Almost 2,400 years ago, Plato wrote in Republic: "Our need will be the real creator." Over time, the idea transmutated into the widely known English proverb: Necessity is the mother of invention. These need and invention bits rung true for Yuichi Taka.
The need was to move away from petroleum-based fabrics, and the invention (actually, innovation) has been a fibre made from polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic made from corn, under the brand name Highlact.
But then, PLA itself was nothing new—it has second highest consumption volume of any bioplastic of the world, and is used in a large variety of consumer products such as disposable tableware, cutlery, housings for kitchen appliances. It can degrade into lactic acid, making it suitable for use as medical implants in the form of anchors, screws, plates, pins, rods, and mesh. It breaks down inside the body between six months and two years.
There was just one problem: PLA couldn't stand heat beyond a point. It has been used in nonwoven fabrics, but wouldn't stand a chance for apparel.
Taka, Director at Tokyo-headquartered HighChem, however, had ideas. "When we were being forced to change materials due to sustainability issues in the fashion industry, we thought that PLA was the best material that could replace polyester in terms of quality, cost and supply.
"PLA is a synthetic fibre derived from biomass such as corn, and we hope that we will be able to supply textured fabrics like polyester in the near future. Of course, there are some problems such as heat resistance, but research and development are ongoing by the day. As for the price issue, we are confident that the production cost will eventually decrease because our partner mill in China is expanding their production capacity by more than five times and would be supported by the Chinese government."
There's a technicality here, because technically PLA is still a polyester, a thermoplastic polyester to be precise. The Wikipedia entry on the subject points out: "Although the name 'polylactic acid' is widely used, it does not comply with IUPAC standard nomenclature, which is 'poly(lactic acid)'. The name 'polylactic acid' is potentially ambiguous or confusing, because PLA is not a polyacid (polyelectrolyte), but rather a polyester."