New plant-based alternatives are pushing the envelope on sustainable fashion, and pushing petrochemicals out of the picture (image courtesy of Modern Meadow).

Petrochemical Industry Flattened By Sustainable Fashion, High Tech Soy Edition

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Petrochemical stakeholders have hitched a free ride on fashion trends ever since DuPont introduced nylon stockings to the world back in 1939. The space-age plastic fashion fads of the 1960s pumped a burst of oxygen into the industry, and the animal rights movement continues to propel an interest in non-animal fur and leather alternatives. However, the free ride is coming to an end. Sustainable fashion has discovered plant-based leather, and the world may never be the same again.

Sustainable Fashion & The Soy Revolution

The US biotech company Modern Meadow contacted CleanTechnica last fall to introduce its plant-based approach to sustainable fashion, with a focus on leather.

Petrochemical polymers have done a great job of imitating the look, feel, flexibility, and durability of animal-sourced leather. Teasing the same level of performance and aesthetics out of plants has been a years-long challenge for the materials industry and for Modern Meadow, which launched in 2011.

All that hard work paid off. Last year Modern Meadow’s proprietary Bio-Tex material won a Sustainability Product of the Year from The Business Intelligence Group, a crowd-sourced industry honors platform. The company also nailed a finalist position in the 2022 Fast Company Design Awards in the categories of Fashion and Beauty, Materials, and Sustainability categories.

In the latest development, on February 28 Modern Meadow announced a new partnership with the Tory Burch brand, which is known for its sharp, eye-catching colors and focus on affordable quality.

Tory Burch is also known for Tory Burch, who started the company in 2004. Burch and her brand quickly garnered a purpose-driven reputation, especially after the launch of the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009. The nonprofit is tasked with supporting other women owned businesses and advocating for gender equality in the workplace. In a 2019 recap of the nonprofit’s activities, Vogue noted that the foundation had made more than $50 million in loans to more than 2,500 women entrepreneurs.

Some of those businesses have a sustainability focus, such as the company Earth Angel, which advises the film industry on eco-friendly practices on set. However, the Tory Burch brand itself has not been widely known for its use of sustainable materials, until now.

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Tory Burch Steps It Up On Sustainable Fashion

The Tory Burch brand received ample coverage in trade publications when the hookup with Modern Meadow was announced in February. Helping to draw more attention was a decision by the two companies to go big on their first project. Instead of introducing the partnership on a lesser known item in the Tory Burch line, they launched the “Ella Bio” version of the popular Ella tote in the spring collection.

“Since 2008, the Ella tote has been one of Tory Burch’s most iconic, well-loved handbag styles,” notes Catherine Roggero-Lovisi, CEO of Modern Meadow.

The shell of the Ella Bio is made with a plant protein derived from non-GMO soy grown in the US and certified as bio-based material by the USDA. The material is based on Modern Meadow’s proprietary Bio Alloy platform, rendered into the leather-like Bio-Tex material by the Italy-based firm BioFabbrica.

Bio-Tex “…feels and looks like leather but is made from 64% USDA-certified bio-based content,” explains Jennifer Gootman, who is the global head of sustainability & ESG strategy at Tory Burch.

“It is a great example of a growing movement towards ‘next-gen’ materials that take inspiration from nature but are engineered to have a lower environmental impact,” Gootman adds.

Taking On Petrochemicals & Animal Products, Too

For the record, BioFabricca is a partnership between Modern Meadow and the Italian legacy materials firm Limonta, which traces its roots back to 1893.

On January 10, Modern Meadow also announced that it is deploying its Bio Alloy technology in partnership with the Taiwan firm Singtex, which is known for its eco-friendly materials.

“The two industry leaders will develop new and innovative biomaterials across a range of applications starting with a sustainably produced, high-performance, waterproof membrane-based material for outdoor apparel,” Modern Meadow explains.

“Free of solvents, like Dimethylformamide (DMF), and free of per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), the bio-derived membrane-based material is engineered to bring the outdoor industry a sustainable solution at scale that protects human health and the environment while delivering superior product performance through waterproofing, breathability, abrasion and durability,” Modern Meadow adds.

The Case For Sustainable Fashion

In terms of overall sustainability, Modern Meadow makes a good case against natural leather. In a 2019 interview with BBC, the company’s founder and CEO, Andras Forgacs, described natural leather as “a massive market with massive shortcomings.”

“You have to raise an animal in a field using up water, gas and creating greenhouse emissions and then transfer the hide half way around the world,” Forgacs added.

Forgacs also took note of the waste involved. As he told BBC interviewer Katie Hope, a substantial amount of leather is unusable, partly due to scars and other injuries sustained by the animal before slaughter. Still more can be wasted in the search for a desired pattern, for example in alligator and crocodile skins.

The focus on avoiding waste in sustainable fashion becomes more complicated when plant-based materials are lined up against petrochemicals. Both of them minimize waste because they can be fabricated to fit a range of specifications including shape, size, thickness, and flexibility.

The case for plant-based material over petrochemicals is more cut-and-dried when other sustainability issues are in play, especially in the area of plastic microparticle pollution related to laundry and other wear-and-tear.

In addition to soy, the list of plants used in non-animal leathers is growing. A quick search of the Intertubes comes up with mycelium (the undergrowth of mushrooms), pineapple, corn, banana, apple, cactus, green tea, coffee grounds, and coconut water, among others.

Sustainable fashion is just one area in which plants are supplanting petrochemicals. The auto industry is also pivoting into plant-based car parts. One standout example is the appearance of dandelion-sourced rubber for car tires, which has also attracted interest among aircraft stakeholders. Goodyear has also been experimenting with tire materials derived from rice husk ash and soybean oil, among other substances.

Ford has been particularly active in the area of car parts made with plant-based material. In one sign that the worlds of sustainable fashion and sustainable car parts are beginning to collide, Ford has been developing a bioplastic derived from agave fibers, a source material that is becoming popular as an input for non-animal leather.

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Image: Bio-Alloy platform for plant-based leather courtesy of Modern Meadow (rotated to fit screen).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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