Biodegradable fabric might be the next best thing in clothing

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Every year Aarav Chavda goes scuba diving in the same Florida reefs. A former McKinsey analyst and mechanical engineer, Chavda has watched the corals blanch white over time, and he has noticed species dwindle— except the lionfish.

Local and federal officials near Atlantic and Caribbean waters have tried a number of methods to eradicate the lionfish, a gorgeously striped and spiny invasive species that has no predators in the region and eats many other fish. Chavda had a new idea: Make it fashion. Along with two other avid divers, Chavda founded a startup called Inversa and invented a process that transforms lionfish skin into a supple, attractive leather. Next, they added two other invasive species— Burmese pythons from the Florida Everglades and carp from the Mississippi River. They’ve achieved some real success: a number of brands, including Piper and Skye and Rex Shoes, have used their leathers for wallets, footballs, flip-flops, and a cool-looking python dagger and sheath.

Lionfish are measured and recorded during the Lionfish Derby at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation headquarters in Key Largo, Fla., in 2021. (Patrick Connelly/AP)

The toxic impact of the fashion industry – meaning not high fashion brands, but the companies that make the materials that form our clothes, as well as the companies constructing the clothes – is well-known. Up to 4 percent of global climate emissions, according to a McKinsey report, and an unknown but substantial percent of global water pollution also derive from it. This is a baffling, often overwhelming problem. Humans require clothing to survive – plus, we love our clothes and derive deep meaning from how we present ourselves to the world.

“It’s two sides of the coin,” says Monica Buchan-Ng, a sustainability expert at the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. “[Clothes] can be this incredible creative force of self-expression and identity. But also we know that the way the fashion system works at present, it’s just destruction after destruction.”

However, the sheer reach of the industry also makes it a tremendous potential tool for innovation and change, and a number of new fabrics are a crucial part of that change. So far, Chavda says, Inversa has removed 50,000 lionfish, burmese pythons, and carp. In a few years, he hopes to be removing tens of millions. “I’m bullish,” Chavda says, “because I think the consumer cares.”

Aarav Chavda, co-founder of Inversa, in 2024. (Michael Starghill for The Washington Post)

Fashion addresses its sustainability problems

When asked about her favorite innovations in eco-friendly fashion, Julia Marsh, CEO of Sway, a company that makes a seaweed-based plastic used in delivery materials by large companies such as J. Crew, says simply, “Reuse and thrifting.”

It’s true that a cultural shift towards lower consumption, along with tighter governmental regulations, may be the most effective long-term solutions for mitigating the industry’s impact. But evolving the fabrics we use is an important piece of the puzzle as well.

Fabric waste is an increasingly toxic aspect of how fashion affects the planet. People bought nearly twice as much clothing in 2015 as in 2000, and most of that ended up in landfills. Fast fashion brands like Shein and others produce – and stimulate consumer demand for – ever more cheaper clothing that falls apart quickly, adding to a global waste problem.

Many fabrics have a negative impact long before they’re thrown away. Cheaper synthetic fabrics, like polyester, contain microplastics that shed into the earth’s waters every time they’re washed. Cotton, although a “natural” fiber, is farmed with high levels of pesticide, and in some regions, relies on forced and/or child labor. As for leather, the livestock production required to create animal leather is not merely cruel to animals, it also causes deforestation, water pollution, and very high carbon emissions. But even “vegan” leather comes at a high cost, as it’s frequently made from products derived from fossil fuels, including polyurethane.

Iranian workers remove skins from a washing machine. The skins are disinfected with chemicals such as lime, chromium and other enzymes that are harmful to the environment. (Ashan Pordel/AFP/Getty Images)

At the moment it’s very difficult – not to mention expensive – to buy any new clothing that doesn’t have a negative effect on the planet but as awareness of the issue increases, so have attempted solutions. Over the last decade, governments (especially in the European Union) have begun, slowly, to regulate fabric waste, pollution and emissions. And more people have found new, environmentally-friendly ways to make clothes. Some of this effort starts with attacking supply chain problems, creating better systems for recycling or repurposing old clothing, or inventing dye processes that aren’t poisonous to waterways. But the field of material development has seen some particularly fascinating innovations as well.

Innovators experiment with biodegradable materials

Uyen Tran grew up in the city of Danang, Vietnam, an area dominated by garment factories. Acutely aware of the global reach of fashion manufacturing, she was also aware from a young age of the global reach of fashion waste. Growing up, she and her family would shop at second-hand stores for brand-name clothing rejected by Westerners: “a lot of North Face, Ralph Lauren …Nike,” she says. After moving to the United States, where she studied at Parsons School of Design and worked for some of the brands she had first encountered in Vietnamese secondhand shops, she became interested in methods of fabric manufacture that avoided those levels of waste.

TômTex produces a 100 percent bio-based fabric named chitosan, made from shell seafood waste. (TômTex)

Her curiosity drove her to research chitin, a natural polymer that can be extracted from shrimp shells — a regenerative, no-waste product that can be ethically sourced from the Vietnamese seafood industry. She turns it into a liquid and flattens it to create a shiny material that looks and behaves somewhat like pleather or leather. TômTex, Tran’s company, also produces a second fabric derived from chitin found in mushrooms, a frequent favorite source of sustainable fabric innovators because of its quick growth and low environmental impact. TômTex has partnered with luxury brands like Dauphinette and Peter Do to showcase its innovative, high-fashion, fully biodegradable fabric. “Waste is something that humans created,” Tran says. “For me, if we create something, it should biodegrade and decompose as nutrients back to the soil, so animals can feed on it, a tree can grow on it.”

The next stage for TômTex is going beyond small-run capsule collections to commercialization: scaling up production so TômTex can replace a larger chunk of traditionally produced materials and make a real impact. To do so, they need significant investment. “Even brands that want to put in money … it’s not going to be $20 million,” Tran says. “We need that much to build a factory.” She’s working on brand relationships as a way of building visibility while pursuing venture capital.

Other sustainable fabric startups are searching for capital as well. Their innovations range from the fairly simple — adding sustainably farmed nettle fiber to a cotton blend, for instance, in the case of fashion company PANGAIA — to the hugely complex: bioengineering processes that might take many years to develop.

“We are at the frontier of new biomaterials, which have the potential to have a lower carbon footprint, to use much less water and much less chemicals, and potentially biodegrade naturally at the end of their life, depending on how they’re treated,” says Suzanne Lee, founder of Biofabricate, a consultancy firm that helps companies working on this type of material.

TômTex employees work with some of their ingredients, including natural liquid colors, mushrooms and shell seafood waste. (Amber Nguyen/TômTex)

Some companies are succeeding on a grand scale. The Japanese company Spiber, one of the more successful biotech companies working in fabric development, just announced that it had raised $65 million to support mass production of its plant-based, spider-silk-inspired fibers.

Other companies have struggled. “The thing you learn about all these advanced materials is they always are super promising in the beginning, in the lab,” says Dan Widmaier, the CEO of Bolt Threads, which recently had to pause production on a mushroom-based leather alternative called Mylo because of fundraising issues. “Can it work reproducibly at scale, meeting quality specs of the customer as they actually need them, meet their timelines and deliverables? Can it be financed to that scale? Those are the things that break all these.”

Innovation and finances meet in the middle

Earlier this year, a well-regarded Swedish fabric recycling company Renewcell declared bankruptcy, sending shock waves through this small and collegial world. Renewcell, which developed a process to turn old clothes into new cotton, had raised $10.6 million and opened its first factory in 2022. It had partnerships with a number of prominent brands including H & M, which had agreed to use 18,000 tons of its cloth, Circulose, in 2025. But orders still weren’t enough to support production, and the company also ran into quality issues that slowed it down.

Lee thinks the shock of the Renewcell failure could actually motivate brands to invest more steadily in other, similar products. “We actually really need to back these things if we want them to happen, because we just can’t assume they will naturally succeed on their own accord,” she says.

Meanwhile, sustainable fabric companies are just trying to get the word out. Spinnova is a Finnish company that turns cellulose from wood pulp into a biodegradable fiber. Brands like Marimekko and Adidas have used it in their clothes, and the company is scaling up production. “I think that’s actually the thing that speaks best for itself: having brands publish actual product and being able to show that, hey, look, this is real,” says CEO Tuomas Oijala. “It works, it meets the needs of consumers and by the way, it’s also a good value for money deal.”

Burmese pythons are thought to have arrived in South Florida as pets in the 1980s and then were released by frustrated owners who tired of feeding them mice and other live meals. (The Miami Herald/Tribune News Service)

For the Inversa founders, the next step is reaching a larger audience of consumers and they are optimistic that their story will resonate. “I think when you tell the consumer, like, ‘Oh, buy this, you’re sustainable,’ you have to force them to acknowledge the guilt or the karma or whatever they were doing before,” Chavda says. “If you just tell them, ‘Hey, this wallet has saved these animals,’ or ‘You’re protecting these coral reefs,’ you just skip that whole piece.”

Inversa has already started considering what other invasive species it might use as a basis for its fabrics while continuing to build relationships with local fishing collectives, governments, and conservation NGOs to ensure it sources invasive species in the least harmful way.

Meanwhile, Chavda believes that the sustainable fabrics community is on its way to making real, lasting change. “We have different methodologies of doing it, but … whether that’s fiber made from seaweed or polyester spun in a different way that’s biodegradable, we’re all trying to do the same thing — make the planet a better place,” he says.

About this story

Editing by Bronwen Latimer. Copy editing by Jeremy Lang. Design and development by Audrey Valbuena. Design editing by Betty Chavarria. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Project development by Evan Bretos and Hope Corrigan. Project editing by Marian Chia-Ming Liu.

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