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. From imaginative ways to stave off the elements to bedazzling, colourful mating displays that still, in 2021, are hard to believe are real (I’m thinking of David Attenborough’s Our Planet Bird Of Paradise clip!), there is no shortage of evidence of nature’s ingenuity. The fashion industry is another one that enjoys borrowing from the natural world, and as cries for a more sustainable one grow louder, more and more designers are turning their attention to ways in which they can replicate, harness, and adapt nature to greener ends.
Biomimicry: ever heard of it? Perhaps not, but fashions designers certainly have and it consists of adapting models, systems and elements of nature to enhance textiles and fabrics. Essentially, nature becomes their muse. Whilst sustainability is not strictly a requirement of biomimicry, the gap between the two is rapidly closing as brands and labels race to utilise green tech in response to growing consumer pressure. Here are some of the most innovative examples:
Waterproof & Self-Cleaning Fabrics
The washing of clothing has vast environmental impacts, not only in regard to microfibre shedding (an inevitable and environmentally-devastating occurrence of washing synthetic clothing) but also to water & energy usage, and pollution by detergents. Unsurprisingly then, clothing that is able to protect itself from the elements, self-clean and maintain its appearance has long been a hot topic. A quick look at ducks’ feathers, polar bear fur and aquatic plants and we’re away.
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 the leaf, taking dust particles and dirt along with it. The company has since developed a coating covered in similar nanostructures that can be applied to textiles and nonwovens to bestow them with the ability to repel both water and dirt. British company, Nikwax, has achieved a similar result but with animal fur as its inspiration, with a jacket that mimics the action of fur by pushing water outwards and away from the body while also providing insulation. 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.
It’s no secret that the colouring and dying of clothes has significant ramifications for the environment, with extensive dye and chemical run-off a severe concern that results in the death of aquatic life, the degradation of soils and the poisoning of drinking water for all those unfortunate enough to be in close proximity. Japanese technology group, Teijin, has taken pioneering steps towards finding an alternative colouring process using biomimicry in 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. Whilst the use of polyester and polyamide still pose undeniable problems, the vast reduction in energy usage, chemicals and industrial waste in comparison to traditional dyeing methods highlights the exciting potential biomimicry holds for the future of sustainable fashion.
Each year, soil removes about 25 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions and sequesters it underground. However, with almost half the land that can support plant life converted to crop and rangeland which rely on industrial farming practices that vastly degrade the soil, carbon is being released at a faster rate than it can be sequestered. Think the fashion industry is innocent in this? Think again. Deep tilling, mono-cropping (the process of planting acre upon acre of the same crop), plus extensive pesticide use – all common practices in the production of natural fibres such as cotton – means that it plays a key role in the downturn of soil’s CO2 guzzling abilities.
Regenerative farms take inspiration from nature’s adaptive and resilient methods and include a host of initiatives that closer resemble what would be found prior to the vast swathes of mono cropped farmland we know today. By strategically planting different crops, employing carefully planned grazing patterns that enable animals to fertilise the soil, introducing pollinator crop strips to attract bees and butterflies, and planting trap crops to divert pests in lieu of chemical pesticides, the resiliency and sustainability of farms plus the biodiversity in greatly boosted in the process!
Whilst this thriving, harmonious ecosystem sounds wonderful in theory, in practice there’s a price to pay in the form of a hefty price increase in comparison to traditionally farmed natural fibres. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is well known for prioritising speed and efficiency over scenes of bucolic prosperity and fertility, but that’s not to say there aren’t a few pioneers leading the way. Patagonia recently launched a collection of T-shirts made on regenerative farms in India, and brands like Burberry, Stella McCartney and The North Face hot on its heels, in recognition that sometimes the environmental price has to win out over the monetary one.
Ever noticed the dark spots that develop on a banana skin or the browning of an avocado after it’s been left in the fridge for too long? Of course. It’s the first thing we look for in knowing whether a product is past its best, and it’s exactly what we’re starting to see in world of packaging. Primitives Biodesign is an intrepid 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, making it biodegradable and compostable. Whilst this biotechnology is currently designed with the food industry in mind, it holds great potential for industries such as fashion which also rely heavily on packaging.
Image Credit: Donna Sgro, https://donnasgro.com/Morphotex-Dress
Nature As A Co-Designer
Sometimes, the extent of nature’s genius eludes us and we’re forced to play a collaborating role, rather than a starring one.
Proteins, in particular enzymes, have firmly established themselves as key players in the textile industry. Cellulases, catalase, and laccase are the three most commonly used to remove starch, degrade excess hydrogen peroxide, bleach and de-pill textiles and degrade lignin. Whilst the use of enzymes is nothing new in fashion, which appeared in use in the middle of the 20th century, it is rapidly gaining traction as they prove their efficacy in reducing the consumption of chemicals, energy and water and process time a lucrative and sustainable strategy. As the field of synthetic biology grows, companies such as Werewool are exploring the use of proteins to design with desired properties from the ground up, 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.
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!
Mycelium – a word several years ago few of us would have been able to pronounce 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 start-up Bolt Threads into a unique leather-alternative that is not only compostable, non-toxic and naturally abundant, but also waterproof and fire resistant. Its also carved out its niche in the sustainable packaging world, with Ecovative producing a biodegradable polystyrene alternative made from the stuff. Ideally suited to the job, it grows in any geometry with little energy because it naturally self-assembles into structures at room temperature.
Fusing design thinking with living biological systems to create packaging from scratch is an exciting concept and, if scalable, will play a pivotal role in creating a more sustainable fashion industry.
Image Credit: Ecovative Design, https://mushroompackaging.com/
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.