A Vision of How to Move Towards a Regenerative Fashion System

by Bryn Stecher | Jul 6, 2020 | Blog, Biomimicry In Design

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Biomimicry offers regenerative solutions to our planet’s stressing issues and opens a creative pathway to sustainable designs. The concept of translating nature’s strategies into design is also proving to be integral to our self-expression through our choices in clothing. How would the fashion industry look if it functioned as a natural ecosystem? What would it mean to consumers if our self-expression not only displayed our unique style but also our values?

“By realigning ourselves with what occurs in nature, we can design a next generation textile production model that recognizes its connections to the biosphere.”

This week, the Biomimicry Institute released a new report called The Nature of Fashion: Moving towards a regenerative system. Supported by the Laudes Foundation, the report offers an in-depth analysis of the material flows that underpin natural systems, compares them to the flawed industrial system that exists today, and explains how the fashion industry can work with existing technology and nature to jump-start the transition right now. The analysis serves as a tool to direct industry partners to conduct further ecosystem research, define the criteria for net-positive investments in the new fashion economy, support existing sustainable (responsible and regenerative) fashion, and offers a beginning list of priorities for philanthropic support and impact investment opportunities.

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The report asserts: “By realigning ourselves with what occurs in nature, we can design a next generation textile production model that recognizes its connections to the biosphere.” For many people, clothing is the main way to express themselves. Consumers are becoming more educated, and we are realizing the materials and processes used to design our apparel have a direct impact on the state of the planet.

The alignment of the human body with biological elements is going to be the foundation of the future of fashion.

The textile industry is dominated by synthetic fibers. Fossil fuel-based synthetic fibers are responsible for at least 60% of textile production, which has a direct influence on the Earth’s climate, ecosystem functioning and availability of natural resources, and human rights. Many unsustainable textiles are used in the fast fashion industry, a linchpin for many affordable brands producing clothing items that value trendiness over ethical and sustainable production. One of the more popular synthetic fibers is polyester, which is not biodegradable. In the new report’s provocative proposition, the authors clearly demonstrate why polyester has no place in the industry, noting how the material, even if recycled, will eventually (always) leak into the environment. Economically, recycling plastic hasn’t worked, and synthetic clothing sheds huge amounts of microfibers that contribute to plastic pollution in oceans (and beyond) and therefore harm the natural food chain.

By combining the natural world and technology, biomimicry is critical to the preservation of the planet, while simultaneously making sustainably-sourced apparel fashionable. The alignment of the human body with biological elements is going to be the foundation of the future of fashion.

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Werewool Textiles

Werewool, one of this year’s Ray of Hope Prize finalists, designs biodegradable fibers that cross-link proteins found in corals, jellyfish, oysters, or cow milk. By cross-linking the proteins found in unharmed organisms, the novel fibers become optimal for desired color, water repellency, breathability, and stretch. Unlike synthetic fibers, Werewool’s fibers do not rely on agriculture or petrochemicals that contribute to increasing CO2 emissions. Through having an alternative approach to designing and manufacturing fibers, Werewool does not contribute to the microplastic pollution and toxic dyeing that the textile industry usually contributes. The Discosoma coral’s natural red fluorescent protein (RFP) influenced the coloring of the fibers produced. By producing fibers that are reliant on the protein structure of the RFP, the fiber has an inherent color. This biometric approach to designing fibers demonstrates that the natural world can function in the fashion industry.

By not having dyes or pigments involved in the production of this fiber, Morphotex would not pollute bodies of water like fibers that contain dyes and pigments

Another notable 2020 Ray of Hope Prize finalist is Cypris Materials, which is reinventing color through developing paint that works through reflection, rather than absorption as traditionally seen in pigments and dyes. Cypris Materials uses structural color in paint that works in the visible, infrared, and UV spectrum. Structural colors are different from colors produced in dyes and pigments in which structural colors appear from the reflection of light from biological nanostructures. Through this biometric process of replicating periodic dielectric nanostructures, the company offers vibrant, safe colors that can be seen in chameleons, butterfly wings, and peacock feathers. While Cypris Materials does not currently work in the fashion industry, the usage of structural coloration could be used in textiles in the future.

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The process of biomimicry in fashion can create unprecedented appearances. For example, chemical and technology company Teijin worked with fashion designer Donna Sgro to create the first-ever structurally-colored fiber that mimics how color is produced and seen in Morpho butterfly wings. The pigment-less fiber, Morphotex, appears iridescent due to the physical structure of the fiber. While Morphotex did not make it to commercial markets, it offered a unique strategy on how color is produced in nature and can be replicated in the fashion industry. It alternates between 70 to 100 nanometers in thickness and produces different colors depending on the angle and intensity of the light hitting the structure of the fiber. By not having dyes or pigments involved in the production of this fiber, Morphotex would not pollute bodies of water like fibers that contain dyes and pigments. In creating an optical illusion through fashion, biomimicry shines a light on the limitless possibilities of sustainable fashion.

Using biomimicry in fashion could enable the industry to adapt to a circular economy and thereby limit the escalating environmental degradation.

The adaptation of biomimicry in the fashion industry creates a more sustainable way to express ourselves, but it will also connect us to the beautiful and irreplaceable planet we live on. The Nature of Fashion states how the circular economy seeks to replicate nature’s cycling. To transition to a circular economy, the fashion industry will need to rely on advances in regenerative agriculture and cellulosic fibers, and it must work with existing technology and nature to transition to bio-compatible fibers.

Biomimicry will add a whole new dimension to fashion and how consumers view their relationship with Earth’s limited resources. Biomimicry is crucial to the fashion industry, and will likely be a foundational practice in developing future fashion designs and materials.

Bryn Stecher is a sophomore at Barnard College of Columbia University studying Environmental Biology and Anthropology. She aspires to educate and encourage all of us to embrace a more ethical and sustainable relationship with nature.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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