Sorry, but not all cotton is eco-friendly. Here are some fabrics that are

Did you know that there are textiles being made from banana stalks and spoilt milk, among other food wastes? Coffee grounds are being combined with recycled polyester to make odour-free athletic gear for brands like Adidas, while Paris-based Veja (Emma Watson's preferred shoe company) is creating sneakers out of corn husks. A few visionary individuals have succeeded in incredible innovations in the world of sustainable fashion materials. Carmen Hijosa, founder, Piñatex, is creating leather out of pineapple leaves, and Indian labels like DHURI by Madhurima Singh are championing fabric made out of the leftovers of the soy, milk, corn, banana and orange peel industries. But why is the focus shifting to creating these fibres?

Move over cotton and polyester

On one hand, the clothing industry is polluting our air and oceans, spilling out of landfills and increasing its own carbon footprint dramatically every year. Currently, cotton and polyester are the most used textiles in the world, especially in fast fashion. Both these textiles have a heavy impact on the planet. Cotton production extensively uses precious resources such as water and labour, and relies heavily on pesticides. Meanwhile, synthetic fabrics not only require petroleum-based energy, but also pollute our rivers and oceans with hazardous chemicals.


On the other hand, the world wastes about a third of the food produced for human consumption every year. This means 1.3 billion tons of cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat and fish are being lost annually. Clothing made from waste is truly the need of the hour, because it solves the issue of dirty fashion as well as waste management. Technological advancements, along with learnings from the pre-industrialisation era, are now making it possible to convert food remnants into sustainable fabrics and leathers.

“Using fabrics made out of plant waste essentially creates a new market from existing resources,” says Madhurima Singh of DHURI, who has been using them in her collections since 2017. “Imagine if this technology was to take root in India—it would have a tremendous positive impact on the income of small and marginal farmers. However, I do believe that the production of these fabrics should be regulated, and the OEKO-TEX certification is great way to ensure that it is being carried out in a sustainable manner.” Scroll ahead for a lowdown on the types of waste fabrics that exist, the labels that use them in their collections, and where they can be bought.

Fish skin leather

Though fish skin has been used since the 19th century in Nordic culture, it's being embraced worldwide as a sustainable leather today. What makes fish skin a better replacement for animal skin is that it has no hair, and doesn't require the types of tanning and dyeing treatments that release toxins like hydrogen sulphide into the environment. Internationally, renowned shoe designer Monolo Blahnik embraced tilapia leather back in 2011, but in India, Mayura Davda recently founded MAYU—a handbag label that uses responsibly-sourced, high-quality fish skin leather created from the byproducts of salmon and wolf fish processing units in Ireland. The leather is then coloured with natural dyes and handcrafted into purses in India. “Plant- and fruit-based leather alternatives are certainly offering the next big wave of innovative, sustainable material options for new-age design houses like ours,” says Davda. “Textiles produced from agricultural byproduct, ie waste, are beneficial to all the stakeholders starting from the farmer to the end consumer.” Her debut collection, called The Golden Circle, is inspired by volcanic mountains and black sand beaches.

Banana stalk fabric

The Japanese have been making cloth out of banana stalks for 800 years—they typically use the coarse outer layers of the stalk for basket weaving and the finer inner fibres for kimonos. Banana fibre is a great vegan alternative to silk because of its inherent shine, but it can also be used to make cotton or taffeta. The fibre is breathable, heat-resistant and requires no additional acreage since it a byproduct of an agricultural crop. Nandini Baruva is Guwahati-based designer who has collaborated with farmers in Assam to produce good quality banana stems, and also uses this cloth in her clothing label, Kirameki.

Pineapple leather

Carmen Hijosa is a Spanish businesswoman who owns a revolutionary vegan leather company, Piñatex. Hijosa works with pineapple farmers in the Philippines to harvest the leaves and strip the fibres, which are then transported to Spain to be transformed into a mesh similar to leather. It takes almost 500 leaves to make one square metre of Piñatex, but with global production of the fruit at 27 million metric tonnes, this is hardly a concern. The result is a leather alternative popular with slow fashion labels as well as brands like Hugo Boss and H&M.

Soy fabric

Often nicknamed ‘vegan cashmere', soy fabric is made from the waste of tofu and soy processing industries. The fibres within each soy bean are first processed by exposing them to heat or enzymes, then filtered and pushed through a spinneret to separate them into long strands. Then, these are woven into a fabric that is soft and silky with a bit of stretch. “The moisture absorption of soya fabric is similar to that of cotton, but its ventilation is superior,” says Singh of DHURI. “It has silky lustre with the perfect drape, so we tend to use it for styles that can be worn as formal or evening wear.”

Orange peel fabric

Two Sicilian students, Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arenaby, can be credited for creating this innovative textile. Italy produces one million tonnes of citrus fruit peels annually that require costly waste management. Santanocito thought of converting this waste into textile while working on her fashion design thesis, and the duo have since patented a technology to extract cellulose from the peels, which can be spun to form a biodegradable yarn. What's more, orange fabric also contains Vitamin C and essential oils that can be absorbed by skin. Salvatore Ferragamo was the first fashion house to release an orange fibre collection in 2017 in line with their motto of “responsible passion.”

Milk fibre

German designer, Anke Domaske, was looking for safe fibres to dress her father who was suffering from cancer when she stumbled upon a Youtube video about how to make fibre out of spoilt milk. Today, she sells QMilk, a textile made out of milk protein casein, the first man-made fibre produced without chemicals. The amino acids in this all-natural material have various health benefits—it is antibacterial, anti-ageing and can even help regulate blood circulation and body temperature. Her clothing line, Mademoiselle Chi Chi, is popular with celebrities like Mischa Barton and Ashlee Simpson, and has been using Qmilk fabric since 2017.

Coffee grounds fabric

Third generation Taiwanese textile maker Jason Chen was sitting at Starbucks with his wife Amy when they saw some old ladies collecting coffee grounds. This led them to the idea of creating odour-free textiles over 13 years ago. Today, Singtex is known all over the world for mixing coffee grounds with polyester from recycled plastic bottles to make a fibre perfect for sportswear. The coffee component of the textile eliminates odours, protects from ultraviolet rays and is also waterproof. Big apparel labels such as Adidas, North Face, Patagonia as well as niche brands like Rumi X use Singtex in their clothing and shoes.

Another noteworthy individual in this field is Isaac Newton, a sustainability entrepreneur with 25 years of experience in the apparel industry. His company, Circular Systems (Social Purpose Corporation), uses crop residue from hemp, flax, pineapple, banana and sugarcane farming to make high quality fabrics. It also won the H&M Foundation Global Change Award in 2018.

Our fashion footprint has called for a revolution and these are the individuals leading the change. It is now up to us as consumers to embrace these innovative fabrics and exert our buying power responsibly. Considering the environmental state of our planet, it might be the call of the hour to start wearing what we eat before we are forced to eat (and breathe) what we wear.