How Technology is Shaping Sustainable Fashion

"Technology is really sexy! For me it's better than a thigh-high split in a skirt."

Stella McCartney may have delivered the line with a laugh while onstage at Vogue's Forces of Fashion conference earlier this month, but one got the sense that she was dead serious. The British designer was onstage speaking about ethical and sustainablefashion, and she quickly drew a connection between treating the planet well and updating the industry's old-fashioned — and incredibly wasteful, toxic and polluting — production methods. To her, incorporating new technology into that equation is an obvious choice. 

"The younger generations, this is like a no-brainer for them," she said. "If you're lucky enough to have a business, I think you have to approach it this way."

McCartney's not the only one looking to Silicon Valley for ideas that could help catapult her company to the cutting edge of both design and environmental preservation efforts. From startups using bacteria to naturally dye fabric to established industry players using chemistry to close the recycling loop, a whole host of new discoveries are cropping up. Read on to learn about some of the most exciting developments that have the potential to change the future of fashion.

BACTERIA-PRODUCED DYES

To see the negative impacts that fabric dye can have on the planet, one need only look at the rivers in China and Bangladesh that bear the color of next season's clothing due to improper dye disposal. The amount of water waste involved in dyeing is also problematic.

"A cotton T-shirt requires approximately 700 gallons of water to grow, produce and transport, with 20 percent or more of that water used in the dyeing process alone," explains Natsai Chieza via email. 

Chieza is the biodesigner behind Faber Futures and a designer-in-residence at Ginkgo Bioworks, where she is working on a method that uses bacteria-secreted pigments to dye fabric. The technique dramatically reduces water usage, requiring less than seven ounces of water to dye a one-pound piece of silk, and the pigment itself is naturally and non-toxically created by the bacteria. While there are still obstacles to overcome before the results Chieza is able to achieve in a petri dish will be replicable on a larger scale, the sustainable fashion opportunity is so great that she's confident there will be bacteria-dyed clothing on the market before long.

"Interventions that tackle both water use and chemical use in the textile industry are incredibly rare, so this is an area of development many are watching very closely," she notes.

LAB-GROWN LEATHER

Leather may be durable and therefore not as disposable as many of fashion's favorite materials, but its large emissions footprint and the toxic chemicals involved in tanning make it far from a clear-cut choice for sustainability advocates. And while many argue that as a by-product of the meat industry, the leather industry inherently reduces waste, that logic doesn't hold for many others (especially animal rights activists).

This is where Modern Meadow, a company that's "growing" leather in a lab using yeast fermentation to produce collagen, comes in. 

"The company was founded because our CEO and co-founder was concerned with the environmental impact of all the livestock that we were raising on the planet," Modern Meadow head of communications Natalia Krasnodebska tells Fashionista over the phone. "Just looking at the numbers, our population growth can't support the herds that we would need to match our current levels of consumption of meat and leather."

Creating leather the Modern Meadow way eliminates the need for raising (and killing) animals, reduces waste by creating "hides" devoid of imperfections or uneven edges that need to be discarded, and cuts back on the negative impact of tanning by reducing the chemicals involved. The sustainability boons — as well as the design possibilities inherent in a material that's so customizable and new — have so far resulted in over 130 companies reaching out to Modern Meadow for collaborations. The first products featuring Modern Meadow leather will launch with brand partners in the luxury and activewear spaces next year.

KELP-BASED TEXTILES

Kelp grows faster than almost any organism on earth, including bamboo. So why aren't we harvesting it rather than harder-to-replace resources like trees, which are cut down en masse to create fabrics like rayon and viscose? If AlgiKnit has its way, we may soon make the switch.

The NYC-based biomaterials research group, made up of former FIT and Pratt students who came together to compete for and win the first BioDesign Challenge award in 2016, has developed a yarn made of biopolymers extracted from kelp. Like wool or cotton, the material is durable enough for long-term wear but still ultimately biodegradable. The team hopes their kelp-based yarn might be able to take the place of petroleum-based synthetics someday.

"My hope for consumers is that they could be a little more open-minded about materials that exist out there," AlgiKnit team member Aleksandra Goseiwski says over the phone.

AlgiKnit has produced one wearable garment, hand-knit by Gosiewski herself, but the team assumes it's still about a year away from creating a product that might be commercially viable. Still, they remain hopeful about the environmental impact kelp-based fabrics may have in the long run.

"On a global scale, we hope that this is something that can potentially reduce textile and water waste and eliminate greenhouse gases," Goseiwski says.

SYNTHETIC SPIDER SILK

Spider silk is an incredibly durable and elastic silk that's stronger than steel, and is inherently eco-friendly. But the fact that spiders will literally eat each other if they're kept in close quarters has meant that they can't be farmed like their gentler silk-spinning cousin the silkworm. As a result, spider silk textiles have been exceptionally rare throughout history, with the most significant outlier being a piece of cloth that took 70 people four years to make.

A few startups have been trying to get around the problem by creating synthetic spider silk, with U.S.-based Bolt Threads releasing the first commercially available spider silk product in the world in March. This fall, the startup partnered with Stella McCartney to create a few synthetic spider silk pieces, one of which was showcased in MoMa's "Is Fashion Modern?" exhibition. The sustainability and cruelty-free appeal of the fabric are obvious, but the fact that it holds dye better than traditional silk is also appealing from a design perspective.

It's all proof, as far as McCartney's concerned, that technology and sustainability make for a natural marriage — and that both should be a part of the ongoing conversation for anyone in fashion.

"We are now really looking at tech as a company," McCartney remarked at the Forces of Fashion conference. "We are probably more aligned with what's happening in San Francisco than what's happening in the fashion industry."

CHEMISTRY-DRIVEN RECYCLING

The pursuit of a closed-loop fashion system — in which every component of a garment could be re-used at the end of its life — is ramping up, with numerous sustainability-minded brands now allowing customers to bring in old clothing for recycling.

But the truth is that the technology doesn't yet exist to completely reuse old garments in their entirety, especially if the fabric is badly stained or ripped. That means that the multiple tons of clothing collected by well-meaning companies doesn't necessarily have anywhere to go.

A recent breakthrough made by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) in partnership with the H&M Foundation, a nonprofit funded by the same Swedish family that founded H&M, may begin to address that. HKRITA announced in September that it had successfully developed a method for separating out the cotton and polyester in poly-cotton blends that would allow both materials to then be recycled into new yarns. The process uses heat, minimal amounts of water and less than 5 percent biodegradable green chemical to separate the fibers. The polyester, in particular, experiences no quality loss as a result of the process.

"Our involvement in the fashion industry is always with a full industry impact/open source perspective," H&M Foundation innovation lead Erik Bang tells Fashionista via email, noting that the technology is not being created for H&M exclusively. "If we succeed with scaling up and commercializ[ing] the technologies, we will essentially give them away for anyone to use."