While fashion can be really fun, it’s also a very wasteful industry. As Kornit Digital CEO Ronen Samuel said at the company’s Fashion Week in Tel Aviv this year, 28 trillion liters of water are used to produce shirts, and 40% of all produced clothes end up in a landfill. That’s why many are turning to digital technology, like 3D printing, to keep things more sustainable. A startup called Simplifyber is jumping on this train by completely rethinking how we make shoes and clothing today. Rather than cutting, knitting, weaving, or sewing, some of which can waste fabric, Simplifyber has developed a novel 3D printed approach to traditional clothing manufacturing that supposedly cuts out 60% of the steps and creates a biodegradable product, all while reducing waste.
“Our footwear (shoe “uppers”) and clothing are made with chemistry and biomaterials rather than with sewing machines, eliminating much of the waste, carbon emissions, and water pollution that have led to fashion’s devastating environmental and social impact,” the website states.
With 3D printing, exactly the amount of material needed to make the product is used, so there’s less waste. Scientists at Simplifyber came up with the process, which entails pouring liquid cellulose into a single 3D printed mold. No stitching is required, as the piece pops right out of the mold, and dye can be added while the material is still in a liquid form, which saves water. Once the shirt or shoe is no longer wearable, it can then be recycled into new clothing.
“Everything we’re doing is different, from start to finish. We design differently, in 3D,” stated Maria Intscher-Owrang, the Co-Founder and CEO of Simplifyber. “Our molds are 3D printed. Then we pour our liquid slurry that ultimately becomes a fabric-like material into those molds.”
The material for the 3D printed molds is made in a lab, from a mix of biodegradable, non-toxic additives, wood pulp, and other plants. The process is not too different from making paper, but results in a stronger, more durable material. Additionally, the completed pieces can have characteristics of actual fabric, such as leather, just by changing up the mixture’s thickness and composition, and molding the shape makes it possible to create textures on the material as it’s made.
“We’ve created a new fabric-like material directly from a liquid that utilizes some learnings from the paper industry, but that’s really where the similarity to paper ends. Most of our bonding strength comes from an ingredient made from food waste—it creates an effect known as cross-linking, creating bonds at the molecular level. When wet, our materials are around 94% as strong as they are when they’re dry,” explained Intscher-Owrang, who previously worked as a designer at some major fashion houses, including Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, and Alexander McQueen.
The startup recently announced that it had closed a $3.5 million seed funding round, led by At One Ventures; other participants include Techstars, Heritage Group Ventures, The Helm, W Fund, Jetstream Ventures, Plug & Play Ventures, REFASHIOND Ventures, CapitalX Ventures, and Keeler Investments Group. Additionally, it’s partnering with HP for a pilot to 3D print molded shoe uppers, also from a custom, natural fiber-based formula. 3D printing enables what Intscher-Owrang calls “extreme customization,” due to the technology’s ability to create bespoke pieces, as well as adjacent technologies like 3D body scanning. With the help of the funding round, this is where Simplifyber will begin.
“With its single-step process for clothing making, Simplifyber has the potential to beat the unit economics of polyester, becoming an economically and environmentally viable solution against plastic waste. We’re looking forward to partnering with the team to bring this solution to scale. We believe Simplifyber could be the apparel of the future: They are not only beautifully designed but have a low carbon footprint and are price-accessible, which is a significant differentiation from other sustainable clothing brands,” said Laurie Menoud, Partner with At One Ventures.
Eventually, the startup wants to replace knits and wovens, which represent a $25B market, and focus on mass manufacturing, which may end up being more affordable for consumers in the long run.
“If we can use economics as a motor to drive change, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll make something that’s cheaper so that these companies have an additional incentive to use it, and it makes more sense from an economic standpoint for them to use our material. And then the bonus is that it’s better for the environment,” Intscher-Owrang said.
At the moment, while sustainable materials are better for the environment, they also cost more money, and so are less accessible to the general public. But Simplifyber hopes, in the future, to replace manufacturing at the market’s lower end by fabricating T-shirts and other items for day-to-day wear. Its business structure and 3D printed molds, at scale, could potentially be used to produce as much clothing in a single day as traditional factories can in a month.
“If you look at the supply chain of fashion, it breaks down to fiber, yarn, spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing. We’re actually taking over everything that comes after fiber . . . we replace it with a single process,” Intscher-Owrang explained. “We’re also replacing all of the transportation that normally has to happen in between those steps.”
Simplifyber believes that one day, its technology could even replace up to a third of total manufacturing. But, you have to walk before you can run, and the startup’s first 3D printed product, most likely a sneaker, could hit the market as soon as next year.
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