Can latex become sustainable?

Once a material that was typically associated with the fetish community, it has now become a mainstream fashion favorite. Lady Gaga wore it in red when she met Queen in 2009, Beyoncé wore it to the Met Gala in 2016, and Kim Kardashian wore it to a Met Gala after-party in 2019. Latex is becoming increasingly more present in the fashion industry, and head-to-toe looks with the material are now common in high-fashion. The rubber material most commonly associated with medical gloves and tires is now appearing on the Balmain and Saint Laurent runways. Is this good news for the environment, though?

There are two ways to produce latex: naturally or synthetically, and thanks to the rise of synthetic latex, the material has gotten a bad reputation amongst conscious fashionistas. Imitation latex is made with styrene and butadiene, both of which have origins from petroleum. Like other synthetic materials, latex does not break down after it has been disposed of. On the other hand, natural latex is biodegradable and significantly more environmentally-friendly than its artificial counterpart.

Natural latex comes from the tree known as Hevea brasiliensis, or “rubber tree” for those without a scientific dictionary. On a sustainable plantation, these trees are left to grow for up to five years before being tapped. Tapping latex, similar to retrieving sap from a maple tree, involves removing a small strip of bark to let the latex liquid out. If done mindfully, it does not harm the tree. Every time a strip of bark is removed, it is referred to as one tapping session, which yields about one cup of liquid latex. This liquid is then heated or spun at high speeds to remove the water — liquid latex is about 50% water. Next comes the vulcanization process. Sulfur is introduced to the now waterless latex, and the new mixture is exposed to heat. This solidifies the material and removes the natural stickiness. Finally comes the production, which for latex clothing, happens in the form of gluing. Laidtex, a latex clothing brand, details the process, “glued latex is produced in a manner more similar to “standard” clothing made from cotton or other fabrics. The solidified latex is pressed into thin sheets, rarely any more than a few inches thick and often much smaller. Then, these sheets are cut according to patterns. For example, if you are making a latex shirt, the front, back, collar, and two sleeves might each be cut out as their own separate piece. The pieces are then glued together to create a final product.” In the end, natural latex can be a sustainable material if special care is taken to produce slowly and protect the environment.

Unfortunately, as designers embrace the latex look in their collections, the demand for the material increases beyond nature’s capacity. Already synthetic latex accounts for most latex products out there. Most goes to make tires and other non-fashion items, but don’t be fooled in thinking that every latex get-up is natural. Much like with other materials and fabrics, the transparency is abysmal regarding the manufacturing of latex shown on the runway. There are companies like Evea, which makes shoes using wild (natural) latex and organic cotton and supports the local community in the Peru region of the Amazon rainforest, where their latex is sourced. It’s too bad that brands like Evea are not more common. Latex, especially clothing made of it, is still seen as unique and eccentric in the fashion industry. Most consumers are not buying it for their daily wear, and therefore there is no demand for fashion brands to make it transparently. Can latex become sustainable? Yes, it already is if produced naturally. The issue is the lack of communication about the sourcing of the material from brands. Unfortunately, that is a bigger issue that goes way beyond this specific material.