Sea kelp and wildflowers: the future of sustainable fashion

Fashion's new frontier is a beguiling hybrid of lab experiments and the natural world

Pangaia's Puffer Coat Filled With Flower Petals. Courtesy Pangaia
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The co-founders of Algiknit met at an unusual office job, designing space suits in Brooklyn, New York, in 2016. But while solving challenges for zero gravity, they decided their future should be in tackling a massive Earth-based invader: textiles.

Experts maintain that the apparel industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. The sector produces a fifth of global wastewater and one-tenth of carbon emissions, while 85 per cent of the textiles produced in a year – the equivalent of 21 billion tonnes – end up in landfill, according to a report by the United Nations released in 2018.

Algiknit's Aaron Nesser and Tessa Callaghan were frustrated by what they saw in the retail industry. So they decided to make a giant leap for humankind in the world of high fashion: tackling the issues of rampant waste and a high carbon footprint in an industry they both love, by creating new fibres in a laboratory. They started to experiment with materials that would expand the range of choices available to designers, just as the industry was waking up to its role in the climate crisis.

“It is important to see all brands work towards more sustainable processes in producing garments,” says Burak Cakmak, the dean of fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. “Fashion is a way to show our individual identity and, in the age of social media, society is using fashion to visually communicate this message on a regular basis.”

It is important to see all brands work towards more sustainable processes in producing garments

Cakmak, an expert in social responsibility, says an online sharing culture is leading to consumers "being more open-minded to styling existing, borrowed and vintage items in different ways, rather than only buying new items". This shift in consumer behaviour to reusing is the single best way to reduce the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, because it cuts out the supply chain steps that use up natural resources.

But sustainable fashion is beginning to go mainstream in many other ways: more cotton clothing is being marketed as using less water to grow the crop; performance-wear brands such as Adidas are rerouting landfill-bound plastic to make new polyester fibres in shoes and tracksuits; and the word "organic" is no longer confined to grocery stores, as organic cotton, linen and bamboo become increasingly prevalent.

H&M, through its foundation, is offering €1 million (Dh3.9m) each year to five start-ups that have developed scalable, sustainable solutions for the whole fashion industry. There are plenty of ideas, from a diverse range of creators: this year, there were 5,893 entries for the grant (with a slight majority coming from women), from 175 countries.

Suzanne Lee, a pioneering voice on the role of biology and technology in fashion, estimates that $1 billion has been invested so far in new businesses using organic materials grown in laboratories to make consumer products.

My new collaborators are in the soil beneath our feet

For the past five years, Lee has been the chief creative officer of Modern Meadow, a biotech start-up in New York growing collagen – the material that makes up connective tissue in a living thing – in a lab. The end product allows Modern Meadow to manufacture animal-free "bioleather" materials. Its first line, Zoa, is still under development. "My new collaborators are in the soil beneath our feet," Lee said in a Ted Talk that has racked up more than a million views since it was published in January.

Onstage, she spoke of a "radical manufacturing proposition" that "designs with life". She described a new supply chain where instead of processing plants, animals or oil to make consumer goods, "we might grow materials directly using living organisms", such as bacteria, algae, yeast or fungi.

The result, she said, is zero waste, and replaces intensive man-made steps with a single biological one: growth. "Instead of growing a plant like cotton in a field over several months, we could use microbes to grow it in a lab in a few days to make a sheet of fabric," Lee said. She is optimistic this is a concept that is catching on – but these are technical, immensely challenging science problems to tackle.

Algiknit's material process. Courtesy Algiknit

For Algiknit, developing a new fibre took three years. "We made a noodle," Nesser recalls of their first "breakthrough" in getting a textile-like material, in 2018. The team was then made up of Nesser, a graduate of Pratt Institute, Callaghan, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Aleksandra Gosiewski, another FIT graduate. They decided early on to work with polymers made mostly from sea kelp, after many months of research. But what makes sea kelp sustainable? First, they wanted to identify a material that was already abundant on the planet – not a niche item that would be difficult to mass produce. "We basically wanted it to be sold on Amazon," Nesser says, which, in powder form, it is.

California, USA. Used for production of iodine, soda and fertilizers and alginic acid. Examples: ice cream, toothpaste, breads, beer, make-up, paints, etc.). Getty Images
Kelp is a naturally sustainable material. Getty Images

Kelp is among the fastest-growing and rapidly replenishing living things on Earth. Its habitat is the cold coastal waters in the northern hemisphere, meaning it doesn’t need environmentally damaging fertilisers and pesticides to flourish. It is also a fairly low-rent tenant, not needing land or fresh water for drinking or irrigation.

Sea kelp also goes a step further in the fight against carbon emissions: it actually takes CO2 out of the air while filtering surrounding water, effectively fighting climate change as it grows. Farming kelp, rather than harvesting it from natural sources, can also be part of a rebuilding strategy for communities that have been economically and ecologically affected by overfishing and pollution, by providing a new income source and improving marine habitats.

All that said, making a material that won't start decomposing the moment it is introduced into a humid environment proved tough for the Algiknit team. In 2018, they got to a point where they were spinning the polymer into something that, when worn, was durable. Nesser compares the feel to the upper on a trainer, and it only degrades when exposed to a composting facility – instead of a wet city street, say – for a prolonged period of time.

Their proof of concept landed the team $2.2m in seed investment from Hong Kong venture capital firm Horizons Ventures that year. While they experimented with an idea for a futuristic-looking trainer and collaborated with a designer to make a French-style market bag that was hitting fashion weeks that year, they eventually decided to focus on producing the textile at scale. This year, they are seeking brand partnerships to start manufacturing clothing and shoes made out of their material.

Pangaia's down jacket filled with wildflowers has the biggest potential to be a disruptor. Courtesy Pangaia
Pangaia's down jacket filled with wildflowers has the biggest potential to be a disruptor. Courtesy Pangaia

Meanwhile, Pangaia, another materials science company, is taking a direct-to-consumer approach. The American start-up is already selling T-shirts made of a blend of sea kelp that are heavier than typical cotton tees and cool to the touch. The material also absorbs moisture faster than cotton, says the company. Its hoodies and tracksuits, meanwhile, are coloured using non-toxic dyes made from food waste, plants, fruits and vegetables. But its other product, a down jacket filled with wildflowers, has the biggest potential to be a disruptor. The goose and duck feather down jacket industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and is forecast to grow as much as 20 per cent each year until 2024, according to 360 Research. But it is facing a public relations struggle as consumers become educated on its sometimes inhumane and environmentally damaging processes.

Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Pangaia, says scientists worked in a lab for a decade on a fully biodegradable material that could compete with traditional down. "How do you quantify the cosiness? The fluffiness?" she asks.

Impossible, but Pangaia knew when it got it right. The sustainable alternatives coming out today are nothing but natural – and you can feel it.