Biomaterials are revolutionizing the textile industry and the activewear market is leading the way.
While climbing Mount Everest or competing in a triathlon, any tweak or improvement to the product that can help performance gives the athlete and the brand a leg up on the competition.
Typically, the sportswear industry relies heavily on fossil fuel-derived synthetic materials, and chemical-heavy finishes to create these innovative creations but recently the activewear market has been channeling this drive for development in a more sustainable direction.
We are seeing activewear brands leading the way into the biomaterial revolution.
Biomaterials: What are they?
The term biomaterial covers a large spectrum of other interrelated terms that make up the universe of biobased materials. With this being a new sector in the world of textiles, it’s important that we clarify the terminology used.
“Biobased Material” is an overarching term for biomaterials. It includes any material that has at least 25% of the makeup derived from renewable biomass according to the USDA. The term can be used for natural fibers like cotton and wool, traditional and non-animal leather, synthetics blends made with vegetable waste, etc. Biobased is broad and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Within the sphere of biomaterials, we can go deeper to be more specific.
There are biofabricated materials, like the grown mushroom leathers that we are seeing everywhere recently. As well as biosynthetic fibers like EVO from Fulgar.
Biofabricated material means that the biomass for the textile was produced by a living cells, such as bacteria, yeast or mycelium (mushroom). This can be accomplished either through using bio fabricated ingredients that work as the building blocks for the textile, or where the material is grown directly from the cells, which is called bio assembled.
On the other hand, when a fiber is biosynthetic it means that during the chemical production process they use renewable biomass. This can be food waste, sugar, or proteins rather than the nonrenewable resources used in a traditional synthetic.
Are Biomaterials the Answer for Sustainable Textiles?
There’s a lot of speculation happening around biomaterials and people want to know how they will shape the future of the textile industry. Some think that they will be the major material advancement of the 21st century. Much like the synthetics (nylon, polyester, viscose, etc) were in the late 20th century.
As well as emitting toxic chemicals into our water streams and atmosphere. Biomaterials give us the opportunity for a sustainable textile future.
The biomaterial advancements are still in their infancy stages, but growing quickly. With many examples of sportswear brands dabbling into the sphere we can start to see what could become the new normal as this sector matures.
Much is still unknown about the use of biomaterials, and it’s important to note that not all biomaterials are created equal. While some are more sustainable than the synthetic counterparts, others are still reliant on chemical processing to create a functional fiber.
It’s essential to still weigh the give and takes of the sustainability of each material. We cannot assume that because it comes from a biobased source that it is more sustainable.
How is the Sportswear industry using Biomaterials?
Across the sportswear industry, we are seeing a range of different biobased materials used for various outputs. Here are some of the brands leading the way.
It’s no surprise that sustainability driven Patagonia was one of the first movers. Replacing the neoprene rubber used in their wetsuits with Yulex natural rubber in 2016.
On their website they are transparent about the shortcomings that come along with the use of natural rubber. They point out that deforestation of the rainforests is still a large problem. This is done in order to grow more of the Hevea plant, where the rubber is derived from. Patagonia offsets this by ensuring that their Yulex rubber is all FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified.
Vivo Barefoot Primus Lite II
Vivo Barefoot created a bio-based version of their staple performance shoe, Primus Lite.
The vegan alternative uses 30% biobased materials to create the shoe. They use an algae based natural foam and Vietnamese natural rubber for the shoes sole and based, along with a biosynthetic material derived from corn to create the flexible and stretchy upper.
The North Face & Spiber “Moon Parka”
In 2019 The North Face and Spiber launched their “Moon Parka”.
Made from biofabricated brewed proteins, the silk-like yarn is created through a fermentation process using sugars and microbes as the biomass. With a focus on improving in their technology, customers who buy the Moon Parka receive complimentary yearly maintenance for their jacket. Spiber explains that this is how they can understand how the materials are performing over time. The lifetime mantence plan will allow Spiber to assess the material after being exposed to real-use conditions.
Other noteworthy developments include Adida’s partnership with biofabrication start-up Bolt Threads. They will use Mylo, a mycelium “leather” to create a vegan version of their classic Stan Smith trainers.
Houdini sportswear partnered with Prima Loft for a bio-based insulation for their products. As well, activewear brand Aqua Vida, is using Fulgar’s biosynthetic Eco Soul fiber to create a line of biodegradable yoga wear.
The list can go on and on, and this is just the beginning. There is much to learn from these initial initiatives. Brands that are looking for a cleaner textile future should be keeping tabs on the developments. Not only on how the biomaterials perform, but which can lessen the environmental impact and the timeline for scaling to the mass market.
While we shouldn’t expect synthetics to disappear overnight, or even in the upcoming years, we can expect a future where activewear isn’t dependent on them.