A circular economy is a necessary step the fashion and textile industries need to take in order to stay relevant and in balance with the well-being of the environment. But how do we develop a circular process? How do these innovative ideas start? Fashion designers and end-consumers play an important role in the discussion of this subject, both in creating and demanding relevant and functional products, as well as exchanging ideas about how to care for and dispose of waste. How do we get involved and reflect upon these innovations, from materials to final fashion products?
More and more biodegradable and innovative solutions have come about to solve the many issues around the negative impact that fashion can have on the planet: biodegradable and recycled polyester, for example, and synthetic spider silk made from only water, yeast, and sugar. Vegan leather alternatives produced from other industries' byproducts are also on the rise, including a coffee leather-like material developed by Alice Genberg, a Central Saint Martins (CSM) graduate and green fashion entrepreneur. We talked to Alice a bit more about her research behind the development of her Coffee Leather brand:
[Digifair] Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional history? What led you to CSM?
[Alice] I grew up in a very creative home in a small town in Sweden, with a dad working as an artist and a mom working as a graphic designer, so colour and form have always been a part of my life. Because of this, I have always been interested in all sorts of design and it has never been a question about "if", but rather about "what". Over the years I have taken courses in both fine art, graphic design, fashion design and interior design and then finally product design which felt completely right. We have great design schools in Sweden, but I was drawn to CSM due to the diverse mix of design and people under the same roof, and the creative atmosphere it brings.
The circular economy behind the production of coffee leather: from nature to a cup of coffee and back to the environment again, without waste or toxic contamination. Credit: courtesy of Coffee Leather
[D] You've just graduated from a BA in Product Design at Central Saint Martins, where you started your research with coffee leather. What motivated you to start this material? How did the idea come about?
[A] Last summer I was running this small summer café with my family in our summer house in the Swedish countryside and I noticed the huge amount of waste coffee grounds we threw away every day. I did some research and found that to make a cup of coffee, only 0.2% of the coffee bean is used and the remaining 99.8% goes to waste, and this made me think about the world we live in today and all the coffee shops that keep popping up everywhere, how much waste coffee grounds they must produce. At our tiny café, we produced around 4kg of waste coffee grounds every day. Just imagine how much a place like Starbucks or Pret-a-Manger would produce then? Also, the whole coffee industry is pretty dirty and it faces a lot of environmental as well as social challenges, and it just feels like such a waste that 99.8% of the final outcome is thrown away. This, together with a strong passion for sustainability, encouraged me to see if all this coffee waste could be turned into something valuable instead.
[D] What kind of challenges did you face in product development?
[A] I had never worked with biomaterials before so this was a completely new area for me -- there have clearly been a lot of challenges along the way. In the beginning, I was struggling with the material drying out and hardening a bit after a couple of weeks so I had to work on that. Now it hasn’t dried out in 4 months at least so that’s an improvement and hopefully, it will stay like that. Another challenge that came up was that the material seems to like the humidity here in London… When I brought some samples back home to Sweden they dried out because of the dry air so that’s been another thing I’ve been working with and have solved. I guess that’s the beauty with new materials, that you don’t know what kind of challenges you will face but that there’s always a solution to them in one way or another.
[D] How was your experimentation process?
[A] The whole process was very material-driven and what started off as a hard and dense material later resulted in this very interesting, soft and flexible material that reminded me of leather. This raised new questions and problems to tackle since the animal leather industry faces a lot of challenges, affecting both animals and humans. Vegan alternatives have, therefore, a huge growing interest in both fashion industries as well as car interiors and furniture. By using leather-like materials derived from natural matters as alternatives to leather, we can avoid unnecessary pain and suffering where no one is being harmed.
The coffee grounds were collected from local coffee shops, which benefited them in terms of cost-effective waste disposal as well. The coffee grounds were then dried and ground again to a fine powder before they were mixed with natural binding agents and additives. The mixture was then pressed into a sheet which can be applied to products and when it no longer serves its purpose, it can easily biodegrade back into nature.
Alice Genberg's product development and experimentation tested different textures and finishes, including waterproofing the material. On the right, a prototype stool with coffee leather upholstery. Credit: courtesy of Coffee Leather
[D] Is it still the prototype version? When do you think you will be able to produce larger pieces?
[A] Yes, it is. I am currently experimenting with alternative natural binders with hopes of enhancing all qualities such as strength and durability even further, making it more commercial. As soon as I have a strong and stable recipe I will run some proper material tests on it and will then try to find tools and space to make larger pieces. During the summer, I'll be running the summer café again so will take that time to collect waste coffee grounds and then start working with it properly. I hope to be able to produce larger pieces shortly after that!
[D] What are the properties of the coffee leather you are developing? We've read that is malleable and you were working on making it water resistant as well.
[A] The material is strong, flexible and durable and it is very malleable where it takes on surfaces very easily. I have been working on making it water resistant as well but haven’t completely figured out how to make it 100% resistant yet. I am currently looking at different coatings which will hopefully solve that problem.
[D] What kind of industries are you looking at to use your new material in? We've seen the prototype used in a stool and a cardholder. Do you think coffee leather could be used for fashion garments as well?
[A] My goal is simply to make it a material that is integrated into the industry as standard material, a material that is chosen for a logical reason rather than just being seen as a gimmick, and I see it being used in both fashion and accessories as well as furniture. As mentioned, I have made an upholstered seat for a stool as well as a cardholder. My brother is currently working on making me a jacket in it as well so I am really excited to see how that turns out and how it behaves with the movements of the body.
[D] Other brands have promoted their coffee leather made from waste with a natural smell of coffee. We found it so curious! Does your product retain the smell of coffee as well?
[A] Yes, the material has a strong smell coffee and the grounds are also noticeable on the surface, giving it a strong character which I really like. If you press the material it gets a smooth surface (or whatever surface it is pressed against) on both sides, but if you just lay it out it will get one smooth side and one natural textured side where the grounds are raised -- which I also find really interesting and beautiful.
Alice Genberg, a Swede based in London, UK, developed her research on a biodegradable coffee leather material whilst studying Product Design at the prestigious Central Saint Martins. An innovative example of how to adopt a circular economy to all areas in the textile industry. Credit: courtesy of Coffee Leather
[D] Do you think sustainability is driving innovation in the industry at the moment?
[A] It is a crucial time where I believe sustainability is driving innovation in all sorts of industries, which makes it a fun and exciting challenge for us designers. We are running out of raw resources and have to find new alternatives so I believe we will see more and more textiles made from both waste and renewable resources. The demand for sustainable textiles is growing so I think this will show in terms of labour and processes as well where it will be way more sustainable and cleaner.
We love to see how new developments are changing the fashion and textile industries for the better. Technology and data play a big part in helping to speed up the discoveries and the improvement of what’s in the market already. But most importantly, by sharing our thoughts and points of view the change can occur in a liquid way, acting as a catalyst for fashion creatives to understand market needs, bring solutions to the end-consumer, and challenge the current problems we are facing with quality information. The transformation is nearer than you think - and it only takes sharing. Are you ready to take action and be part of this transformation?
Let's push the fashion and textile industries towards innovative solutions that can save a lot of resources, including money and time, as well as being more sustainable. Make your textile demands go global: sign up to our platform now.