Nov 10th, 2021, 04:50 PM

How Carbon Capturing Garments are Shaping Sustainability in Fashion

By Michelle Doyle
Image Credit: Unsplash
Developments in bio-materials present wearable solutions for climate change.

Scientists, bio-engineers and clothing designers are merging their disciplines to develop alternative and wearable solutions to meet the challenges of climate change.

The field of bio-material design is making waves across these communities as the next frontier in the future of sustainable development within fashion. The ability of biological living fabrics to absorb carbon is showing promise for a new future of fashion and climate change. The design and scalability of these textiles are only in their experimental phases right now, but in the years to come we could see them enter the mass market. 

One promising approach that designers and scientists have been experimenting with is making clothes with algae, which are photosynthetic aquatic plants that have the capability to absorb carbon from the air. The integration of algae with textiles can make the composition of a garment carbon negative. Because the use of algae in clothing is still in the early development stages, it all sounds like a bit of a science experiment. Designers are just learning how it reacts to living on fabric. For example, algae needs light, carbon dioxide, and ventilation, so ideally it shouldn’t be kept in a closet all of the time. Algae can also be harmed by washing machines, meaning it will have to be hand washed. These are some of the design challenges designers are working with integrating living organisms into clothing.

Image credit: Marius Badstuber / Unsplash

Labs, designers and biotech companies around the world are working on the application and scalability of algae within textiles. The Materials Experience Lab, a research group with facilities across Europe, including Italy and the Netherlands, focuses on designing with materials from a scientific and experiential angle. In 2019 they launched a collaboration with Biogarmentry, a biofabricated textile created by designer Roya Aghighi and a group of scientists at the University of British Columbia. As a living textile, it has the ability to photosynthesize, which means it can purify the air around it, and is completely bio-degradable. 

Image credit: Matthias Heyde / Unsplash

Biotech companies are also key players in this space, and working towards creating scalable solution for algae based fibers and dyes such as Israel and Berlin-based biotech company Algaeing. Another Israel-based biotech company Algatech has developed a process for creating fibers and dyes from algae beginning with a focus on growing the algae sustainability within a closed loop system powered by solar energy and the use of saltwater as opposed to freshwater.

In addition to algae, other methods for capturing carbon with fabrics are also being explored. The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), discovered a way to treat cellulose based fibers using chemistry. This two step reaction begins with a TEMPO mediated oxidation of cellulosic yarns, followed by reaction of the carboxyl groups with amine containing molecules. Then the yarns are then rinsed and can be used to create textiles. 

Ultimately, if these textiles and scaled for use in everyday life, like algae based fibers, they can also contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide levels in the environment. HKRITA claims that existing textile processing machinery can be used to manufacture garments from these yarns, which will contribute to scalability. The website says that these textile yarns are able to absorb approximately 17-44 grams of CO2 per kilogram. 

Image credit: Mikhail Nilov / Unsplash

The possibility and interest in textile transformation for climate change is growing, and this means completely new areas for development within science, fashion and technology.  Diversity of potential in the development of climate positive fabrics. Public acceptance and consumption habits will also play a role in the adoption and spread of alternative fabrics, but with a growing interest in sustainability and the urgency of climate change, climate positive fabrics are right on time to realize their full potential.

The next step in this process is scalability, which will be the tipping point for a shift the paradigm of not just how we wear clothing but why. The sustainable movement within fashion is already asking us how we can change our consumption habits to contribute to a more environmentally and socially conscious fashion system, the next phase will incorporate how we choose garments that have the biological capability to do the same.