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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Meet 2 Biomaterial Startups Cultivating a Circular, Climate-Friendlier Fashion Industry

Orange Fiber and Keel Labs are platforms for exploration and innovation that can reverberate across the fashion industry and prove that sustainable feedstocks and production processes can create both financial and planetary prosperity.

The current iteration of the $1.7 trillion fashion industry is responsible for roughly 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-biggest consumer of the global water supply. It is also largely comprised of polyester — the primary material in about 65 percent of all our clothing — which requires around 70 million barrels of oil per year to produce. Recent research by Race to Zero also suggests that if the sector continues as is, it will miss the 1.5° goal set out in the Paris Agreement by 50 percent.

There is no denying that the fashion industry must readjust how it creates and delivers its products. While brands large and small are working to reduce their impacts and build supply chains around more sustainable textiles, a handful of biomaterial startups are proving that some of our best solutions can be found in nature.

Orange Fiber

Image credit: Orange Fiber

Back in 2012, Italian design students Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arena began exploring the potential to create a fabric made from industrial byproducts — in their case, they turned to what was naturally abundant, and widely wasted, in Santanocito’s hometown of Catania, Sicily: oranges. After an experimentation phase in partnership with Milan Polytechnic University, Orange Fiber came to life in 2014.

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That same year, Orange Fiber presented its first prototype textiles — silk-like fabrics made from citrus cellulose extracted from juice industry waste — at Vogue’s Fashion's Night Out event in Milan. A year later, the company secured funding from Smart&Start by Invitalia — enabling the building of a pilot plant in Sicily, where the company extracted enough citrus pulp to scale production.

Orange Fiber’s first garments debuted in the 2017 Ferragamo Orange Collection, which was selected for the Sustainable Thinking exhibition at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence. The startup soon began starring in exhibitions at museums across the globe — including the Fashion for Good Museum in Amsterdam, the Dutch Hygiene Museum, and the V&A in London. In 2019, the fabrics were included in H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection and were integrated into luxury neckties designed by prominent Neapolitan brand E. Marinella.

The popularity of its product allowed Orange Fiber to launch a successful equity crowdfunding campaign in July 2019, which raised €650k from 365 investors — well above its original goal of €250k — with which the company built a brand-new plant in Sicily in 2020; this enabled the startup to scale production and provide a glimpse of a future in which the textile industry helps to preserve natural resources and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

In July 2021, the company joined forces with Lenzing Group to manufacture the first-ever Tencel Lyocell fibers made from orange. This material is processed in the same award-winning closed-loop process as standard Tencel Lyocell fibers; but the Orange Fiber textile requires less wood cellulose thanks to the cellulose extracted from the citrus pulp, enhancing the sustainability by relieving pressure on forests.

Keel Labs

Image credit: Keel Labs

Another biomaterial company is looking to improve fashion by exploring the power of marine ecosystems in the production of textiles.

Founded in 2017 as Algknit by Fashion Institute of Technology grads Tessa Callaghan and Aleksandra Gosiewski, the company recently rebranded as Keel Labs — and says it is seeking to establish itself as a ‘platform and parent’ for innovation that places community and nature at its center.

Keel Labs produces its Kelsun yarn from an abundant biopolymer found in kelp called alginate — creating a versatile, drop-in solution for existing yarn and textile production methods. Kelp — a large, brown, fast-growing seaweed — is also a carbon-sequestering powerhouse that can absorb more CO2 per acre than land forests, making it a valuable tool in the climate fight while it cleans up the fashion industry.

With a $2.4 million infusion in bridge financing in 2021, Keel Labs expanded to North Carolina and opened an innovation hub designed to enhance technological development whilst scaling production of its aquaculture-based yarn. Then, earlier this year, the company scored another $13 million in Series A funding — led by Collaborative Fund with additional support from Starlight Ventures, Third Nature Ventures, H&M CO:LAB, SOSV and Horizons Ventures — which Keel Labs says it will direct toward reducing the textile industry's carbon footprint.

The fashion industry is set to grow up to 63 percent over the next 10 years. This means shifting towards practices that reduce reliance on oil as well as practices of deforestation caused by the extraction of wood cellulose is key. Experimenting with alternatives to conventional, resource-intensive fabrics is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.