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Sustainable Fashion

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Green is the new black as biotechnology revolutionises clothing - and doesn't cost the earth.

Model wearing a dress made of recycled hemp

Earlier this year a disgruntled Georgio Armani abandoned fast fashion saying "I don't want to work like this anymore, it's immoral" and Allbirds, the makers of fashionable sneakers, announced its ambition of reaching a “net zero” carbon footprint and argued that clothing should be labelled for its environmental impact so buyers can make informed decisions, rather like calorie information on food.

Last weekend, OGN mentioned a good news snippet about the new Sumo nappy (diaper) that's made entirely of a fabric composed of seaweed and eucalyptus and, thus, way more sustainable than the alternatives. But all these stories appear to be just the tip of the iceberg, as biotech comes to the rescue of the planet and the fashion industry, creating garments that don't cost the earth - literally and figuratively.

Earlier this year, H&M brought out a dress (modelled above) that caused a stir, not because it was wildly risqué, but because it was created out of biodegradable pulp. The material, Circulose, was invented by Swedish startup Re:newcell, and is just one of this new cohort of biotech innovators focused on making fashion more sustainable.

What else is going on? Here are a few examples that give good reason for optimism:

'Cottonised' hemp: Levi Jeans now offers jeans made of 30% hemp and 70% cotton thanks to a breakthrough technology they developed that makes hemp as soft as cotton. Typically, the texture of hemp is much tougher than cotton, but Levi's found a solution after years of research so it could exchange less sustainable cotton fiber for hemp in its jeans. Levi's hopes it will be able to introduce 100% 'cottonised' jeans within 5 years.

Non-toxic colours from algae: Berlin-based Blond & Bieber has developed an all-natural alternative to toxic clothing dyes - made from algae. By extracting pigments from varieties of freshwater microalgae, it’s possible to create an enormously wide range of (non-toxic) colours, says the company.

Polyurethane foams made from algae oil: Flip flops are the world's most popular shoe. The problem is that they tend to be made of plastic and are commonly used for short periods, then discarded after a few uses due to flimsy materials. Once discarded, they take hundreds of years to decompose. But the good news is that scientists have now succeeded in developing biodegradable flip flops that break down in compost and soil after 16 weeks; and even desolve in oceans too.

Synthetic spider silk: It’s ultra thin and five times stronger than steel, but until recently it’s been impossible to mass produce. But now Japanese biotech startup Spiber has worked out a way to make an equivalent material in a lab. It has significant potential to boost sustainability in fashion and Spiber is already creating garments for North Face, the giant outdoor clothing brand.

Bio-polyester: Last, but by no means least, Mango Materials in San Francisco has come up with a bio-process to make a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based polyester. Their biodegradable bio-polyester fibres have already resulted in deals with a number of leading activewear and outdoor clothing brands.

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