Most of today’s garments are woven from plastic-based acrylic, nylon or polyester threads. All these materials are chemically produced and nonbiodegradable. However, a growing number of innovators are turning to nature in an attempt to change this scenario and design waste and pollution out of the fast fashion industry.

They are exploring live organisms – bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells or fungi, to grow pieces of biodegradable textiles, creating environmentally friendly materials, which would break down into nontoxic substances when eventually thrown away.

Many living organisms can be grown to fit moulds, producing the precise amount of textile needed to create an article of clothing without generating excess material to discard, explains assistant professor Theanne Schiros from the F.I.T. to Scientific American Magazine.

Schiro also mentions that her organism of choice is algae. Together with her team of students, she has created a yarn like a fibber that can be dyed with nonchemical pigments such as crushed insect shells and knitted into apparel. Her experiments show alga-based fabric holds considerable promise as a marketable bioengineered clothing material because it is strong and flexible, two vital properties for mass-market apparel.

Canadian-Iranian designer Roya Aghighi has also chosen living algae to create a bio garment that can turn carbon dioxide into oxygen via photosynthesis – the so-called BIOGARMENTRY PROJECT. Stephen Mayfield, a biological sciences professor at UC San Diego who has made a biodegradable flip flop, says algae-based materials are currently where electric vehicle technologies were a decade ago. “It was clear they were the future of transportation, and it was just a matter of time. Algae is poised in the same way,” he said. “The technology is now ready for prime time.” 

All these new technologies for bio garments, however, are not a quick fix. As a report from Biofabricated argues, traditional materials like cotton, wool, silk, cashmere, and leather meet various needs such as comfort and durability at prices that reflect centuries of industrial efficiency. High performing manufactured synthetics based on cheap fossil fuel, in turn, provide innovative properties such as super-stretch, colour saturation, extreme durability and so on.

The challenge for innovators is to understand what customers are looking for today and find ways to close technical gaps in the short term to achieve greater success in the long term.

The good news is that in the last 5 years, we have been witnessing an exponential growth in material innovation that works towards biological alternatives to fossil fuel, plant and animal; dyes, fibbers, fabrics, and leather alternatives. We also see more and more consumers demanding sustainable alternatives and investors, brands and designers looking at nature for inspiration.

Although sometimes things seem slow, we need to remember that material innovation is a journey of iteration, improvements and collaboration.

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