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Biofashion Looks to Kelp and Coral for Eco-Friendly Solutions

Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) assistant professor Theanne Schiros is a vocal force in biofashion, and she’s banking on the movement that’s looking to nature to inspire the materials that could create the clothing we’ll wear in the years ahead.

Biofashion is necessary, proponents say, because the apparel industry’s reliance on thirsty crops like cotton or chemical-heavy synthetics—not to mention pollution from dyeing—are wreaking havoc on an already fragile planet. Naturally abundant plants and organisms could provide a scalable alternative to fashion’s reliance on traditional virgin raw materials.

Take kelp, for example. It’s everywhere under the sea and washed up on shorelines, too. AlgiKnit, a startup for which Schiros serves as a co-founding scientific advisor, discovered important biopolymers in kelp can be turned into a gel-like form that’s then wet-spun into a fiber. A sleeveless top was AlgiKnit’s first kelp-based prototype; knit by hand, it generated zero production waste, Schiros said at ReMode in Los Angeles this week.

Best of all? The top would biodegrade over time, preventing another garment from taking up space in a landfill. The AlgiKnit team developed a pair of sneakers also made with the kelp material that’s fully compostable at the end of its life.

Schiros said she is a big believer in “just in time degradability,” so that a shoe or piece of clothing exists “commensurate with the lifecycle of that product.” For a long time now, clothing—barring fast fashion—has been built for durability and longevity, to some degree, without thinking about what happens to that garment when it’s no longer wanted.

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This is precisely why there’s been so much energy around bio materials in recent times. Fibers and fabrics derived from nature don’t present the environmental threat that nylon, polyester and other made-man materials do. Faced with an expanding global consumer class and rampant pollution from microfibers and microplastics ravaging planetary waterways, some facets of the fashion industry are now realizing that business as usual cannot continue unchecked.

For now, though, some of these biofashion concepts remain rudimentary. The kelp sneakers, for example, won’t win many (any?) points for style. But that proof of concept could be the first step toward a new way of creating fashion.

Schiros said she is also looking to biology to find new sustainable and eco-friendly ways of creating dyes. How does vibrantly red coral get its brilliant hue? From an amino acid sequence that generates the crimson fluorescent protein fiber, Schiros said. Replicating that sequence creates a sustainable, bio-sourced alternative to the harmful chemicals often found in textile dyestuffs.

These new breakthroughs join mushroom-derived leather, fabrics made from crop waste, silk born from orange fiber and artificial spider silk as some viable alternatives to traditional raw materials.

Schiros also believes organisms like yeast and fungi could be the “fabric factories” of the future, quickly growing cells to make new kinds of materials.