Is Fruit Fiber the Future of T-shirt Textiles?

Hannah Nussbaum

A perfect T-Shirt is the ultimate laid back staple. It’s a non-statement statement piece, an expression of comfort, an iconic American essential that can be dressed up or down.

Its roots trace back to the late nineteenth century when laborers would cut the sleeves off their long-sleeved work uniforms in the hot months of the summer. The humble garment had a resurgence in the 1950s when Marlin Brando and James Dean slapped heartthrob status onto the plain white tee. Suddenly, wearing a T-shirt as a standalone outerwear garment was not only acceptable, but it was stylish, sexy, and rebellious.

This is a cultural history, but with every cultural history, there’s an environmental history behind it. Every trend has a very real-world set of effects, and the rise of the T-shirt has, underneath it, a story that involves cotton.

Cotton, the primary material used to make our favorite T-shirts, makes up a third of fiber consumption in today’s textile industry. It’s a labor-intensive industry, and its greatest environmental footprint has to do with the agrochemicals and pesticides involved in its growth, the consumption of water needed to sustain its crops, and the conversion of natural habitats into farmland to meet the growing market demand for more of it. Soil erosion and degradation are an upshot of cotton farming, and water contamination from pesticide runoff is another serious concern.

So if cotton is a fundamentally unsustainable crop, what is the future of the beloved T-shirt?

The answer might be fruit fiber. Today, raw material innovators are imagining a set of alternatives to cotton, which will allow us to evolve the T-shirt into a more sustainable staple.

These new innovations in fruit fiber are based around a commitment to using fruit waste. When fruit is farmed, only the fleshy, edible fruit is actually cultivated and sold. This means that a huge amount of plant matter (think stems, leaves, and husks) are thrown into landfills.

Bananas

The cost of your morning smoothie is higher than the few dollars you spent to buy your bunch of bananas. Banana stems are wasted in the billions of tonnes each year, particularly in the Philippines. But banana stems can be turned into one of the worlds strongest fibers, also known as Musa fiber. This natural textile is biodegradable and makes use of what would otherwise be an enormous amount of waste. Banana fiber has a similar texture to bamboo fiber, meaning that it’s incredibly resilient and durable, but can still be spun into a soft and airy textile. The resulting fabric is breathable, absorbent, and can feel like silk on your skin.

Oranges

Oranges are another fruit that can be transformed into a sustainable textile that has the potential to reduce waste and pollution associated with the cotton industry. Founded in 2014, Italian Company, Orange Fiber, has trail blazed orange textiles, creating sustainable fabrics made up of citrus juice byproducts that would otherwise be thrown away. Orange waste contains a large amount of pulp in it, within which can be found a goldmine of micro-materials called cellulose fibers. As it turns out, these fibers can be woven into a silky textile that’s biodegradable and long-lasting. Bring on the OJ.

How Textiles are made from Oranges

Pineapples

Pineapple harvesting is typically done in subtropical regions, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Brazil, Hawaii, India, Indonesia, and the West Indies. Not surprisingly, all of these regions also produce a large number of pineapple byproducts. Namely, pineapple leaves. Specifically, in the Philippines, serious efforts are being made to revive the use of pineapple leaf based textiles. That’s right, the pineapple-based fabric isn’t a new phenomenon. Centuries ago, it was extensively produced in the Philippines and was in high demand until cotton eclipsed it as a cheaper (but less sustainable) alternative. A key point here is that pineapples are already being grown for consumption – so cultivating pineapple leaves as a basis for a sustainable textile requires no additional pesticides, water, or land-space.

Today, Carmen Hijosa has created a new brand called Piñatex, which is based around an innovative natural textile that’s primarily formulated with pineapple fiber. The resultant material comes in a variety of textures and thicknesses: it can be used to make light T-Shirt type fabric, but can also be crafted as an alternative leather material (bonus that its water resistant). The additional income stream generated for pineapple farmers is one clear-cut benefit, and the lower environmental impact is one answer to the problem of cotton in today’s textile industry.

Bonus spotlight:

In the future, your pineapple-leather boots might be delivered to your door wrapped in sustainable mushroom-based packaging. Innovative design company Ecovative is pioneering a future of zero-waste bioplastics made out of mushroom mycelium – they’re creating ‘mushroom packaging’ comprised out of mycelium combined with the agricultural byproducts of hemp. This points to a future in which e-commerce packaging and shipping might take less of a toll on the planet.

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Of course, all of these textiles can be mapped onto a variety of garments that reach above and beyond the T-shirt. At some point in the future, you might be rocking a fruit-based bag, fruit-based shoes, or a fruit-based spacesuit.

Keep up with us here for more future-facing speculative material roundups!