Vollebak algae tshirt

Are living fabrics the next sustainable textiles?

Could an algae anorak help clean the air we breathe as well as keep us warm? Fabrics that can suck CO2 from the atmosphere were among the fashion-forward breakthroughs shown at the Future Fashion Expo 2020.

The event is aimed at helping the industry tackle the climate emergency, and this year’s focus was the interrelationship between fashion and food supply chains and biodiversity and regenerative agriculture in a sustainable supply chain. 

The fashion industry is responsible for putting more than 300,000 tonnes of clothes waste into landfill annually and creating 1.2bn tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – more than both shipping and airlines put together.

Alternative materials could be a large part of the solution, and those with smaller carbon footprints already being trialled include plant-based solutions such as Piñatex, a material made from pineapple that’s used by H&M and Hugo Boss, MycoTEX, which is made from the roots of mushrooms, and Desserto, a leather created from cacti. 

“Fashion is part of the problem but it’s also part of the solution,” said Nina Marenzi from not-for-profit organisation Sustainable Angle, founder of the Expo. “We begin with materials and making them sustainable, and if fashion supply chains can change, then we start to address that.”

Carbon-neutral fashion solutions include bioplastic made using algae powder, and jackets by London start-up Post Carbon Lab with living algae coatings made of photosynthetic micro-organisms that can turn CO2 into oxygen.

According to Post Carbon Lab co-founder, Dian-Jen Lin, a square metre of coated material can generate as much oxygen as a six-year-old oak tree, and the coating could eventually be applied to almost any garment. However, the material is strictly handwash only and must be stored somewhere with light and carbon dioxide, rather than hung up in a dark wardrobe, or else it can change colour. 

Lin told The Guardian: “Most of the [algae] organisms are in the green shade. In the healthy state they are dark brownish green or orangeish green. When it’s unhappy it might turn yellow, orange, brown, purple or white, or transparent.”

Lin says that the living coating is remarkably robust, and far from being ‘fast fashion’. 

We’ve had samples for three years which have come back to life

 – Dian-Jen Lin, Post Carbon Lab co-founder
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