Nature + Tech = Sustainable Fashion

By  |  March 26, 2021, 10:26 AM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


“Fashion scientist” Amanda Parkes has been both fashion-forward and eco-minded ever since I’ve known her. We met over a decade ago when she was a PhD student at MIT studying (get this) tangible media. In her early post-graduate years, I watched her perfect wearable technologies and even design 3D-printed stiletto heels. She was passionate about shaking up the fashion world across the board — materials, supply chain, and sustainability. At one point her Twitter handle read  “one part algae, one part fashion, a dash of robots and a smattering of installation art.”

 Today she’s really does call herself a fashion scientist. She is chief innovation officer at Pangaia, a company where seaweed and wildflowers take on new personas as the building blocks of the future of fashion — a future made of bio-fabrications from the natural world.

When I take a walk with Parkes, which I often do,  I see a mushroom. She sees the structure for new material. Pangaia made its entrance into the fashion world with a cornucopia of new bio-fabric innovations. C-FIBER, one that’s used to fabricate soft, cuddly and durable t-shirts, hoodies and dresses, is a combination of eucalyptus pulp and seaweed powder.  Not just any pulp and seaweed, mind you. The seaweed was chosen because of its natural abundance. (It’s harvested in Iceland, but only once every four years to allow for regeneration.) The eucalyptus pulp is sourced from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to be harvested responsibly. It’s transformed into a lyocell fabric through what’s called a closed-loop system. It will naturally biodegrade when discarded, and is efficient to produce.

Another Pangaia innovation is FLWRDWN (pronounced “flower down”) a lightweight, thermal-insulating fill for outerwear, made from picked-by-hand, dried wildflowers, grown without any pesticides. The waste wildflowers are combined with a biopolymer (made from corn waste) and infused with a cellulosic aerogel to augment the natural structural and thermal properties of the flowers. FLWDWN takes the place of animal downs or polyester fiber fills. (Watch how it’s made here.)

Observing that winemakers produce 26 billion liters of wine each year and then simply toss the grape shells, Pangaia saw another opportunity. Grape skin leather shoes are one of the company’s newest products.  “Grape leather” is produced from cast-off grape stalks, skin and seeds.

While most of us are going to need some serious re-training before we stop washing our clothes after each wear, Pangaia’s garments can also be finished with PPRMINT a durable odor control and broad-spectrum antimicrobial to keep them fresher, longer. Less wash equals less wear and tear on the garment in addition to preserving water. 

Parkes’ litany of potentially transformative future bio-fabrications includes projects using faux-spider silk, crustaceans, agricultural food waste. She also foresees ultimately using technologies like plasma lasers that can actually change the very nature of fabric through precision/programmable applications of things like gas. She asks me to imagine a future where altering the physical properties of a material is the norm, maybe to make it fire-retardant, colorful, or longer-lasting without the use of harsh chemical treatments.

Pangaia is early, but not alone.  You may wear your next mushroom instead of eating it, as high-end luxury brands jump on the farm-to-fabric bandwagon. Stella McCartney partnered with Bolt Threads to introduce a faux leather fabric made from mushrooms.  Hermes teamed up with Mycoworks for a mushroom-based handbag. Adidas and Lululemon are also working with mycelium fabrics. Spiber is producing silk, sans the spider, replacing hard-working spiders with a  microbial fermentation to spin its threads. (Techonomy hosted an entire conference called Techonomy Bio back in 2014 examining innovative opportunities to better use biological processes across society.)

Looking further, synthetic materials (think spandex or polyester) will also get a boost from materials that are bio-based and biodegradable. Kintra Fibers are a form of polyester derived from corn instead of fossils fuels. They are  biodegradable and compostable, and in Kintra’s current process, 56% derived from corn. Fashion brands are poised to be materials innovators moving forward.

Innovations that leave less of a carbon footprint on the environment can also increase a garment’s functionality. One raincoat uses nano-tech waterproofing fabric made by long-time fashion innovators, Scholler.  ATA Temporal’s CEO Lea Potache Stein uses the fabric in a new high fashion raincoat”, she writes. Instead of a chemical coating that would diminish over time, the nano process makes the fabric behave like the surface of a leaf, repelling water, oil, and dirt. It also uses C-Change, thermo-adaptive fabric that opens pores to release heat or closes them to retain heat depending on your body temperature.”

We’re talking about more than just changing fashion’s materials and design. As Parkes likes to say, this upends the entire factory, supply chain, and back-end part of the fashion business as well, making it more efficient with less environmental impact.  Parkes says we’ll be thinking of future textile manufacturing facilities as part farm, part chemistry lab, and part factories. Those who believe that technology and sustainability are perennially at odds with each other should rethink that. Nature and high tech are forging a new relationship.

For an interview with Pangaia’s team, see this.  

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