation increased 8X between 2013 and 2019. The report also concludes that many brands prefer materials like Piñatex as leather alternatives and that there’s a sharp rise in fibre innovation, pushing fibre innovation from the “margins to the mainstream.” Despite plant-based materials gaining publicity, the adoption rate is comparatively slow in India since they are young in the market. But that’s also why the growth opportunities are high.
It’s hard to predict the future. It’s a circle of continuous learning, growing, evolving, and never giving up on ways to save the planet. But one thing is for sure. Plant-based materials have a bright future.
As they step up on production, become more affordable and are able to iron out the smaller technical glitches, we do foresee a large number of individual designers and smaller brands experimenting with them.
What today seems like a luxury, may tomorrow well become the norm.
At Beej we aspire to create a brand that makes sustainability a mainstream fashion choice. Working with various plant based leather alternatives, allows us to lower our impact and create designs in various textures, colours and across price points.
On Earth Day today, let’s take a few minutes to appreciate Mother Earth, plant a few seeds or saplings— even if it’s simply coriander or mint in a pot. Turn off appliances when not needed. Turn off taps when you brush your teeth. Place water bowls for animals and birds. Cherish the presence of every being— plants, trees, flitting butterflies and buzzing bees. We wouldn’t exist if these beings didn’t work tirelessly for our ecosystem.