The fashion industry has increasingly been subject to global outcry over the damage it inflicts on our environment (Niinimäki et al., 2020). It has been charged with being responsible for approximately 20% of global industrial water pollution (Kant, 2012), 8-10% of carbon dioxide emissions (United Nations Climate Change News, 2018; Quantis, 2018), and >92 million tonnes of landfill waste production every year (Quantis, 2018), to name a few of its infractions (see infographic). Although these figures might be new to those of you reading this, the reality they reflect is not: fashion is bad for our environment. The overwhelming evidence we have today shows this to be true. But what if it didn’t have to be? What if we could fabricate self-growing “biogarments” from living organisms? Could we then re-imagine the future of the fashion economy? Perhaps make it more circular, more sustainable? Is zero-waste fashion actually possible? The biogarmentry movement claims it is. By rethinking the material potential of our textiles, we can create alliances with nature that can substantially cut the environmental costs of fashion.
Former fashion designer turned bio-fabricator Suzanne Lee’s pioneering work ignited the idea that the materials used in the fashion industry have untapped potential (Aghighi, 2019). Her BioCouture project demonstrated the unprecedented idea that we can grow our own clothes (Lee, 2011). Her chosen material was microbial cellulose, which she used as a medium for grown textiles. A transdisciplinary team from the University of British Columbia used cellulose and protein-based fibres to create living, photosynthetic fabric (Aghighi, 2019). Bio-tech firm MycoWorks used organismic mushrooms that naturally bind together in nature to create self-growing mushroom leather (MycoWorks, 2023). The crux of creating biogarmentry in this manner ultimately lies in collaboration — not just with nature, but with each other. Essentially, synthetic biologists, material scientists, and designers come together to create new materials from living organisms, which are placed at the centre of the design process (Aghighi, 2019). The possibilities for making textiles from living organisms are endless, and technological advancements are constantly in the works to make this happen. But what does this mean for our relationship with materials, and Nature as the new material in fashion?
There’s a lot of layers to our relationship with biological materials, both on an individual and collective level. Let’s try to unpack the nuances in the limited time we have. Individually, biogarmentry aims to target consumer-oriented habits that lean towards immediate disposal. We see this a lot in fast fashion — when the shelf-life of an item, which is already made from cheap materials, exceeds its capacity, consumers tend to discard it without much thought. This is because it’s perceived as being easily replaceable (Harper, 2019). Leaning away from this notion, biogarments are purposefully attributed with a “living quality” to allow users to connect to it, and in doing so free them from the detached approach to clothing we now have largely due to fast fashion (Aghighi, 2019). The “livingness” of biogarments targets our emotions and makes us rethink our disposal habits (Karana, Barati & Giaccardi, 2020). If you bought a kitten to keep in your household, would it be so easy to discard it if it outlived its purpose? The answer, most likely, is no. Once you connect with the cute furry animal, you’re now attached to it. You’ll find yourself creating new purposes for it. There’s a positive feedback loop already in play which reinforces the fact that the kitten provides value to you and to your life (Harper, 2019). Biogarmentry basically follows the same premise, except the kitten is substituted for a bag made out of mushroom leather that you now wear across your chest, or over your shoulder.
The play on emotions the biogarmentry movement is built upon is especially relevant to photosynthesized clothing, whose lifecycle is predicated on how much care is put into looking after the material (Aghighi, 2019). The BioCouture project is moving towards transforming microbial cellulose as an inanimate material to a living environment which continuously nourishes the user the more it thrives (Fairs, 2014). No matter how emotionally attached you are to your kitten, you wouldn’t want any harm to come to it. The “living quality” of biogarments not only humanises textiles, and therefore gives them agency, but also transforms the way we interact with our clothes (Aghighi, 2019). Eventually, this could translate to collective behavior of consumers that recognises the value of clothing. If these values become adopted worldwide, the fashion industry has the potential to become a more circular system within our economy (D’Itria & Colombi, 2022). This is not only because people will be less inclined to dispose of their biogarments, but also because the materials are fully biodegradable and compostable (Fairs, 2014). This system can become even more wholly committed to sustainable futures, ones that place emphasis on zero-waste production rather than minimal waste reduction (Park, 2012).
Now more cynically, let’s consider the people who would abandon their kittens. How can we make them receptive to the message of biogarmentry? How can we make them allies to this movement? It all goes back to human nature. Intrinsically, humans are programmed to satisfy their needs and maintain their self-interests. If emotions aren’t cutting it for them, then the service that biological materials provide in creating new textiles might just do it. If Nature is seen as just another resource to exploit in order to innovate the fashion industry, then we can get the more cynical people on our side (Lemieux, 2021). The fashion industry is evolving. The environmental costs accumulated means it cannot continue on its current trajectory (Niinimäki et al., 2020). Our planet simply cannot handle the overwhelming strain of all the fabrics we’re making and throwing away. The cynical kitten abandoners would realize this, and join the bandwagon because they have no other option. They need clothes. They need them to provide shelter to survive. And maybe, over time, their values will transform to reflect an emotional connection to living materials, one that can transform the future of the fashion economy.
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D’Itria, Erminia, and Chiara Colombi. “Biobased Innovation as a Fashion and Textile Design Must: A European Perspective.” Sustainability 14, no. 1 (2022): 570. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14010570.
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