Biotech of the Future: Fashion’s Role in Climate Change

Biotech of the Future: Fashion’s Role in Climate Change

Photo by Francois Le Nguyen (Unsplash)

Emily Chow is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.       


2022 is primed to be an important year for humanity’s actions against global warming. COP26 (Conference of Parties) reaffirmed existing climate change discussions. It generated momentum that must continue to meet the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement by 2050: to reduce the Earth’s temperature by 1.5°C. 196 Parties adopted this internationally binding treaty. With the additional challenges brought forth by COVID-19, (net)zero-carbon solutions urgently need to be implemented across all levels and structures. The private sector is not exempt from this collective responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has the capacity to usher in radical, life-saving changes. One way is through the global supply chain.

According to the World Economic Forum, eight industries generate more than 50% of greenhouse gas emissions globally: agriculture, construction, fashion, fast-moving consumer goods (“FMCGs”), electronics, automotive, professional services, and freight. This article discusses the role of fashion in climate change, and more importantly, highlights some textile innovations and organizations demonstrating the core values of circular economies.

Circular Economies: An Overview

A “circular” economy is more than a corporate citizenship buzzword or a green/woke-washing tactic. The three key pillars, or goals, supporting circular economic systems are: to eliminate waste, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature. True circular production generates products and materials that can be reused, repaired, or remanufactured, thereby eliminating the concept of “waste” generated through consumer capitalism. These systems emulate what is inherent within nature’s ecological systems, such as detritivore decomposition and nitrogen or carbon cycles.

The Case for Fashion

Fashion, and by extension any forms of creative self-expression, potentiate important sociopolitical spaces for various communities and individuals. Fashion can be protest, anti-racist and decolonizing. It can be responsive to or representative of sociopolitical changes in attitudes. Fashion coalesces around culture and will continue to so long as culture exists. It is also plain fun to feel good in what you’re wearing and for your clothing to represent you.

The fashion industry has roots across many fields including agriculture (pun intended), technology, design, retail, natural and synthetic textile processing/manufacturing, recycling, human rights and labour. Remedying the supply chain can accelerate actions in hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy transport/freight, which struggle to fund expensive decarbonization efforts given their low profits relative to high emissions. Consumer-facing industries like fashion generate higher profits per ton of emissions, and thus can pass along decarbonisation costs in increments felt much less by end consumers.

Along with the benefits of a circular economic system come concerns of elitist environmentalism and the privilege inherent in purchasing an expensive item upfront. Not to mention, the capacity to make climate-informed decisions further depends on sizing and access inclusivity for all bodies—an ongoing and persistent criticism of the fashion industry. However, many studies and thinkers have demonstrated the power in shifting mindsets around consumption, especially in the Global North, to one of slow fashion. 60% of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year, much of which is spurred by unbelievable sales and a culture of consumption (think of TikTok or Youtuber unboxings, hauls, ‘shop with me’ videos, negative associations of wearing something twice, etc.).

While the solution isn’t perfect, as an individual starting point, we can begin to unpack the small ways we as individuals can reassess our spending habits. Some mindfulness questions we can make a habit of asking ourselves are: What about [item] do I like or dislike (e.g., price, fit, colour, material)? Do I have anything similar? Can I get this second-hand? Will this material/style last several seasons? Do I see myself wearing this a few years from now?

Ultimately, structural change from the top-down must also occur to remedy our current climate. Yet investments made towards technological innovation and zero-emissions solutions have already proven to be profitable, sustainable, and climate-positive. Furthermore, the collective push towards Cleantech, Impact Investing, business certifications (such as B Corp, 1% for the Planet), and fossil fuel divestment is extremely promising.

Fashion’s Patented Innovations

I am really looking forward to seeing how the above movements evolve and respond to the coming year ahead. I am also excited about the increased adoption of patented materials and products! The production of synthetic textiles, garment-making, and the supply chain generates 85% of fashion’s emissions. Introducing nature-based solutions in agriculture and textile processing will be key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Mycoworks, AlgiKnit, Lenzing Tencel, and ALT TEX are a few companies building towards a circular economy in an exciting way.

Mycoworks is a San Francisco-based company with a patent for Fine Mycelium that has developed a mycelium-based leather called REISHI™: a made-to-order, vegan, and biodegradable yet durable leather. Last year, they made headlines with their collaboration with luxury designer house Hermès, whose classic “Victoria” style was remade with Fine Mycelium and named “Sylvania”.

AlgiKnit makes patent-pending kelp-based yarns and textiles in New York. Their closed-loop product life cycle allows them to break down end products to be remade into new ones. This seaweed-based yarn allows manufacturers to excise highly toxic chemicals from the treatment process, protecting workers from dangerous carbon disulfide exposure and poisoning. AlgiKnit produced a prototype Adidas sneaker, and one can only imagine the streetwear implications this new material could have. Furthermore, the company announced the opening of an Innovation Hub in North Carolina set for early 2022, where they will work with global brands to adopt new biotechnological textile innovations.

Lenzing’s TENCEL Lyocell and Modal fibres are patented cellulose fibres originating from responsibly managed forests in Austria. They use a non-woven spinning process that recycles the water and solvents at a rate of more than 99%. These fibres have been certified biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil, freshwater, and marine conditions.

ALT TEX, a homegrown Toronto start-up, is a former client of the IP Innovation Clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School. Founders Myra Arshad and Avneet Ghotra have developed a novel bio-polymer technology that re-engineers sugars extracted from food waste into a fibre substitute to polyester, which is made of plastic. ALT TEX’s closed-loop, biodegradable, and carbon neutral textile is a game-changer with the potential to replace polyester entirely, which makes up over 60% of textile manufacturing.

Further Engagement:

Aja Barber’s Consumed, a book on the textile industry’s racist, colonial, and exploitative history, and how to empower yourself by unlearning the mentality of mass consumerism:

Intersectional Environmentalist, a climate justice community centering BIPOC and historically excluded voices:

Social/climate activists Stevie (aka @stevieyaaaay), Summer Dean (@climatediva)

Online Second-hand, Consignment and Thrift stores (to name a few!): ThreadUP, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, Depop

Fashion Impact Fund, supporting women entrepreneurs and the fulfillment of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals:

Ecologi, a climate-positive investment subscription where you can support environmental projects as a business or individual supporter: