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Zanele Kumalo

May 4, 2023

Meet the sustainable fabrics of the future

We’ve been wearing what we hunt for a long time and it makes sense that as we move away from animal products and graze on more plant-based or lab-made dishes, that we also look to what lies beneath our feet or zoom into petri dishes for our updated wardrobes.

Brands and designers such as Adidas and Stella McCartney have been most visible at the forefront of this sustainable fashion revolution for years. They’ve been using material solution companies like Bolt Threads in California, which seems to be leading the pack with their alternative and bio-engineered silks and leathers. Natural Fiber Welding is making plant leather products using zero plastics in Illinois. Flocus, a textile brand based in Shanghai has also been exploring fibres from trees like kapok, that bear edible crops and are similar to cotton but are more eco- and worker-friendly.

So what exactly is on the not quite-edible menu?


Roya Aghighi, a Canadian-Iranian designer, has produced a new range of clothing called biogarmentry, designed to “address the drastic increase to the environmental impact of textile waste and air pollution”.

She’s created, with a group of scientists at the University of British Columbia, a 100% natural and biodegradable living textile that can clean the air through photosynthesis. A care label on one of the sheer kimono wraps reads that it’s 100% lab made and contains green living cells whose life cycle depends on how you take care of it. You can activate the cells by leaving the garment in direct sunlight for two hours after opening the package. The textile is made from algae that is spun together with nano polymers and you can keep it clean by watering it. Once it’s had its day, just throw it into the compost. Roya is in residence at the Materials Experience Lab, a research group which challenges our relationship to materials from food to design.

Not just an actor, Jason Momoa is also an environmental activist, and recently launched a vegan sneaker range with So iLL, with kicks that have algae and cork insoles. The algae’s taken from algal blooms, which are harmful bacteria that signal that there’s too much algae in the ocean or freshwater that can kill plants and fish by blocking sunlight and using up a lot of oxygen.

Another brand that’s used the aquatic organisms as a fashion (and wellness) find, is Algaeing, who received a Global Change Award from the H&M Foundation for turning them into environmentally friendly dyes and bio-fibre fabric that “releases anti-oxidants, vitamins and other nutrients to the skin”.

Coconut fibres

Next up is plant leather company Natural Fiber Welding. They’ve worked with Allbirds, to create vegan leather made from cork powder and coconut fibres. Allbirds, which was already making sustainably-focused apparel like shoes that aim to tread lightly on the earth, and tees fashioned from crab shells, wants to offer these vegan leather replacement options too for their current shoes.


Aniela Hoitink, a textile designer and founder of NEFFA, a Dutch innovation company which has also won a Global Change Award, has been working on custom-made clothes that she 3D-printed from a compostable mushroom root recipe.

Adidas will soon launch their sneakers made from another mushroom leather that New York Times, calling fungus, “Fall's hottest fashion trend," says, “can be grown in eight to 10 days, compared to raising cattle which can take at least 18 months — and as much as five years”.


This huge tropical tree, which is native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, northern South America, and West Africa, yields cotton-like fibres that can be spun into yarn. There are seeds that can be eaten roasted or raw but it’s the fluffy crop that’s useful for making new materials. The fibres are waterproof, lighter than cotton, 100% biodegradable, 100% recyclable and use less water and energy in production than cotton.

Pineapple leaves

H&M, in their continued quest to make more sustainable clothes including shoes, has been using Pinatex, a company based in Barcelona, Spain and London, UK. They make textiles from old pineapple leaves, which are a byproduct of the fruit’s harvest in the Philippines. Hugo Boss and Chanel are also said to have worked with or are interested in this new material.

South Africans who are working with fabrics of the future

Esethu Cenga, Lonwabo Mgoduso and Tshepo Bhengu are three young innovators working on the Rewoven Africa project, based in Cape Town. They divert textile waste and sell 100% recycled fabric for clothing as part of their “mission is to create a circular economy in the South African clothing industry that is embedded in ecological and social sustainability”.

Matthew Edwards is an industrial designer based in Joburg who is creating an open-source research library of circular materials called New Projects. The physical exhibition and digital platform will help to “design out waste and pollution” (spanning across fashion and furniture), according to an interview in Twyg, and includes materials like kombucha leather and coffee waste. A few years ago, he designed a pair of Moss Airs (Nike Air Max covered in Reindeer moss) — a concept sneaker that looks at using living wearable materials.

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