Biotech can help close the sustainable fashion loop - Lynn Wilson

The queen of fashion herself, Anna Wintour, has made her views known about fashion and sustainability. It’s a welcome influential voice in a sector that is using up global raw materials at an alarming rate. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that global fashion production has doubled in the last 15 years but we are wearing 40 per cent less clothing. This has led to more than 92 million tonnes of post-consumer clothing ending up in landfill annually.

MEP Henna Virkkunen wore this dress made from a recyclable FSC-certified wood pulp fibre at a Finnish Independence Day event. Picture: Contributed
MEP Henna Virkkunen wore this dress made from a recyclable FSC-certified wood pulp fibre at a Finnish Independence Day event. Picture: Contributed

The planet is in crisis and in the past month you probably bought more clothes for the Christmas season – 12 million of us will have bought a novelty jumper with flashing lights and sequins. Environmental charity Hubbub has found this purchase to be one of the worst examples of fast fashion – a sector now recognised as hugely damaging to the environment.

A recent study by Plymouth University also found acrylic garments release nearly 730,000 microfibres per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric and nearly 1.5 times that of pure polyester.

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Environmentalists are shouting loud and relentlessly, pursuing governmental change. The younger generation, led by Greta Thunberg, are worried about the future. How can fashion respond?

Technology can help change fashion for the better, like Nike Air trainers which use technology created for astronaut moonboots, says Wilson. Picture: John Need

Trusting in our science and technology skills is one way. This is not a new concept. Fifty years ago, Nasa gave us the Apollo 11 moon landing; the technology used in the astronauts’ moonboots eventually found its way into the Nike Air trainer.

Current consumption is unsustainable

We can also get inspiration from the days before we were bombarded by the vast range of clothing brands. My gran is an example of the make-do-and-mend brigade. Jumpers were knitted and then unravelled to make a bigger garment as you grew. Socks were darned and clothes altered. We know now this is the way we should be thinking about clothes and is the definition of a circular economy – getting the most value we can and then re-using or recycling at the end of a garment’s life.

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The fashion industry is realising that the current consumption is unsustainable. Start-ups in the industrial biotechnology sector are using plant-based sources to sustainably produce or process textiles, dyes and finishing chemicals, as well as finding ways to recycle used garments and develop industrial closed loops for garment processes. Such companies will showcase their tech in Glasgow next month at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre’s (IBioIC) Annual Conference, where I will be chairing a session on fashion and the circular economy.

An example of this is Spinnova, which produces a recyclable fibre made from FSC-certified wood pulp, in an ecological process using no harmful chemicals or microplastics. The fabric was used to create an evening dress worn by MEP Henna Virkkunen at a Finnish Independence Day event.

One small step for man...

It is also critical that we educate fashion, textiles and design students in driving change. Dr Kate Goldsworthy, co-director of the centre for circular design at University of Arts London, does just that, getting students to think sustainably about a garment’s life cycle at the beginning of the design process.

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Dr Richard Blackburn from University of Leeds will also talk about his work on the impact of using science to create sustainable cosmetic products and processes which he has also brought successfully to market.

I too will be sharing my experience of advising students from the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in synthetic biology and biotechnology who recently picked up a silver medal in the prestigious iGEM competition in Boston.

It’s true we can’t produce enough natural raw materials to clothe the planet. But we can take note of the work of IBioIC and support the innovators and scientists who are working to create a moon shot for the fashion industry. It’s pragmatic and one small step for man is a giant leap for planet earth.

- Lynn Wilson is chairing the fashion and circular economy session at the IBioIC Annual Conference on the 5 and 6 February 2020.