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Three ways Canadian companies are advancing sustainable fashion

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Fancy fungi

When Stephanie Lipp and Leo Gillis decided to uproot their lives in Mississauga and move to Bonavista, N.L., the couple was looking for a fresh start. The plan was to begin a mushroom farm in the rural town of about 3,000.

Five years later, they have built a budding startup, MycoFutures North America, with Lipp serving as chief executive. The innovative operation, which produces leather-like textiles out of mycelium (the root system of fungi), was named in Natural Products Canada’s 2023 Game Changers report highlighting female-led and founded companies with a high potential.

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Stephanie Lipp is the CEO of MycoFutures North America.Handout

The co-founders realized the strength of fungi when Gillis crumpled a bag of mushroom roots and tried to run it over with a lawnmower in hopes of using the nutrients to enrich their backyard soil.

“The mushrooms nearly broke our lawnmower,” Lipp says.

Gillis decided he would try to use the mushrooms’ root system to create a durable product. His workshop was the couple’s dining room.

“Neither of us are scientists, but he made a small postage-stamp-sized piece of fabric out of the mycelium,” Lipp says.

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The innovative operation produces leather-like textiles out of mycelium (the root system of fungi).Handout

Over the next couple of years, Gillis worked to make the fungi products more functional, creating mycelium sheets that are durable enough to last but so pliable they can be pierced with a needle and easily shaped. The result is a product that looks and feels like leather but without the environmental impact of real animal skin.

MycoFutures’ research and development was boosted when they won their first pitch competition in 2021: the BioPort BioInnovation Challenge, with a $25,000 cash prize and business advisory services worth more than $30,000.

Using the momentum of the Atlantic-based contest, Lipp launched MycoFutures globally and eventually signed its first six letters of intention with companies to produce small goods. So far, the mycelium leather has been used to make handbags and pencil case/makeup bags by Saborka, an Austria-based vegan brand. One of the purses has been on display at the Vienna Technical Museum since October, in an agricultural and food exhibition that showcases MycoFutures for its potential in the circular economy (which aims to minimize waste, reduce plastic use and curb pollution).

The couple returned to Mississauga a year ago. In 2024, Lipp says they plan to move the company out of their basement lab there to one in Vienna. She hopes putting MycoFutures in close proximity to Europe’s traditional leather-working hubs will allow the company to increase production – to 200 to 500 square metres a month, up from 20 to 50 – and grow its customer base.

Ethical textile dyes

Many sustainable fashion brands that use ecofriendly materials miss one critical component in their efforts to help the planet: colourants.

“Even if a piece of clothing is made of completely biodegradable materials, toxic dyes in those clothes can have a negative impact on the environment,” Roya Aghighi says.

The chief executive officer of Lite-1 – which she co-founded with Sarah Graham – is striving to solve the problem.

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Sarah Graham (left) and Roya Aghighi are striving to solve the fashion industry’s dye problem.Handout

The Vancouver-based biotech company creates environmentally friendly dyes by harnessing the biological responses of micro-organisms, such as bacteria, microbes and algae, that produce colours to attract and protect themselves in nature.

“Traditional dyes are made out of petroleum, which is absolutely toxic and pollutes our water,” Aghighi says.

The fashion industry’s devastating effect on water systems is undeniable: It takes about 7,500 litres to make a typical pair of jeans, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Globally, the World Bank estimates that 93 billion cubic metres of water are used to produce textiles each year.

“So much of the toxins from petroleum-based dyes end up in wastewater from the textile factories where clothes are made and then in the rivers around them. It affects people, underwater species, environments and ecosystems,” Aghighi adds. “The textile industry uses 800,000 tonnes of synthetic dyes each year, making it the second largest water polluter.”

Lite-1′s ecofriendly colours recently caught the attention of the Telus Women-led Impact Investor Challenge, from which it will receive an investment of at least $200,000. The company is currently collaborating with the Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment, a fermentation facility that opened in Sydney, N.S., in 2021, to support Canada’s growing biotechnology industry.

Food Fabric

Durable, waterproof, stain-resistant and relatively cheap, the positives of polyester are undeniable. But with them comes a stark caveat: the fabric’s environmental consequences. Polyester – also known of polyethylene terephthalate – is made of crude oil.

“It’s essentially a plastic,” says Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit organization established in 2007 to advance sustainability in the entire fashion system through education, awareness, research and collaboration.

“It releases microfibres – plastic shed-off – into our water system when we wash our clothes. Besides that, the production of it has such a negative impact on the environment.”

Not only that, but polyester manufacturing uses 55 million barrels of oil annually and is also a top contributor to the greenhouse-gas emissions generated by the fashion industry – which account for 10 per cent of all global carbon emissions – says Myra Arshad, co-founder of sustainable fabric company Alt Tex.

Arshad started the brand with her high-school best friend, Avneet Ghotra, in 2020 – and it’s already garnering the attention of the global fashion industry with its biodegradable alternative to polyester.

Alt Tex, which is based in Kitchener, Ont., sources food waste from Canadian juice companies, grocers and food-transportation firms. Through a patent-pending fermentation process, the sugars within are used to create a polyester-like fibre that is later processed and spun into yarn. The first prototype was a T-shirt hand-sewn by Arshad’s mother.

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Alt Tex founders, Myra Arshad, left, and Avneet Ghotra. Credit: Elana EmerHandout

Alt Tex was one of 10 companies to win the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award in June last year. The honour – which was presented in Stockholm, Sweden – comes with €200,000 ($289,800) and a year-long accelerator program to bring the product to scale.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work with and meet so many incredible industry partners through the program,” Ghotra says.

Polyester is the world’s most widely produced fibre, making up 54 per cent of production in 2022, according to Textile Exchange, a non-profit focused on sustainable fabrics. So the growth potential for Alt Tex is huge.

As for when customers will see products made out of its fabric in stores, the co-founders say they are currently working with a couple of brands to make clothes that could hit shelves in the next couple of years.

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