Climate change is at the forefront of our minds given the critical warnings about our dwindling resources and rising global temperatures. Halting ‘consumption’ of goods is impossible, so the focus, regardless of which part your play (creator and consumer, or just the latter) should be reducing carbon emissions. It may sound complex, but essentially it means finding alternative solutions to our most carbon-emitting problems. In fashion, this resides in materials. The emissions (or impact, for directness) is around 73% due to the materials phase of product creation. So if we address carbon emissions in this phase we are a long way towards securing life on our planet.
Where do we start on this mission? For the three designers on my recent panel ‘Why The Future Of Fashion Will Be Grown, Not Sewn’ in collaboration with Lone Design Club, the use of plant, rather than petroleum-based materials, is key. This approach brings its own set of challenges and the panellists shared the benefits, drawbacks and tales from the unchartered waters of developing and designing using grown materials.
Adam Davies, researcher and product designer, started his journey towards creating interiors materials and products by shaping seaweed into objects on a beach in Wales. Driven by a desire to make use of the abundant seaweed in an ever more plastic-ridden local beach, he put his energy into chopping, shaping and baking seaweed into lampshades. And so began the journey to eventually experimenting with mycelium. Today, his brand Ty Syml sells lampshades made from both materials, which he has developed through trial and error. His development of mycelium (a type of mushroom harvested just prior to the mushroom’s sprouting phase) started with a mycelium kit he bought online and began mixing with other substrates (base materials). Mycelium grows through a substrate, for example wood pulp. This means it provides the opportunity to combine mycelium with byproducts from other industries (as the substrate), boosting the sustainability and performance characteristics of the resulting materials.
What has been the biggest challenge so far? I asked. Creating a sterile environment in the 3D printed lampshade molds (so that mould doesn’t grow within the materials) was Adam’s response – a rather scientific problem for a designer. In fact, thinking like a designer and working like a scientist is a path he is still navigating. He admits that the next crucial step for his rapidly growing business is to hire a mycologist (a biologist specialising in funghi) as he expands his range of material composites, which currently includes mycelium and wood and mycelium and spent grain from brewing. Following a discussion with an audience member he will also be exploring a mycelium and flax composite, too. All three of these materials take on waste from other processes and put it to good use in combination with mycelium. These materials all remain 100% biodegradable and have powerful natural properties.
The mycelium composite materials are strong, light, water resistant and fire retarding, so are perfect for building interiors and construction. The natural growth of the materials and use of byproducts from other processes make this a closed-loop system, adhering to the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design principles. Adam is an ardent believer in, and follower of, William McDonough’s C2C framework.
On the speculative side, Piero D’Angleo is working on growing couture with lichen. His MA Fashion at the Royal College of Art, where he is being taught by Helen Steiner, cofounder of Open Cell, has steered him from the study of plant-based aesthetics to plant-specific functions in his design work. In the case of lichen, its ability to absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the atmosphere is a powerful concept that D’Angelo would like to harness in a fibre, then yarn form. Lichen is a unique fungus-based growth that co-exists with either a bacteria or algae, which infiltrates the fungi. The algae or bacteria performs photosynthesis (turning carbon dioxide into oxygen) within the fungi structure. The relationship of the two organisms is mutualistic, providing a perfect metaphor for how we should be living within nature to halt planetary destruction.
Having created prospective textile designs and a ‘grow your own couture’ handbook, D’Angelo is now experimenting with how plants can combine with electronics to form nature-driven automation. This is a window into D’Angelo’s belief that we have a stronger emotional connection to things that grow (as opposed to things created synthetically, like polyester, for example). He imagines a future where the power of lichen can be augmented in the way Bolt Threads have isolated spider-silk proteins and placed them in living organisms to generate synthetic silk in a lab. However, as living organisms (bacteria, for example) are producing the fibres to create these yarns, engineering them and ‘putting them to work’ begs questions about ethics that he is still grappling with, he says.
Also exploring this lab-grown material conundrum is Ioanna Topouzoglou, founder of London-based accessories brand Mashu. Topouzoglou currently uses plant-based materials (Piñatex ‘pineapple leather’ is one), as well as polyurethane (PU) synthetic leather alternatives. Here, she balances the impact of synthetic versus natural materials, which is no easy feat. The difficulty lies with balancing the non-biodegradability of the PU and recycled polyester linings in her bags, for example, with the water usage and processing impact of using a cotton, for example. On balance, recycled PET in this non-washed product has a lower impact – until end-of-life is reached. Topouzoglou is in the early stages of planning for end-of-life by dismantling and reusing or recycling the product components, but admits this is a complex service to provide to a growing global customer-base.
To the lab-grown materials debate she is open to using animal-origin leather if lab-grown, explaining that “as a vegan, this is not straightforward”, but if no harm (to the animals or organisms) is proven, she accepts the output as “an ethical material”. Given that she has fought hard over the past couple of years to convince manufacturers to adapt their animal-leather processes to utilise synthetic and plant-based materials and non-animal based glues instead, this is a strong commitment to using whatever materials have the least impact and help our planet – even if they do originate from animals, resulting in further adaptation to her manufacturing methods.
Of course it is impossible to create products and have absolutely “zero impact”. What this panel discussion demonstrated was that the combination of science and design presents us with better alternatives that can reduce the impact on the planet. It also demonstrates powerful natural processes that we can harness and leverage in materials. For all its challenges, it seems that plants and the rapidly evolving area of biomaterial design, holds the key to a naturally ‘smart’ and sustainable materials future.