The Future of Sustainable Fashion
One of the biggest moments at Paris Fashion Week 2021 wasn’t a particular cut, color or designer. Instead, it was a capsule collection from luxury French automobile brand DS Automobiles and French designer EGONlab.
The collection—consisting of a bomber jacket, trench coat and two t-shirts—generated buzz less for what it looked like than what it could do: conduct photosynthesis and breathe like plants.
The sustainable wear was made possible by London-based transdisciplinary research and design studio Post Carbon Lab, which has been experimenting with putting a living layer of photosynthetic microorganisms on textiles. The layer absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and emits oxygen, replicating what nature already does, but on textiles.
The process enabled the clothing to absorb more than 3 pounds (1,452 grams) of CO2—the same amount as a typical 6-year-old oak tree over approximately 6 months—over just 10 weeks.
From Rejection to the Runway
Post Carbon Lab’s partnership with D2 Automobiles and EGONlab is part of their pilot program to test the full market potential of an algae-based clothing line.
"We need to track the qualitative aspect, how much maintenance are our users happy to keep up with," said Dian-Jen Lin, co-founder of Post Carbon Lab. "To what extent is this? Do they have an emotional bond with the textile?"
Garments that have a photosynthetic coating require a little bit more maintenance than conventional clothes. They should only be handwashed with water and pH-neutral detergents; they need to be kept in a well-ventilated space with soft domestic lighting or indirect sunlight; and they also require daily misting to remain hydrated.
These types of projects also enable Post Carbon Lab to track the quantitative side to see how performance can be improved on the textiles. It’s a stage Lin and co-founder Hannes Hulstaert weren’t sure they would get to when they first began developing photosynthetic coating years ago.
"People didn't understand the purpose of it," said Lin. "They thought, ‘oh, this is disgusting.’"
But Post Carbon Lab did not let this deter them. Lin thought the technology answered the question of how the fashion industry could be more sustainable.
"We have 350,000 metric tonnes (385,808 tons) of textiles going into landfills a year," said Lin. "That’s just in the UK. alone. It doesn't seem justifiable. It was a question that at the time nobody asked. If I were to ask it, I would be deemed obnoxious or completely weird."
"In addition, the traditional industrial dyeing process, contributes 17% to 20% of global water pollution, is typically derived from fossil fuel coal tar and involves carcinogens and heavy metals," Lin adds.
"These processes are usually carried out in developing countries, where they do not have any wastewater treatment and proper infrastructure," he says. "They can leak into local water streams and neighboring villages, resulting in people suffering from kidney and liver failure."
Slowly people began to listen, and awareness grew about the issues of sustainability in fashion. Designers started to become interested and saw it as an alternative.
Opportunities opened, and Post Carbon Lab was given a residency at a biotech start-up lab, Open Cell, where they could begin to gather more evidence on how these sustainable practices could have market potential.
High-fashion brands, such as Kering and Balenciaga, took an interest and undertook pilot programs with Post Carbon Lab. They also had a project endorsed by Stella McCartney.
Acting as a Go-Between
As interest grew, Lin found there was a sourcing gap in sustainable manufacturing practices in the United Kingdom. Small businesses were unaware of how they could gain access to these practices because no one had put in the effort to collate all the information and communicate it to people. Although global hubs were developing in other countries, including the Netherlands, France and Spain, there was nothing similar in the United Kingdom.
"These sustainable practices throughout Europe, India or China are very small and scattered," said Lin. "They probably don't have a great website, and if they're in Europe, they probably don't necessarily speak English or they're not necessarily really focused on marketing. It's really hard to access them."
In addition, Lin says "this sort of second-tier sustainability effort has not received as much of the spotlight in the media yet."
"We were quite keen to highlight these aspects within the sustainability community and communicate them to a wider audience who is generally eco-conscious," he says.
To help communicate the importance of these sourcing gaps, Post Carbon Lab has relied on workshops. Lin now sees her role as not being the creator of new products, but rather working with stakeholders to show them different ways and educate them about the negative environmental aspects of mass production.
"The most sustainable things are things that we already have," Lin said. "It's about reinventing, revamping and reevaluating the current pieces that we already have and then forming new relationships with them. That's the most practical next step for the fashion industry."