The Nature of Fashion Turns to Action

by Sam Fearer | Originally published by the Biomimicry Institute

Time lapse courtesy of AmazingFungi

In 2020, the Biomimicry Institute released the The Nature of Fashion report detailing the exploration of a single, simple, and yet disruptively profound question:

What would the fashion industry look like if it acted like a natural ecosystem?

The findings of this research were arranged in a 31-page report, offering accessible insights into a complex global industry ripe for change. Among other takeaways, key points included:

  • the industry’s errant and heavy reliance upon petrochemical feedstocks;
  • the inability of modern waste and recycling infrastructure to manage end-of-life textiles;
  • and the critical importance of designing with decomposition in mind.

While the technical production of virgin yarns and fabrics can be likened to primary production in the biological cycle, the produced materials are rarely designed for reutilization within the biological cycle. As such, potential for regenerative systems is lost when would-be nutrients are instead transformed to burdensome, polluting waste. In order to harmonize the fashion industry’s technical cycles with nature’s time-tested systems for growth and recovery, products must be designed with end-of-use decomposition and dispersal in mind. This is, as the report concludes, our new design assignment.

In the year since its initial release, The Nature of Fashion has continued to inspire conversations and new perspectives. Recognizing the value of and need for decomposition to return nutrients to the soil, the Laudes Foundation has provided catalytic funding to support tangible actions following the report. With several pilots now underway and an all-star cast of partners already at work, the Design for Decomposition initiative has officially launched.

Transitioning to a truly circular economy begins with an assessment of where industry efforts stand today. As one of the initial steps in this new project, the Biomimicry Institute has begun a landscape analysis of claimed (and potential) biocompatible textile systems, both at scale and in development. While many fashion brands tout bio-based, organic, or recycled feedstock for certain products, a growing number claim biodegradability and/or compostability as well. What is the credibility of these claims, and who — if anyone — offers a replicable model for the way forward?

Determining how to define an industry leader within such a complex product space is a real challenge, and one made more difficult by frequent greenwashing and a thematic lack of transparency surrounding both production and certification claims. For a textile product to integrate with the biological cycle, it should follow Nature’s Unifying Patterns: recycling materials through closed loop production practices, utilizing green chemistry safe for all living things, leveraging energy efficient processes, providing mutual benefits for surrounding ecosystems (e.g., carbon sequestration, soil regeneration), and drawing from abundant and readily available resources.

And when no longer useful, the product should return to the earth as nutrients that allow for future production. Thus, biodegradability (the ability to meet standardized decomposition rates via microbial or fungal activity) and compostability (the ability to biodegrade into decayed organic matter within a specific environment) are critical features to any biomimetic textile.

As noted in The Nature of Fashion, the current influence of petrochemicals within the fashion industry is immense. Roughly 60% of all yarns and fabrics are petroleum-derived, and petrochemical coatings, additives, and treatments account for even more. The use of petrochemical feedstocks disregards nature’s guiding principles outlined above, creating a host of associated problems, including elevated global warming potential, ecotoxicity, inappropriate reliance upon limited recycling infrastructure, and the generation of unfathomable amounts of macro- and micro- plastic pollution across the globe.

An industry-leading product within the realm of biomimetic textile design should then be built following natural principles: built to decompose, without the use of petroleum products, and designed with both people and planet in mind. Such a product must be able to verify the same.

We meticulously researched over 70 innovative materials within the landscape analysis conducted for the Design for Decomposition initiative, exploring innovations and promising developments in the realm of alternative leathers, cellulosics, and biosynthetics.

In the domain of cellulosic fibers, three of the world’s top viscose producers (Sateri, Birla, and Lenzing) have spent recent years investing in certifiably low ecotoxicity, closed-loop, sustainable harvest and production practices, each with end of life biodegradability/compostability. While the associated fibers represent only a portion of each company’s total portfolio, these improvements represent a positive shift in one of fashion’s largest non-petroleum material categories.

In the realm of alternative leathers, mycelial engineering is leading the way. One of the leading material innovations in this market is Reishi, by MycoWorks. Reishi offers a soon-to-market, petroleum-free leather alternative defined by durability, end of life biodegradability, and a low-energy production process requiring little more than agricultural waste and fungal mycelium.

Several biosynthetic innovations also offer hope for a more sustainable future. Among others, Spintex (winner of the Institute’s 2021 Ray of Hope Prize®) stands out. While certain aspects are still in development, Spintex’s proprietary non-toxic, low-water, and low-energy filament protrusion process draws inspiration from nature’s spider silk production. The end result is a tunable, durable, and conceivably biodegradable product that can be produced at room temperature without harsh chemical agents, utilizing readily available commercial proteins as feedstock. With potential for closed-loop recyclability and indications of both aerobic and anaerobic decomposition potential, Spintex is a bright example of biomimetic design.

The past few years have, in many ways, been defined by an acknowledgement of problems left unaddressed for far too long. On the social front, there is work to be done. On the environmental front, much the same. The fashion industry represents just one of the many complex and globally interwoven convergences of people and planet; but with significant room for improvement, it also makes for an excellent starting place.

Led by the Biomimicry Institute, the Design for Decomposition initiative seeks to apply the fundamentals of biomimetic design to a series of challenges across the modern textile lifecycle and to empower a new era of nature-inspired design along the way. When we take the time to Ask Nature, biomimicry offers a way forward.

The Design for Decomposition is a bold initiative to realign the underlying principles of both the fashion and waste management industries with the laws of physics and biology to create cascading benefits for climate, biodiversity, and social equity. Such an ambitious aim requires partners who are courageous and have vision.

Get in touch with us if you are a funder, brand, innovator, or ambassador who is ready for real change!

Sam Fearer is a Masters Student studying Corporate Sustainability and Strategic Environmental Communications at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. While interning with the Biomimicry Institute he explored the validity of biodegradability claims made across the textile industry, identifying industry leaders and relevant trends for reference within the Design for Decomposition initiative.

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