As the era of fast furniture seems to be on the wane and consumers become more focused on sustainability and reducing their environmental impact, home goods companies have begun innovating to find new materials and processes to make their products more earth-friendly. While materials such as organic cotton and sustainably sourced wood are well known, a bevy of new and unexpected, nature-derived materials have the potential to change the way home goods are made.
“There is an increasing interest in sustainability and circularity in the home market,” said Marcia Weiss, director of the Fashion and Textiles Futures Center at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University). “Customers are requesting more sustainable, natural, organic materials for their homes for the health of their families and new materials are being developed from a range of interesting sources.”
The ocean has been one of the most fertile sources of potential materials that can be fashioned into fabrics, with textile-makers looking at underwater vegetation as the next frontier in organic fibers.
“We’re seeing so much seaweed and algae because it grows like bamboo,” said Jaye Anna Mize, vice president of home and lifestyle at trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops. “We’re seeing high-end applications of kelp yarn, weaving it into throw blankets. It’s not really in America yet — we’re seeing it mostly in European markets.”
Mize said with the United Nations declaring the Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in 2021, lasting through 2030, we should expect to see the application of more sea-harvested materials into fashion and home goods in the coming years.
“We’re in the decade of the ocean, and with that, we’re looking at a lot of new materials like kelp and seaweed,” Mize said. “Seaweed was valued as a $15 billion industry in 2021, and it’s expected to increase at a 7.5 percent rate between now and 2028 because the plant itself grows really quickly.”
Not only are seaweed and kelp widely available because of their proliferation rates, but the plants also naturally sequester nearly 175 million tons of carbon around the world, according to a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience. Mize said that additional benefit has pushed some materials companies to innovate and incorporate these sea grasses into new products.
“They’re doing huge studies right now and growing vast amounts of kelp and seaweed farms with the idea of them being new alternative solutions to your everyday textiles,” she said. “We’re seeing it being the substitute for wood composites. They’re really pushing the boundaries of where they can apply it.”
Sea plants aren’t the only ocean-sourced materials making their way into the home. Seafood waste, particularly oyster, clam and lobster shells, are being saved from the trash can and repurposed into composite hard materials for the home.
“We’re seeing a lot of new initiatives to buy back food waste and re-composite those shells into new materials for things like decor, sand applications and concrete applications,” Mize said. “The shells make the composite a bit more interesting, and I think over the next few years instead of doing marble, granites, etc., we’ll see a lot more shell composites.”
New organic alternatives for leather have been a major push in home goods as well as in fashion. Cork, which has long been used in fashion for shoes and handbags, has made its way to furniture, with companies such as Portugalia Cork upholstering furniture in the material. Food waste also comes into play for leather alternatives.
“Vegan leather may come from pineapple leaves, cactus, coconut husks and many other sources,” Weiss said. “At times, the fiber is derived from a food-industry biproduct, thereby reducing the demand on new resources.”
The way textiles are dyed is changing, as well. Mize said she’s seen a rise in natural dyes developed from flowers and plants, as well as food waste. And at Dutch design week, she saw the introduction of perhaps the most futuristic-sounding dye process — Living Pigments using bacteria to add color to fabrics. The project, which is still in progress with designer Julia Moser and the Vienna Textile Lab, introduces certain bacteria strains to fabrics, leaving a sustainable, long-lasting color.
Mize said innovations such as this are being led by the next generation of textile designers, who aren’t afraid to experiment and push the limits of what’s possible.
“Some of the biggest innovations are coming out of student experimentation,” Mize said. “You go to SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] or RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], and these kids are on it, working with bacteria and mycelium and other organic materials.”
Whether it’s seaweed fabric or bacteria-dyed textiles, Weiss said these material innovations will allow the home goods industry to forge a more sustainable future.
“Ongoing and future innovation can result in responsible production and consumption, and the creation of products that embody a truly circular life cycle,” Weiss said. ”This may be through innovation in the interiors product development sphere, where products morph and change throughout their life cycle. This also could be through the development and support of regional communities of makers, essentially farm to table for textiles and interiors. Either way, it’s an exciting time in the textile design and home furnishings industry.”