Plant-based fibre: fashion businesses that address microplastic pollution

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Fashion, in its current form, creates significant problems that threaten the planet, one of which is microplastic pollution. Here are businesses championing plant-based fibre.

The annual estimation of microplastic fibres discharged when washing petroleum-based textile (such as polyester, nylon or acrylic) is half a million tons. These microplastic fibres are released into the sewage systems and end up polluting the oceans yearly.

If you let that fact sink in, you quickly realise the urgent need for change within the fashion industry, and for us to become educated consumers. But how can we keep on wearing (fashionable) clothes, protecting the earth, and conserving its natural resources at the same time?

To start with, consumers should prioritise plant-based textile over synthetic petroleum-based textile or animal-derived materials. While the innovations in the synthetic textile realm that enable its disintegration and recycling are blessed, we must be systematically relying on plant-based alternatives when producing new fashion products.

It is not easy to find fashion brands that are 100% environmentally-friendly. There are a couple of pioneers, but the distance between a utopian world where garments are produced in a way that does not harm the environment throughout the harvesting, transporting, and manufacturing processes is still lightyears far (or two centuries back).

Today, we can support and advocate for local and sustainable garments. The cycle of such clothes is local from harvest to decay, the goods are biodegradable, and the suppliers are regional and fairtrade.

Here are some examples of fashion businesses that are trying to make it right. These alternatives may not be perfect, but they are far better than petroleum-based textile, which relies on the fossil fuels industry, pollutes oceans and soils with microplastic, and will remain in the ecosystem as it is a non-biodegradable waste. 

Abacá fibre face masks

abaca fibreThe size of the global disposable face mask market exceeded a value of $74.9 billion (£56 billion) in the first quarter of 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 53% from 2020 to 2027. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, people have got to consider the impacts of face masks, since they pose an environmental problem that will far exceed that of the virus.

Face masks are mainly made of non-woven fabric such as polypropylene. Polycarbonate, polystyrene, polyester and polyethene are some of the other commonly-used materials in surgical face masks. While they keep out bacteria, the masks are plastic-based, liquid-resistant products that have a long afterlife after they are discarded. Disposable masks were already found floating in oceans and scattered across seabeds.

Rising to the challenge, Philippines-based company Salay Handmade has started producing face masks made of raw Abacá fibre, manufactured by Dragon Vision Trading fibre agency. Abacá is a plant similar to bananas. Its fibre is produced from the plant’s leaves, and it is 100% biodegradable. It is as strong as polyester, but unlike polyester, it can decompose in just two months.

In the Philippines, Abacá is commonly used to make things like teabags and Philippine peso banknotes. In cruder processing, it can also be used for making bags, placemats, rugs, baskets, ropes, and burlap sacks.

You can find Abacá face masks on rada collab, a collaboration o Filipino designers, artisans, and makers. The raw material and other Abacá products can be found on the Dragon Vision Trading website.

Fiber Resource Center (FRC) Bangladesh

pina fibre
Photo: FRC Bangladesh

FRC Bangladesh is an organisation that researches and develops plant-based fibres to turn them into biodegradable fabrics with a commercial value. It is also a socially conscious organisation that creates employment for marginalised and underprivileged groups within the Bangladeshi society and employs women who are former sex workers.

All FRC’s products are locally made in Bangladesh, and they are the first organisation to commercially introduce pineapple fibre, yarn, and fabric in the country. “Bangladesh has a huge range of areas where pineapple leaves are grown and are being wasted. Using this raw material is as zero-waste as it gets since it is a byproduct,” says FRC director Ummaima Jahan Dawood.

“When pineapple cultivating season starts, these leaves are not used and are dumped on the sideways. We pick them up while also creating opportunities for extra earnings for farmers who can sell it off to us,” she adds. This side income encourages farmers not to waste and consider pineapple leaves to be worthy of their consideration.

FRC uses Pina (pineapple) fabric, banana fibre, recycled cotton fabric, recycled cotton yarn, JuteCotton, JuteSilk, and other plant-based materials like palm leaf and coconut shells, which require very little to no processing. For example, the coconut coir, generally known as coconut fibre, is a dominant resource in Bangladesh. It is a natural fibre extracted from the shells of coconuts. The material is usually used for home essentials such as mats, doormats, fine brushes, nets, and the like.

pina fiber
Photo: FRC Bangladesh

FRC also works with recycled cotton, which is a fabric made from scraps of recycled garments. They turn the cotton scraps into fibre, then into yarn, and then weave it into fabric. “This helps eliminate the colouring process, so there are no chemicals involved,” says Dawood. “We have realised that it is efficient to try and source natural, plant-based items, but also focus on existing resources and utilise them.”

FRC Bangladesh is not just an all-natural biodegradable fabric development project. Its focus also lies in artisan development and ethical design centred around building a sustainable community, creating employment and social rehabilitation.

While being socially conscious and environmentally friendly, FRC is also developing to become more commercially viable and keeping ahead of innovations. Its work is one-of-a-kind, perhaps pioneering, and it relies on traditional knowledge of South Asian weaving techniques.

Kokoro Zenwear: Bamboo silk

bamboo silk
Photo: Kokoro

2.5% of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow cotton. Cotton consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide. It is also one of the thirstiest crops, taking up around 3% of the world’s freshwater to grow. Once grown, the detergents, synthetic colours and chemicals used during production all pollute water and soils.

Bamboo is a resource that quickly regenerates; once cut, a bamboo pole will immediately sprout out and grow within four months. Inspired by bamboo’s characteristics, Sharon Farren and Nader Fahm founded Kokoro Zenwear, a company that aspires to become “the Tesla of fashion”. It is the first handmade Irish luxury, unisex, organic, clothing and accessory brand made with Bamboo fibre.

With a luxurious bamboo silk line and a jersey bamboo line, Farren and Fahm are keen on setting an alternative for both cotton and silk. All the fabrics used are 100% ECO Certified and OEKO-TEX Certified, sustainable, organic, hypoallergenic, and antibacterial. Apart from transporting the raw material from Asia, Kokoro operates locally: production is done in-house in Ireland while emphasising nearshoring and working with small, ecological suppliers.

“Bamboo is a wonder plant,” says Farren. “It is a grass that grows continuously, it replenishes itself, and it does not need any pesticide.” To be turned into fibre, bamboo is pulped down and soaked in sodium, which converts the pulp into cellulose. The cellulose is then dried in blocks and cut into paper-thin sheets. Lastly, the yarn is pulled apart one-by-one and woven into fibre.

It’s a slow process, and hence not particularly common. It is important to note that most bamboo fabrics are made using a chemical treatment unless they explicitly carry organic certifications.

It is imperative that we understand the power of consumers in the fashion trade. Like many other industries, fashion needs a reminder that it manufactures “for” us. The companies and corporations collect information on consumers and their preferences; if we change our consumption habits, the industry will have to adjust.

In the end, we all — consumers and manufacturers alike — should collaborate for one common goal: stopping the industry’s devastating impacts on Earth’s ecosystem.

Aviv Nesher
Aviv Nesher
Aviv Nesher is a current Schwartzman scholar studying her master’s in management science in global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She works at the intersections of environmental action, trend analysis, and sustainable fashion. Her writing revolves around integrating sustainable practices within different industries and markets, and policy development that generates sustainable impact. Aviv has been vegan for five years and raw vegan for one year. She believes that transitioning into a plant-based diet is one of the most significant steps individuals can take to tackle the eco-climate crisis. Aviv is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a United World College alumna, and a Huayu Scholarship recipient.