On Natural Buttons, finding beauty within sustainability

WORDS Phoebe Lemon


No, our garments are not vegan because we use natural Horn and Shell buttons, but we believe that we can still be kind to the planet without sacrificing the beauty in natural buttons. Read more about how the history of buttons and sustainability influences this design choice.

A seemingly simple and often overlooked detail to a garment, the button remains an essential piece of fashion technology. In a world of velcro, zippers, and laces, we will always need (and want!) buttons. With a history of over 5000 years, the button’s design, production, and style have been uniquely shaped by its specific cultural and historical contexts.1


The first recorded button in the archaeological record dates back almost 5000 years in modern day Pakistan. A small metal nub with a single loop, it was said to have been sewn onto clothing as decoration, similar to the function of a brooch or a buckle.2 In fact, all buttons were, at first, made exclusively for decoration: Europe’s Medieval period saw buttons that resembled modern hooks and eyes, made for thread to be looped through, similar to those found in the Middle East.1 It would not be until the colonial era that buttons would meet the first button hole, evolving from a purely aesthetic embellishment to an effective fabric fastener. By the 20th century, buttons made their way into the English vernacular, common idioms such as “cute as a button” or “just short of a button” still in use today.3


Like all fashion, buttons were first made by hand, sewn onto fabric individually. By the 18th century, buttons could be found in a wide variety of natural materials, such as metal, ceramic, or clay. Metal buttons were commonly found worldwide,1 and were produced by melting the metal, usually a steel or copper alloy, and pouring the liquid into a button mold. These buttons could either be sewn directly onto clothing, or covered in fabric, gems, beads, etc.3

Animal horns, hooves, and bones were gaining popularity as raw materials for buttons.1 These buttons were created by heating and soaking the material, stretching it until flat so that the button shape could be stamped into it using a sharp tool. At first, regardless of material, buttons were commonly made within the household, or on a farm, and the design and quality of the buttons ranged drastically from carefully stained or painted glass buttons to simple, molded steel buttons that received no more than a basic polish.3 It was not until the Industrial Revolution that buttons became mass produced, pressed or stamped by machines in factories, commonly understood and used as fabric fasteners. During this time, buttons evolved into their classic shape known today, consisting of four equally spaced holes and a raised edge, perfectly fit for a corresponding button hold. Further, the convention of engraving the maker or location of production on the backside of the button that developed centuries ago remains in practice today.4

Unlike the wide availability of metal and glass, buttons made of animal by-products depended on what was available in the respective region. Namely, in late 19th-century America, the pearl industry was beginning to flourish, with most pearls and shellfish tracing back to the Mississippi river in Iowa.1Nacre, the iridescent, shiny, smooth material found inside mollusks, is most valuable in the form of a pearl, though it is also found in the lining of shells. Oysters, mussels, abalone snails, Trochus, and turban snails are just some of the marine creatures whose exoskeletons have been used to make buttons for centuries, the most valuable being Mother of Pearl buttons, made from oysters, as harvesting, farming, and sorting the animals requires skill, expertise, and costly labor.4 However, in recent years there have been strict regulations surrounding pearl farming; with oysters now an endangered species4, the fashion industry worldwide has turned to different alternatives.

The Emergence of Plastic

Today, the most popular material used for buttons is plastic. Following the invention of cellulose in the late 19th century, the first man made plastic made of plant fibers, natural materials sourced for making clothing, appliances, and other household tools were beginning to be replaced due to plastic’s low production costs and wide availability, in comparison to the ongoing shortage of natural materials.4 As such, the demand for shell, bone, horn, etc. buttons has since decreased.

The majority of buttons today are made of a synthetic resin.5 A liquid at room temperature with a high viscosity, resin buttons are made by pouring the mixture into a mold until it hardens with a glossy, smooth surface.6 Other plastics used include nylon, polyester, acrylic, and silicone, all of which are hard substances, such that buttons manufactured from these plastics go through a process called injection molding, where the hard plastic is melted first, shaped, and then cooled.6 Though it is said that resin buttons look “cleaner and brighter” in comparison to regular plastic buttons,6 resin is notorious for being one of the least environmentally friendly plastics. When in liquid form, it emits toxic, hazardous fumes that can be carcinogenic to humans, and also requires more fossil fuels than other plastics, which is the largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.47

Plastic buttons are manufactured––like most things––in large factories and shipped to various parts of the world. On average, 60% of the world’s buttons each year come from factories in Qiaotou, a small industrial city in China.8 Though a large number of buttons produced in Qiaotou come from natural materials, plastic buttons are still a main export, contributing to the 25 billion plastic buttons made each year, which equals roughly 50,000 tonnes of plastic.8

And yet, plastic is overtaking the fashion industry by way of more than just buttons: pleather, polyester, and acrylic––to name a few––have long replaced their natural counterparts of genuine leather, silk, and wool respectively. These cheaply made, low-quality, synthetic fabrics amount to nearly two-thirds of today’s clothing, contributing to up to 35% of the world’s ocean plastics.9 Because plastic is not biodegradable, it remains in the environment essentially forever, and the only way to “get rid” of plastic without causing more harm to the environment is to reuse or recycle it. Unfortunately, the modern fashion industry teaches overzealous consumption, as well as the assumption that clothes are expendable, replaceable, and inessential, making it one of the leading contributors to our world’s ever increasing landfills, trash islands, and carbon emissions.

Handcrafted with care

Each button enhances our garments in the best way and contributes to our commitment to generating as little waste as possible

Our Buttons

Here at GRAMMAR, we strive to redefine how we think about fashion, starting with our materials; we take pride in the buttons that we use and the choices that we make. Though we do use shell and horn buttons, which are not vegan and require the use of animal by-products, we believe this decision is by far more considerate to our planet than using plastic. Namely, all of our buttons come from a local distributor based in the garment district; they are a small independent business who sources them directly from Italy. We keep a close relationship with our Italian distributors, ensuring that both horn and shell buttons are produced ethically, where animals and workers are treated with care. After all, not only as a small brand, but as individuals, we are required to make well-rounded, holistic choices when it comes to our impact on the environment, which is why we consciously choose to repurpose animal materials that are “already there,” rather than contributing to the production of excess.


The two main types of buttons we use are shell and horn buttons. Our shell buttons come from a factory in Italy, who sources the shells from countries in the Pacific region, such as Australia, Japan and the Philippines. These animals have already been used for food and animal feed; the shells are transported to Italy as essentially food waste, where they are then cleaned, sorted, and stamped into buttons. Our buttons come from many different types of mollusks, ranging in pattern, size, and color, a common type being the Trochus sea snail. In comparison to other natural buttons, shell buttons are luminous, shiny, and colorful. They have a lightweight feel that is cool to the touch, and pair perfectly with our lighter fabrics that we use in Spring and Summer.


Our horn buttons come from a farm in Italy that breeds Italian Water Buffalo. Similar to the shells of mollusks, the horns become upcycled when the buffalo have lived out a full life and pass on naturally. Not only is their meat and milk used to make preserved meat, mozzarella, and yogurt, their bones and horns are also processed to make various tools such as cooking utensils, bowls, mugs, and buttons. In this way, no part of the animal goes to waste, and all of these processes are done locally, meaning that the Buffalo are bred, raised, and butchered on the same farm. According to our manufacturer, the buffalo “never see the inside of a cage or pen,” have space to graze freely and are able to eat a healthy diet of wild vegetation. These buttons are rich in color, with a matte surface and a noticeable weight to them, suitable for heavier fabrics. In particular, these buttons and our cozy flannels are a match made in heaven; their velvety matte texture creates a beautiful juxtaposition against the thick, soft, almost fluffy texture of our flannel fabric. They also come in a variety of patterns, textures, and colors, according to nature.

Luminous, Luscious, Luxurious

Marie Sophie wearing The Conjunction Shirt featuring our shell buttons

Our Perspective

The choice to use animal shells and horns is one made with intent, which illustrates the complexities and nuances within sustainable fashion, a concept that is never black and white.

Sustainability, as defined by the UN, is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.10 In other words, it requires the awareness of our actions such that we avoid “exploiting resources more than [are] there”.11 And yet, it does not just refer to the tangible, biological resources, such as fossil fuels, water supplies, forests, etc.. Instead, exploitation of resources includes people, labor, funds, culture, and ideas as well. Many scholars have emphasized that there are three equally important spheres of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic,11 and while it’s much easier to simply focus on the environment aspect, a true, holistic understanding of our actions and their impact is seemingly impossible to achieve.

Hence, a concept that seems simple in essence, it is one that proves to be confusing to many, giving rise to an “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to ethical consumption. In reality, the demands of ethical and sustainable living require us to not only care for our ecosystems, but to “[give] special attention to the eradication of poverty, social injustice, and inequalities in the relations among nations”.12

Here at GRAMMAR, this conversation plays a role in all of our processes, which is why we consider all of the systems, peoples, and networks that are involved in our production process. Thus, we commit ourselves to being educated on the materials we use and their impacts, recycling and repurposing things whenever possible, and upholding safe and stable work environments not just to be kinder to the nature outside our door, but to be kinder to each other on an individual, societal, and global level.


1. A History of Button Manufacture, Use & Classification. (2021, May 5). Crazy Crow Trading Post. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.crazycrow.com/site/history-of-buttons/

2. The History of the Button. (n.d.). King & Allen. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://kingandallen.co.uk/journal/2018/history-of-the-button/

3. Stewart, J. (2012, June 14). Button history: a visual tour of button design through the ages. Slate Magazine. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.slate.com/articles/life/design/2012/06/button_history_a_visual_tour_of_button_design_through_the_ages_.html

4. History: buttons. (n.d.). materiotek-mercerie. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.materiotek-mercerie.com/en/content/16-history-buttons

5. How are Plastic Buttons Made? Ultimate Button Manufacturing Process. (2019, March 19). SUNMEI BUTTON. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.sunmeibutton.com/how-are-plastic-button-made/

6. Resin Buttons VS Plastic Buttons: Understanding The Differences | Decorative Zips and Fashion Trend. (2018, January 29). SBS Zipper. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.sbs-zipper.com/blog/resin-buttons-vs-plastic-buttons-understanding-the-differences/

7. Kukreja, R. (n.d.). Is Resin Bad For The Environment? Conserve Energy Future. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/is-resin-bad-for-environment.php

8. Holmes, S. (2020, July 8). Buttoned-up use for recycled Marine Plastic. Develop3D. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://develop3d.com/product-design/marine-plastic-buttons-fashion-buttoned-up/

9. Ahom, S. (2022, September 24). Plastic-free and Sustainable Fashion. The Scarab Trust. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.scarabtrust.org.uk/post/plastic-free-and-sustainable-fashion

10. United Nations. (2023, March 13). The Sustainable Development Agenda - United Nations Sustainable Development. the United Nations. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/

11. Torelli, R. (2021, July 27). Sustainability, responsibility and ethics: different concepts for a single path. Social Responsibility Journal, 17(5), 719-739. 10.1108/SRJ-03-2020-0081

12. Nieto, C. C. (1996, Winter). Toward a Holistic Approach to the Ideal of Sustainability. Society for Philosophy and Technology, 2(2), 41-48. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v2n2/cuello.html

Nature knows best

Despite the many alternatives out there, nothing beats the quality and beauty of natural buttons

A match made in heaven

Horn buttons pair perfectly with all our flannel pieces

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