Seaweed Could Help Clean Up Our Dirty Garment Industry

Fashion and clothing is one of the least sustainable industries in the world. Could these biofabrics be the answer?

|
Nov 18 2016, 12:00pm

Alginate fabrics. Image: Evan Rodgers

Our clothing industry is an environmental disaster, down to the very fabrics we wear.

Acrylic, a common ingredient in workout clothes or dresses, for example, is derived from petroleum, as is nylon. Petroleum is derived from crude oil, i.e. fossil fuels, meaning they are not sustainable. The further we move away from natural fibers like cotton, which are more expensive and water-intensive to grow and process, the more we wear toxic clothing, as Stockholm University reported in a study last year.

Otherwise, we're relying on animals, from sheep to cows, for materials like leather and wool. And in that process, supporting a factory farm and tannery process that drains natural resources and forces animals into some hideous conditions across the world.

But that doesn't need to be the end of the story. Scientists and entrepreneurs are constantly introducing new ways to create fabrics and clothing, and not all of them take a toll on the environment or our health. From spider silk to recycled waste to algae, the future of clothing doesn't need to be mass produced plastic sweaters. It could return to plants or other biological materials generated from living organisms, as various companies and creators showed at the Biofabricate design conference in New York City yesterday.

"Spider silk is a tough material that can absorb a large amount of energy before it breaks," said Kenji Higashi, director of Spiber, a Japanese company that makes materials using materials like spider silk.

Spiber's display. Image: Ankita Rao

Spiber, which started in 2007, has been working on prototype clothing using its product, including a collaboration with North Face on a jacket called the Moon Parka, which will be released soon. Spiber scientists isolate proteins from spiders and then synthesizes fibers in a laboratory through a process of fermentation using sugars and microbes, and then a spinning processes that turns the polymers into threads. Since every combination of DNA produces a different result, they hope to make a wide range of materials.

Higashi said proteins like keratin could replace wool, and collagen could replace leather. These materials could replace plastics and nylons in a sustainable way, since spider silk is not a finite resource. However, since the sugars used in the fermentation process still require agricultural resources and water, Higashi said they are still figuring out how to scale the idea in a sustainable way.

But mainstreaming spider silk isn't far away. Even Adidas, the well-known athletic wear company, is using biofabrics similar to spider silk to make breathable sneakers. The company introduced the world's first major biofabricated shoe at the Biofabricate conference, the aptly-named (if wordy) "Futurecraft Biofabric." To make the shoes, Adidas worked with Amsilk, another German company whose signature product is "biosteel." This is a material made up of synthetic proteins, designed to produce the same toughness as natural spider silk.

Futurecraft Biofabric, which Adidas says will be available in limited quantities (price TBD) beginning in 2017. Image: Adidas

Meanwhile, leather, which seems irreplaceable (move over, pleather) could also go through a biological revolution. MycoWorks is a company that uses fungus and other plant byproducts to create leather-like materials, which looks and feels around the same texture as normal leather, if a little softer. Phil Ross, MycoWorks' chief technology officer, said his company uses a carbon-negative process, which means they're not just avoiding pollution, but actually creating products with a positive impact on the climate.

Biofabricated leather. Image: Evan Rodgers

Similar to fungus, seaweed seems to be one of the most versatile and unlikely way to make new clothes. If that sounds weird, or undesirable, remember that algae is probably all over your body and clothes already. Bioesters, a research group based in New York, is using polymers from kelp to make sustainable fabrics.

Brooklyn-based Aaron Nesser, a product designer with Bioesters, said he is inspired by the idea of materials and clothes that can be part of a life cycle, rather than the end of it. Right now, the main material they've developed from alginate, a polymer derived from brown seaweeds, doesn't feel quite like cotton or polyester, or something you would make into a shirt, but Nesser said they are slowly developing it into what could be a versatile textile.

"What inspires me is the idea of living, breathing clothes. We could actually have clothes that are growing," he told Motherboard.

Whether made of kelp proteins or spider silk, there are many obstacles for the "biofabric" world ahead. The supply chain of clothes, for example, depends largely on wide-scale production, cheap labor, and cheap trade. And most of these newer processes could require completely new enterprises, like growing kelp or synthesizing spider silk.

Even so, consumers may see new, ecologically sound fabrics on their shelves in the very near future, and could demand much more.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.