Fashion has a growing obsession with being branded ‘innovative’. Just a few years ago the pragmatic, proof-driven rationality of science and technology seemed at odds with the ephemerality of fashion. It seemed even more at odds with the aspirational storytelling typical of consumer brands. But we live in an age of renewed celebration and trust in science. We also recognise our vulnerability to climate change, which scientists explained decades ago, and is happening now to all of us, in our cities and towns. What then, could be more important than catapulting innovation to solve fashion’s environmental ills? Well, unchecked, innovation can be carried out for its own sake. And fashion does have a propensity to lean on the marketability of new materials and products, rather than tackling the biggest environmental and social problems first. It is therefore a relief that the latest development from materials science and apparel company Pangaia isn’t chasing a whizz-bang invention, but pragmatically puts existing materials to best use, to optimise what already exists. I spoke to their Chief Innovation Officer, Dr Amanda Parkes, to understand the industry’s scope for leveraging current materials and technologies, rather than reinventing the wheel while emissions rapidly escalate, and drought and floods ravage countries around the globe.
Dr Parkes has been on a global hunt for material innovations that will propel Pangaia into the sustainability stratosphere—including upcycling carbon emissions into textile printing ink and harvesting natural wildflowers as insulation for their winter coats, in place of animal down. These represent just two of dozens of innovations that the company is either sourcing or developing, but Dr Parkes is the first to admit that delivering materials that boast lower environmental impact than incumbent ones requires both short and long term material planning. “Sexy lab breakthroughs are just 10% [of the work Pangaia does]”, she says. The ambition of the company is to become “Earth Positive by 2023” and the “R&D portfolio spans evolution, revolution and disruption” she explains. Their newest materials, launching today—FRUT Fiber™ and PLNT Fiber ™, are “in the evolution category” she declares.
These two new fiber blends aim to offer brands and consumers an alternative to cotton. The reasons are many. Cotton demand is growing, but global capacity is limited by the vast amounts of water and land needed to grow it. Alternatives are needed to fulfil the ever-increasing demand, but the planet dictates that we cannot choose an alternative that threatens biodiversity, emits greenhouse gases or contains toxic chemicals—mistakes the textile and apparel industry has been making for decades. Pangaia’s solution is to source cellulose (the key component of cotton) from other plants—naturally abundant ones, that do not require intensive farming and chemicals to grow. They also regenerate naturally. Over the past year, the Pangaia team has tested cellulose fibers from 12 plant sources, to hit on a magic combination of superior softness, high performance and a lower environmental impact than organic cotton— the benchmark and the material they hope to replace in their product range with FRUT FIBER™ and PLNT FIBER™.
Pangaia has successfully developed and sourced the two cellulose fibre blends from fruit and plant raw material origins. The former contains cellulose from bamboo, pineapple and banana leaves. The latter blends bamboo, Himalayan nettle, eucalyptus, and seaweed. But isn’t all cellulose just, well, cellulose? Isn’t this effectively combining the same ingredient, just from a more diverse larder? The sustainability weary journalist in me wondered, could the trademark names merely be a branded nod to the raw source? It turns out that the names do represent varied fiber characteristics, which result from the different processing methods of the fibers. By combining chemically and mechanically processed fibres, the differing cellulose molecular chain lengths result in different tactile and tensile properties of the yarns. Dr Parkes reports a visible and tangible variation in the texture and lustre of the yarns, which carries through into the knitted jersey fabric that the company has developed.
The bamboo, eucalyptus and Seacell seaweed fibers are sourced from commercial suppliers who use a closed-loop lyocell process, which dissolves the plant in a solvent before dry-jet wet spinning the cellulose. In contrast, the pineapple, banana and nettle are mechanically processed, giving a more raw aesthetic to the fibers. I guess this encapsulates the Pangaia mantra of ‘high tech naturalism’. Rather than simply sourcing the nettle, the Pangaia team have been involved in the nettle processing to reach the desired fibre output and build supply chain resilience for ongoing fiber production. Alone, these fibers typically produce coarse yarns that are used in ropes and strong, coarse fabrics. However, academic research has demonstrated nettle’s compatibility with spinning and textile methods for apparel and technical textiles. As Dr Parkes has identified time and again in the past several years, science has already offered us the answers to many material problems. We just need to contextualise them and apply them to the fashion industry. There is much to be gained, environmentally and economically, by applying what we already know. A sentiment shared with me by several textile sector leaders is that they are pressured to constantly innovate to provide new sustainability storytelling opportunities—even when existing advances have not been adopted.
Breaking down the approach Pangaia has taken here, the sourcing and partial development (in the case of the nettle) led to in-house experimentation by blending different proportions of the various fibers and testing the resulting yarns in knitted jersey textiles. This is where the innovation lies—changing the ‘recipe’ and adding the special ingredient (the unlikely nettle) into the plant mix. In the case of the fruit-origin fibers, Dr Parkes says they want to add a third ingredient—orange fiber—to the bamboo, pineapple and banana mix, but “right now it’s sourcing and costing that limits this [inclusion]”. The critical piece on the R&D side is the stake Pangaia has taken in a vertical textile and apparel company in Portugal, who they are working with to develop these new materials and products. This partial ownership affords them ongoing access to fiber and yarn R&D facilities and the expertise needed for rapid iteration and testing. This is incredibly difficult to do in a traditional supplier-brand relationship.
In terms of scaling the two material blends to grab a share of the global organic cotton market, Pangaia’s research indicates that since FRUT Fiber is predominantly made from agricultural waste, this can be sourced from global fruit plantations. However, the nettle in PLNT Fiber has more sourcing limitations due to the specific nature of the plant’s ecosystem. There is enough nettle growing wild to yield over 10 thousand tons (10,000,000kg) of fiber, however not all of it is accessible and, if accessible, worth the effort and cost, based on Pangaia’s analysis to date. After evaluation, they plan to scale up to about 3,000 tons this year. In contrast to cotton, the raw material is already growing so there is no need to claim more fields or plant more crops, just to facilitate the organization to conduct further harvesting.
To understand the environmental impact of these two new materials compared to organic cotton, Life Cycle Analyses are underway in partnership with StG Group and Green Story. The results are expected in September this year, but early indications are that the closed-loop bamboo lyocell and by-product and regenerative raw material of the other fibers will result in a lower impact than organic cotton. Pangaia reports that at this early stage, FRUT FIBER(™) and PLNT FIBER(™) are about 7 times more expensive than organic cotton, but prices are variable due to market impacts and the global pandemic. Organic cotton prices are also rising as demand increases and supply is unable to catch up.
The volume of the new fiber blends may currently be modest, but when I asked about the scope and volume of materials in the natural world that can be safely harvested in favour of intensive farming, Dr Parkes is most excited about the potential of the world’s oceans. “The ocean is so untapped—algae, seaweed, all kinds of polysaccharides (and) we haven’t worked on these processes yet.” She also notes the vast potential of fungi “not just mycelium, but other things that can be extracted.” She believes that expanded raw material inputs will come from further analysis of how to connect readily available and regenerative plants to textile processes. This is a tangible, relatively short-term pursuit that looks to nature to provide the materials of the future that are measurably better for the planet and people than those already in existence. Not necessarily “sexy” in innovation terms, as Dr Parkes put it, but at a time of escalating climate crisis, fashion should be wowed by viable, accessible solutions, not just the heady future solutions, in a collapsing world.