Bio-based Fabrics Become Fashionable

Beautiful, Sustainable Design with Bio-based Fabrics

“Fashion-forward” and “environmentally-friendly” once were mutually exclusive terms. That’s changing because of bio-based fabrics — textiles made using renewable, plant-based ingredients.

Bio-based fabrics provide greater sustainability than petroleum-based synthetics such as polyester and nylon while still delivering on the performance benefits and characteristics that consumers expect. Just as important, bio-based fabrics can provide for beautiful, versatile designs and styles. You might say, green is the new black.

Over the last few years, as people have become more aware of global warming, eco-friendly fashion brands and bio-fabric fashion shows have sprouted up around the world. Brijesh Kumar Choubey, who studies apparel and textiles for the Technavio consultancy, says that sustainable clothing is not only a concern for western nations, but is gaining prominence in rising economies such as India and China.

Indeed, during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil, DuPont Industrial Biosciences announced a collaboration with Chinese sports brand Anta for the use of DuPont™ Sorona®, a high performance, bio-based fiber, as a key ingredient in the Chinese team’s “Dragon Uniform.”

Organism with a Sweet Tooth

Sorona® demonstrates both the clever science behind bio-based fabrics, as well as the high performance benefits such material can bring.

The invention of Sorona® dates back well over a decade when DuPont scientists and engineers began searching for a biological method of producing a popular compound called 1,3-Propanediol. This compound, known by the initials “PDO,” is a building block for industrial products like adhesives and coatings.

After years of research, scientists found the solution to making a bio-based PDO was an organism with a sweet tooth. The organism is loaded into a fermenter, along with the sugar from industrial dent corn. After the organism consumes the sugar, it excretes Bio-PDO™, which then forms a broth that is separated and distilled.

Bio-PDO™ is used to make Sorona® polymer. Polymer strands are chopped into small pieces which are then spun into fibers, made into yarns, integrated into textiles and eventually find their way to companies that fashion them into clothing brands sold throughout the world.

Soft and Sturdy

The positive environmental impact of this approach is significant: producing Sorona® uses 30% less energy and releases 63% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional nylon made from petroleum. Mills and manufacturers can dye Sorona® at lower temperatures, while maintaining their colorfastness.

As important as that is, bio-based fabrics offer other benefits that might not be as apparent. When Sorona® is added to other fibers, it enhances them. Cotton and linen blended with Sorona® are less likely to wrinkle. Wool becomes softer and more durable. Material dries quicker.

As a result, clothing is more stretchable and retains its shape longer — something that analyst Choubey says consumers around the world are increasingly demanding. Catering to consumer tastes isn’t just a fashion statement: clothing that dries faster, and remains useful longer can also have a large environmental impact.

Over their lifetime, the largest environmental cost of clothing is from washing and drying, according to apparel maker Levi Strauss. Anything that keeps clothing on people’s back longer, and out of the garbage, benefits the environment.

As concerns over global warming increase, so should interest in bio-based fabrics.

Discoveries are coming quickly. MIT researchers have developed a fabric that vents when you sweat thanks to the inclusion of bacteria found in rice stalks. Inventors are exploring ways to create textiles out of everything from wine to cow dung. So, in the future, the off-hand remark, “What are you wearing?” might bring a quite unexpected response.