Have you heard of the living coffin by Bob Hendrikx and Loop Biotech yet? As to how this relates to fashion design, I’ll get to that later.
Not all garments are created equal. The choices a designer makes when it comes to the fabric, among other things, determines the product’s lifecycle. Surely, the design intention is never for the piece to end up in landfills. However, the reality is that in fact too much textile waste is ending up exactly in those places, waiting for decades if not centuries to degrade. Places such as the second-hand market in Accra, Ghana, as well as the newly found illegal landfills in the Atacama Desert in Chile are the proof. The bottomline is that this type of design is in conflict with nature, because in nature there is no such thing as waste. This is a disheartening reality for many designers, yet this should be an invitation to rethink the design process. What if we flip the script and we start with the final destination the product will end up?
Combatting climate change
Landfills are sources for Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) and creating more products without a clear vision for their end-of-life won’t do much good for the environment. Next to that, our industry has been, to quote the Changing Markets’ Foundation: addicted to fossil fuels, which the organisation has extrapolated on in its report called Synthetics Anonymous. If we as an industry are to drive down GHGs or at least not increase them, we can only do so through disruption of the status quo. Design approaches like upcycling have been on the rise, but what follows is why it’s not the remedy against increasing GHGs.
Rethinking the design process
The reason why I mentioned the Hendrikx living coffin in the beginning, is because the process starts with the materials. This particular product is made with mycelium, which is the root structure of mushrooms and can grow into different shapes and densities. It is evident that the only way forward is through change, and this exemplifies this notion. Whereas traditional design processes start from the designer’s aesthetic vision, the future of design may start with the materials. Having this mindset change opens possibilities such as embracing a new approach called biodesign. The author of the eponymously named book, William Myers, explains the biodesign approach as: “Going to nature and trying to include biology into design processes and the finished product.”
New ways of fabrication
When it comes to fashion design, there is a Dutch pioneer that is putting biology at the core of the design process. Have you heard of a term called biofabrication? Dutch company NEFFA, run by designer and founder Aniela Hoitink, does exactly that. They create the material and fabricate a product in one place. Just imagine that your next handbag is created in one place, from the materials to the finishing touch. That is what Hoitink and her team have been working on to realise: a one-stop-factory where brands get their products developed with a minimal, if not carbon negative footprint. Furthermore, this fabrication solution eliminates the need for complex supply chains, textile waste and high levels of CO2-emissions. Recently, NEFFA has started to expand by setting up factories in other European countries. Stay tuned because exciting updates from this company are to be released this summer.
Shifting from conflict to collaboration
Rather than designing in ways that guarantee the product will end up in landfills eventually, being in conflict with nature, it’s about time to go into partnership with nature. Designing in collaboration with nature requires an understanding for living beings like bacteria and other microorganisms. As I pointed out earlier, the design process needs to be flipped on its head. Instead of starting with the design aesthetic, designers should start with the materials and understand their abilities out of which the shapes would arise. This is literally a more organic than structured approach to their work, but one that I can only see as the future of fashion freed of landfills.
How to start with biodesign?
Biodesign comes in many different forms, but fundamentally it starts with an understanding of living beings like microorganisms. One book I highly recommend is ‘Biodesign’ by William Myers. For a TED Talk I suggest you look up Neri Oxman (MIT Media Lab), Emma van der Leest (BlueCity biodesign lab), Suzanne Lee (Biofabricate), and Theanne Schiros (AlgiKnit). For fashion designers who are interested in getting started with biodesign, a good resource to begin with is the Biodesign guide by Stanford University.