Harnessing Nature’s Genius In Sustainable Fashion

By Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

“Many of our best inventions are copied from, or already in use by other living things.” Bill Gates

The natural world is an infinite source of inspiration that designers, architects and scientists have greedily tapped into for years. Known as biomimicry, the practices dates back as far as 4000BC and can be seen in everything from the shape of umbrellas to the circular economy.

One of the biggest borrowers of all is the fashion industry, and as cries for a more sustainable one grow louder, more designers are turning their attention to ways in which they can replicate, harness, and adapt nature’s methods to greener ends. Below, we take a look at some of the most ingenious, from fabrics to growing methods to packaging.

Waterproofing & Self-Cleaning Fabrics

Why does it matter? The washing of clothing has vast environmental impacts, shedding microfibres in their millions, guzzling water and energy, and polluting with detergents. In creating garments that are able to endure the elements better and look good for longer, we are increasing their consumer lifespan – one of the most efficient ways of reducing the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.

Inspired By: The Lotus Leaf

The Belgian company, Nanex, uses the Lotus leaf as its lodestar, whose surface covered in hydrophobic wax crystals encourages water to bead up and roll off it, taking dirt and dust particles along with it. The ingenious coating the company has developed is covered in similar nanostructures that can be applied to textiles and nonwoven, bestowing them with the ability to repel both water and dirt.

Inspired By: Animal Fur

British company, Nikwax, has achieved a similar result with a jacket that mimics the action of fur. Mammals such as beavers and otters have an outer and inner layer of fur, the latter of which is dense and wavy creating a thick, matted barrier that forces water droplets away from the body where fur is less dense. The same idea is applied in Nikiwax’s dual-layered outer garment,  pushing water outwards and away from the body while also providing insulation – a feat many other jackets achieve via a chemical treatment.

Image Credit: Nikiwax / Nanex

Fabric Colouring

Why does it matter? It’s no secret that the colouring of clothes wreaks environmental havoc as a toxic cocktail of heavy metals, ammonia, alkali salts, toxic solids and pigments – key components of many dyes – leak into waterways.

Inspired By: A Butterfly Wing

Japanese technology group, Teijin, has taken pioneering steps towards finding an alternative colouring process using biomimicry by developing the world’s first structurally coloured fibre, named Morphotex. Morphotex mimics the microscopic structure and striking iridescence of the Morpho Butterfly’s wing using multi-layers of polyester and polyamide. The nanotechnology was adopted by Australian designer, Donna Sgro, who made three garments in the fabric including her Morphotex dress, which was rooted as an exemplar of sustainable fashion innovation when it was bought for the London Science Museum’s permanent collections.

Inspired By: Bacteria

Bactria often gets a bad rap but biodesign lab, Faber Futures, are putting it to ingenious use in making coloured garments. They work with pigment-producing microbes which are applied to garments and left to populate. As the colonies grow, they produce a coloured antibiotic whose final tone – ranging from reds and pinks to purples and blues – is determined by the pH level in which it is grown. Even patterns can be achieved based on the placement of the bacteria!

Inspired By: Jellyfish & Coral

Proteins have had a place in the fashion industry since the middle of the 20th century, long having proven their efficacy in reducing the consumption of chemicals, energy and water. Most recently, biomaterials startup, Werewool, has been blazing its own trail in this field creating coloured textiles – even fluorescent – from naturally occurring proteins found in coral, jellyfish and oysters. Leaving all organisms entirely unharmed, they’re also able to factor in water repellency, breathability, and stretch to create a 100% biodegradable fabric.

Image Credit: Donna Sgro / Nanex

Self-Repairing Fabrics

Why does it matter? According to WRAP, the average lifetime of a garment is 2.2 years in the UK. When we think of the amount of energy and resources required to make each one (for example, a single cotton t-shirt uses 2,700 litres of water), it gives you an idea of the strain we’re putting on our planet by going through clothing at such a rate. Clothes that are able to repair themselves and consequently extend their lifespan are, therefore, a no-brainer.

Inspired By: Squid Ring Teeth

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have discovered a protein in the ring of serrated suckers in squid that can be used to create fabric with self-healing properties. Composed of negatively and positively charged polymers, the protein has the ability to fuse itself back together when damaged – a process the team has recreated in protein grown from genetically engineered E. coli.

The prototype coating can be applied to both natural and synthetic fibres and holds exceptional potential for the textile industry, not only in regard to fashion garments but also for hazardous materials suits, where rips or tears could be a real danger.

Growing Greener Fabrics

Why does it matter? Each year, soil removes about 25% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions and sequesters it underground. However, with almost half the land able to support plant life converted to crop and rangeland (which rely on industrial farming practices that degrade the soil), carbon is being released at a faster rate than it can be sequestered. Deep tilling, mono-cropping, and extensive pesticide use – all common practices in the production of natural fibres such as cotton – means that the fashion industry is far from guiltless.

Inspired By: Nature’s Adaptive & Resilient Growth Methods

Ever heard of regenerative farms? Slowly but surely growing in popularity, this new generation of ‘natural farms’ closer resembles what would be found prior to the mono-cropped farmland swathes we know today, and incorporate strategically planted different crops, carefully planned grazing patterns that enable animals to fertilise the soil, pollinator crop strips to attract bees and butterflies, and trap crops to divert pests. Whilst this thriving, harmonious ecosystem sounds wonderful, the price to pay is, well, the price, since speed and efficacy take a nosedive in place of farm resiliency and sustainability.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few pioneers willing to make the change, with the likes of Patagonia launching a collection of T-shirts made on regenerative farms in India, and brands like Burberry, Stella McCartney and The North Face close behind.

Image Credit: Ally Bythell / Penn State


Why does it matter? Packaging is a perennial problem in the fashion industry with plastic packaging estimated to make up 26% of the total volume of plastics created a year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Certain companies are fusing design thinking with living biological systems to create packaging from scratch which, if scalable, will play a pivotal role in creating a more sustainable fashion industry.

Inspired By: Mushrooms

Mycelium – a word few of us would have been able to pronounce a few years ago but which nowadays is regularly seen in the same sentence as Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon. Made of the hyphae – the root-like structures of mushrooms –  and agricultural waste, they have been engineered by ingenious companies like Ecovative to produce a biodegradable polystyrene alternative that is revolutionising the packaging world. Ideally suited to the job, it grows in any geometry with little energy because it naturally self-assembles into structures at room temperature.

Inspired By: Fruit Skin

Ever noticed the dark spots that develop on a banana skin or the browning of an avocado after it’s sat for too long? Of course – it’s the first thing we look for to know whether a product is past its best, and it’s exactly what we’re starting to see in the world of packaging. Primitives Biodesign is a nonprofit harnessing this bio-intelligence to engineer a range of biomaterials “smarter” than conventional plastics. Their ultra-thin bioplastic has spoiling-sensing technology which will appear as a colour change or visible surface indicator, and is developed using algae, cannabis and agriculture waste, (meaning it’s biodegradable and compostable!).

Whilst this biotechnology is currently designed with the food industry in mind, it holds great potential for industries such as fashion as well.

Image Credit: Evocative / Primitives BioDesign

By Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Alexa is the Content Manager at Talia Collective. Previously, she worked for a top travel PR firm with a focus on sustainability in London, before moving to Madrid to learn Spanish and cut her teeth as a freelance travel copywriter and PR consultant.