Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of CNN Style’s The September Issues, a hub for facts, features and opinions about fashion, the climate crisis, and you.
Canadian-Iranian designer Roya Aghighi wants you to imagine that your shirt is alive.
Far from dreaming up a horror movie script, Aghighi hopes we can develop a more intimate relationship with fashion – by treating clothes as living beings that need our help to survive.
“You’re not going to throw your clothes in the corner of your closet or into the washing machine,” she said over the phone from Vancouver. “It’s immediately going to shift the way you think about your clothing.”
Aghighi’s thought experiment isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.
Working with a group of scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC), she has invented a living, biodegradable fabric named Biogarmentry. Made from algae, the biofabricated textile photosynthesizes, which purifies the air around it.
UBC claims it’s the first living and photosynthesizing textile, and has fashioned the material into a sheer, cloak-like garment. While prototypes like these are still in the early stages of research and design, and far from mass production, they challenge the fashion industry to reimagine ways it can reduce its colossal carbon footprint through alternative fabrics.
Fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries. It’s responsible for more carbon emissions than international flights and shipping combined, amounting to 10% of all greenhouse gasses emitted globally, according to figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
US consumers are buying more garments than ever, wearing each item fewer times and sending almost 70% of the clothes and footwear produced each year to landfill, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Changing our relationship with clothing, from one of neglectful fast-fashion consumption to an empathetic connection, is one of Aghighi’s main drivers.
While her innovative garment is now only at the proof-of-concept stage, buyers may one day be instructed to stretch the fabric out in front of a window before putting it on. With sunlight and a spray of water, its single-cell chlamydomonas reinhardtii algae come to life.
Aghighi predicts consumption habits will take a long time to change. “It is going to be a slow shift,” she said. “But I hope that it’s gonna be a long-lasting one.”
The crops traditionally used to make clothing, from cotton to hemp, absorb carbon as they grow. So, too, do a growing number of manufactured materials derived from plants, like Rayon, which is made from wood pulp that is chemically converted into purified cellulose.
But end-to-end, most natural materials are still carbon emitters, says New York-based designer Charlotte McCurdy, a fellow at Rhode Island School of Design.
Take a single T-shirt made of cotton, the world’s most commonly used natural fiber, as an example.
The estimated footprint of a cotton shirt over its lifetime is 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of carbon dioxide, with most of that emitted during the energy-intensive production and dyeing processes.
In recent years, environmental startups have proposed a number of alternative natural fibers, from beechwood made into cashmere-like beachwear to cactus leather. Many of these have the potential to sequester carbon but none have been shown to achieve net-zero emissions over the lifecycle of a garment, especially when washing and drying clothes significantly add to their overall footprint. Instead, so-called “carbon-negative” brands resort to carbon offsetting – planting trees – to bring their net emissions down.
In her research, McCurdy has, like Aghighi, looked to possibilities of algae, and its ability to trap carbon. She has created a carbon-negative raincoat made from a plastic-like material made of marine algae and other biodegradable components.
Like cotton or hemp, algae sequesters carbon as it grows, photosynthesizing to capture carbon dioxide from the air. Microalgae can capture ten times as much sunlight as terrestrial plants, and it grows fast – with some species able to double their biomass within a few hours. It can be converted into powder, before being spun into a fiber.
“The point is not to make a plastic out of algae,” McCurdy said at a talk organized by New York City’s New Museum. “The point is to sequester carbon, and it matters how we do that and how those systems scale.”
Sustainably scaling up algae-based fabric production will be essential if these garments are to become the basis for carbon-negative fashion.
Algal biotechnology is a big business. Beyond the world of fashion, it’s seen as an alternative for polyurethane plastics – the world’s most common plastic, which is used in everything from bags to outdoor furniture – as well as in fabrics.
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.”
Biotech start-ups from the US to China are racing to scale up these fabrics, from concepts to mass-production processes that can compete with cotton or synthetic materials on price. McCurdy sees this as a promising route forward and wants to show that algae-based clothing can be not only environmentally sound but aesthetically daring and futuristic.
The raincoat produced by McCurdy’s “After Ancient Sunlight” project was featured in “Nature,” the Cooper Hewitt museum’s 2019 Design Triennial, last year. She was interested by the fact that sunlight is responsible for both the photosynthetic energy produced by algae and the fossil fuel energy, like oil or coal, that traces its origins to prehistoric plants and algae.
“Part of what this project is speaking to, is that we used to be in a society that fulfilled all of its needs through the energy of the sun,” she said. “And then we got dependent on this stored, ancient super-energy-dense sunlight.” (The majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels, or stores of carbon created by “ancient sunlight,” as the Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition noted.)
“And we can get back to building our society from sunlight. So there’s some sort of poetic tension between rain and sunlight.”
In the lab, Aghighi’s fabric develops different patterns – organic shapes, spots and bands – as the algae grow, the designer said. When the resulting garments are commercially available, she imagines people tending to their own organic cloak, spraying their organism as they commute to work and encouraging their algae to purify the air and grow distinctive, individual motifs.
“I’m not saying that your clothes should be your pets,” she said. “I mean, to be honest, secretly, I do say that.”