Lessons from Nature: How Biomimicry Can Reduce Fashion's Ecological Footprint



It’s no secret that fashion leaves a significant ecological footprint on the planet; The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions. To produce one t-shirt, it takes enough drinking water to sustain one person for 2.5 years. And compared to 2015, current rates of waste creation, water consumption and emissions will increase by 50% by 2030 . The public awareness of these issues leads the textile industry to the question: how can we make our products more environmentally friendly?


We can find some answers by learning from the animals and plants around us. Nature is time-tested. Billions of years of evolution serve as a guide to the most efficient solutions to problems modern-day humans have only just realised. This learning process is known as biomimicry, which imitates natural processes within the design.


Fashion is no stranger to biomimicry


Velcro was inspired by the hundreds of tiny hooks that allow the cocklebur to cling to animal fur, leading to the hook and loop design we know of today.


Infamously, biomimicry inspired Speedo’s Fastskin line, which adopted characteristics of shark skin to reduce drag. At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the year this new material was released, 13 world records were broken. Accusations of technological doping followed.


These are classic examples; however, recently, biomimicry has been applied to reduce our ecological footprint by re-thinking the development and processing of the materials we wear.


Water, dyes and chemicals


Synthetic fibre production uses and pollutes vast quantities of water with dyes and finishes full of chemicals and toxins. Werewool is developing a process that harnesses the power of proteins to avoid these issues. The structure and arrangement of the proteins within DNA give desired features, like colour. For example, to create a pink fabric, you can take the ‘pink’ code from the DNA sequence of discosoma coral and copy and insert it into bacteria that will grow the protein to be extracted and made into fibres. This creates a pink fabric that is sustainable and biodegradable. This process won Werewool the H&M Global Change Award 2020.


Microplastics


Plastic pollution isn't coming from just straws. With current materials, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles in microfibers is flushed into the ocean every year by just washing our clothes. Additionally, the minuscule 15% of clothing that avoids landfill and is recycled instead, still sheds these microfibres.


A solution to this problem comes from a school of thought that has emerged from biomimicry, the circular economy. In nature, materials cycle endlessly, so in the essence of biomimicry, the circular economy replicates this cycling.


Read more on the concept of circular economies within fashion here.


Circular Systems with Agraloop Biorefinery (another winner of an H&M Global change award, this time in 2018) carries material through the value chain by converting agricultural waste into fibres used in yarn and paper. This method reduces agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, and it prevents the burning or rotting of plant waste.


Leathers


Although it can be argued as a by-product of the meat industry, leather is problematic. Where the rearing of livestock goes, deforestation and emissions follow. The Amazon is being cleared for cattle ranching and producing leather, which is contributing to climate change.


With the uprise of the vegan fashion movement, leather is being replaced by faux alternatives. Unfortunately, even these carry drawbacks as they are petroleum-derived. Bolt Threads have innovated a solution inspired by mycelium, an ecological connective tissue that makes up mushrooms. Mycelium cells are grown on beds using vertical farming practices, processed, and tanned to produce Mylo, a new type of leather.

“The mycelium used to make Mylo is grown from mulch, air, and water in just a few short weeks, versus the land and other significant resources it takes to raise cattle over the course of years."

What we have learned


When biomimicry and fashion are combined, ideas like mushroom leather or concepts such as the circular economy emerge. Biomimicry has given lessons for the fashion industry to develop new concepts and ideas; however, these lessons haven't always been environmentally friendly.


Take Velcro, for example; it is made using nylon, derived from petroleum which has obvious environmental concerns. To fully embrace biomimicry to solve problems in the fashion industry, sustainability and, therefore, circularity must be included. New concepts have indicated biomimicry as an up-and-coming trend and there has been significant investment from key players, with Mylo collaborating with adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney.


Ultimately, by recognising our connections to the biosphere and aligning with nature, we can produce a new generation of textiles that significantly reduce our ecological footprint.