Roughly 94.77 million tons of primary fibres are produced around the world every single year. This is the highest figure in history and the volume is only increasing every year – it is predicted that the amount of natural resources used for clothing in 2050 is expected to be three times that used in 2000. Textiles is a global growth industry, but the short life span of fashion makes this very problematic for the environment: according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, Japanese people purchase 10kg of clothing per year while discarding 9kg.
Humanity’s history in fibre
Food, shelter and clothing are traditionally seen as the most critical things for human existence, and have been since the beginning of time. Unsurprisingly, textiles – from which clothing has always been made – has evolved over history just as much as our diet and homes have. Our ancestors first gathered fibre from plants and animals and spun them into thread more than 10,000 years ago and it has been a tapestry of change and evolvement ever since.
While natural textiles are said to have originated in the Middle East, many regions developed their own vernacular fabrics such as linen in Egypt, cotton in India, silk in China and wool across Persia. They were originally made as necessities for sustaining life but, as trade routes opened and production was industrialised, textiles such as these made from natural fibres soon became luxury items exchanged all around the world.
There was a major turning point in the 19th century with the invention of rayon, a synthetic fibre that felt like silk to the touch. It was created in France in 1884. Subsequently, similarly non-natural materials were created including polyvinyl chloride, nylon, acrylic and polyester, which soon forged a landscape where synthetic replaced natural in popularity. Cheap, durable and easy to produce in large quantities at high quality—these characteristics were a good fit for an age of mass production and mass consumption.
With these advantages in mind, there was no stopping growth and the subsequent arrival of carbon fibres and aramid fibres led to further expansion into automotive, telecommunications, and aerospace applications.
Teijin Frontier’s motto is ‘Life Evolves with Fibres’. The more fibre evolves to make our lives more fulfilling, the more they need to be sustainable too. Before the industrial revolution, the craftsmen who used natural fibres believed they were a blessing from nature. We believe we should aim to create new fibres that minimize their burden on the earth by maximizing the amount that can be returned to nature.
Technology that mimics living things
Biomimetics seeks to imitate the forms, functions or behaviours of living things as they have evolved over 3.8 billion years and apply these findings to medicine, engineering and industry to help spur innovation. When first advocated in the 1950s, the discipline was limited to the study of external appearances, but scientific advances such as electron microscopes now make it possible to research, analyse and utilise the fine structures, distinctive abilities and even cellular functions of plants and animals. Early examples include modeling human-powered aircraft on the wings of birds and hook-and-loop Velcro tape on the shape of a cocklebur plant. A more recent well-known example is using the proboscis of a mosquito to inspire the design of the painless hypodermic needle.
Thinking ahead, Teijin Frontier believes that biomimetics offers inspiration for next-generation eco-friendly fibers fibres and is working together with Professor Takahiko Hariyama of the Preeminent Medical Photonics Education & Research Center at the Hamamatsu University of Medicine, one of the leading figures in the field, to develop products that enhance our quality of life.
“Japan today faces a mountain of challenges,” professor Hariyama says. “Even as we reflect on the mass consumption that got us here, we need to build a society that brings smiles—not one based on scrimping and saving but one that facilitates person-to-person communication. To that end, I’d like to aim for positive prosperity through biometric research incorporating Japan’s appreciation for the natural world.”
The challenge for us at Teijin is deciding what kind of “society that brings smiles” we can create with these new fibres.