Because it's cheap and easy to manufacture, polyester has become today's dominant textile. But polyester, which is essentially made of oil, causes a host of problems. While the material does provide a use for all those recycled plastic water bottles, washing any synthetic fabric — whether it's made of raw petroleum or recycled plastics — sloughs off microscopic fibers. Those microfibers end up in water supplies and never biodegrade.

Viscose and other wood-pulp fabrics do biodegrade, but making them has traditionally required a host of toxic chemicals. (This is why, in 2013, the FTC came down on brands claiming their bamboo rayon was eco-friendly. It's not.) Meanwhile, despite its higher costs, cotton has always remained everyone's favorite. For thousands of years, some form of the cotton bush has been cultivated in every tropical region, from Africa to the Far East and Central America. In his treatise, Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that more than even sugar, cotton almost single handedly supported and financed Britain's colonialism and America's slavery, and ushered in the world's most brutal era of industrialization.

Today, the agro-industrial complex that has grown up around cotton has been dogged with everything from human rights abuses to its own environmental harms. Just the farming of cotton depletes increasingly scarce water supplies and spreads pesticide residue. The half-dried-up Aral Sea has been a public relations nightmare for the industry. So have child labor and farmer suicides in India. Forced Uighur labor in China is just the latest cotton indignity.

Not surprisingly, fashion brands would rather not deal with cotton's PR problems, or its fluctuating costs; thus, the rise of polyester and rayon. Now comes a company like re:newcell with a more efficient way to recycle cotton clothing. But its process is still dependent on cotton. So everyone's still searching for the innovation that all the fashion brands desperately need: a soft, high-performing, non-polluting material that can truly replace cotton.

Disrupting cotton

Summer vacation in Finland has just started, and the leafy campus of AALTO University, outside of Helsinki, is deserted and quiet. Dr. Marja Rissanen, a textile engineer who looks like the Saturday Night Live comedian Rachel Dratch (but more serious), meets me in the lobby of a research building and walks me into a large white lab, past a glass case with spools of thread and the H&M Global Change Award, then into a smaller lab where a small machine sits humming in the corner.

At first, I can't see anything. When I lean closer, I see a hair-thin filament being pushed out of what looks like a fairy-sized pasta maker. The filament drops down into a small vat of water, runs through a clear plastic tube, emerges out of a burbling fountain, then wraps onto a metal cylinder. Whenever you hear about some unexpected plant being made into a silky fabric — bamboo, eucalyptus, wheat chaff, orange peels — that's the kind of process I'm watching. Rissanen says this technology, called Ioncell, uses a safe solvent called ionic liquid to chemically melt down paper and textile waste, and extrude it into new, silk-like fiber.

I'm looking at the beginning of a shift toward what industry insiders call "circular fashion," an economy where we collect all kinds of old cotton, paper, and other plant waste; add in some (hopefully) benign chemicals; and transform the mix into a new fiber that is made into new clothes.

With northern European governments plowing research money into this utopia, Ioncell is just one of three fiber-recycling technologies Finland has produced. There's also Spinnova's fiber, which is made out of straw; and Infinited Fiber, a project run out of the same campus as Ioncell by Professor Ali Harlin.

An imposing Viking of a man with a large white beard, Harlin meets me, with Rissanen, in a conference room in the same building, seating himself at the table with a ponderous sigh. He pulls a crafter's plastic organizational box out of his bag; each cube of the box holds a different kind of fiber.

With a flourish, Harlin sets a large roll of thread in front of me. "That is cellulose carbamate," he says. Then he hands me a small, white square of woven cloth with an expectant look. I hold the cloth up to my eye, examining it like a cut diamond. I'm flabbergasted. To me, it looks and feels exactly like cotton. Apparently, that was the reaction he was hoping for. "A genuine fake," Harlin says with a laugh. "It's closer to viscose in terms of performance. It wicks away sweat, but isn't as stiff as cotton."

I ask him how he came up with this fabric. "It's a long story," he says, with another sigh. But it soon becomes clear that he relishes telling it, making full use of his expressive eyebrows and leaning back in his chair to wait for my reaction after each pronouncement.

Harlin begins by explaining that viscose, his material's primary competitor, is created by mixing dissolved pulp with carbon disulfide, a chemical that has been linked to insanity, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke. "If you work in a factory where you are regularly exposed to [carbon disulfide], your brain will swell," Harlin says. (This is why most viscose is now made in Asian countries with more lax safety and environmental standards.)

Created through a technology called Ioncell, this fiber was used in a dress worn by Finland’s First Lady. | (Alden Wicker/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

Cellulose carbamate, he says, was invented to provide a safer alternative. It requires only urea, a harmless chemical used in wet wipes. Apparently, one factory in the north of Finland produced cellulose carbamate from 1986 to 1993, and with some upgrades, it could have kept going, but a competitor bought it and shut it down. "Textile companies didn't want to take the risk on a new textile," Harlin says. "Polyester was growing, cotton was available."

Around 2000, Harlin joined an academic research team and decided to take one last look at cellulose carbamate before it was shoved into the back of the scientific closet and forgotten. He brought in a pair of his old jeans, chemically broke down the cotton, and produced a light blue fiber. When he brought a sample to the ITMA textile technology conference in Italy, he came home with a list of 60 interested fashion companies.

So his team took some of the machinery from the old carbamate factory up north, installed it in a small pilot plant in Espoo, and started making samples. When compared with cotton, the resulting fiber has a 20 percent lower production cost; a 30-40 percent more efficient dye uptake than any other fiber; uses only 50 liters of water to manufacture a kilogram versus 20,000 liters (on average) per kilogram of cotton; and is close to carbon neutral. Not surprisingly, H&M is an investor here, too.

Harlin believes that many of the old viscose-rayon factories dotting Finland could easily and cheaply be retrofitted to produce Infinited Fiber. And here's the best part: as its name implies, Infinited's process can use any kind of cellulose an infinite number of times. That means all kinds of castoffs — old clothes, bedsheets, used cardboard and paper products, even agricultural waste — could now be used, reused, and continually reused to make more clothing. This seems like an enormous win-win-win for fashion companies, for Finland, and for the planet.

There is a not-so-small problem, however. After sustaining cultures in myriad corners of the world for thousands of years, the cotton trade is now woven into the very fiber of our global economy. Today, an estimated 300 million people work in the cotton industry on one level or another, which raises a question that nobody has asked: What will happen to the world's cotton farmers?

For the complete version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.

Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine's newsletters.