When a piece of clothing wears out or goes out of fashion, it often gets tossed in the trash; clothes made up 9 percent of all municipal solid waste produced in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And the impact of what we wear goes well beyond clogged landfills. The European Commission (pdf) has also linked modern clothing industry practices—often described as “fast fashion,” due to the speed and volume at which garments are produced and marketed—to high energy and water use, significant greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

Now a small but growing group of innovators is turning to the genius of nature in an attempt to put wastefulness and pollution in the apparel industry out of fashion, right at the source: They are using live organisms to grow pieces of biodegradable textiles, creating environmentally friendly materials in the laboratory—and are even producing some near-complete items without the need for factory assembly.

Many of today’s garments are woven from plastic-based acrylic, nylon or polyester threads, and cut and sewn in factories. All such materials are chemically produced and nonbiodegradable. But these researchers think some of tomorrow’s apparel could potentially be bioengineered—that is, made from living bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells or fungi—which would break down into nontoxic substances when eventually thrown away. Such methods could reduce waste and pollution, says Theanne Schiros, assistant professor in the math and science department at Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) in New York City. Besides being biodegradable, another major benefit, she says, is that many of the organisms involved can be grown to fit molds—producing the precise amount of textile needed to create an article of clothing without generating excess material to discard. “In materials science we are now finding more inspiration in nature,” she says. “You look to nature for rapidly generating organisms that are abundant.”

Drying organic silk dyed with bacteria. Credit: Laura Luchtman & Ilfa Siebenhaar 

Schiros’s organism of choice is algae. With it, she and a team of F.I.T. students and faculty have created a yarnlike fiber that can be dyed with nonchemical pigments such as crushed insect shells and knitted into apparel. There are three steps in making alga-based yarn, Schiros says: First, a sugar called alginate is derived from kelp—a multicellular algal seaweed—and powdered. Next the alginate powder is turned into a water-based gel, to which plant-based color (such as carrot juice) is added. Finally, the gel is extruded into long strands of fiber that can be woven into a fabric.

Schiros says her experiments show alga-based fabric holds considerable promise as a marketable bioengineered clothing material because it is strong and flexible, two properties essential for mass-market apparel. Materials scientists in China have noted that alga-based fibers are naturally fire-resistant, potentially reducing the need for adding toxic flame retardants to clothing. Also, alga biodegrades faster than cotton—the most common natural clothing fiber—and growing it does not require pesticides or large areas of land. Schiros has used her fiber to knit items including a tank top she wore while delivering a TED Talk on sustainable fashion this year. After winning the 2016 BioDesign Challenge for her work with alga-based textiles with her F.I.T. colleague Asta Skocir, Schiros co-founded a company called Algiknit, which aims to one day produce alga-based apparel on a commercial scale.

Schiros has also explored using bacteria to grow clothing materials; in 2017 some of her students grew a baby-size pair of moccasins from a liquid bacteria culture, fungi and compostable waste. The bacteria grew into a fibrous mat of “bio-leather” that eventually filled a shoe-shaped mold to form a complete piece of footwear, which the students stitched together with fibers pulled from discarded pineapple tops obtained from a smoothie shop down the street. Later they made dyes from avocado seeds and indigo leaves to color the shoes, and embedded carrot seeds in them before drying them. According to Schiros, “This method eliminates waste right at the production phase.” It also reduces textile scraps, she notes, adding that because the shoes are biodegradable and contain seeds “you can plant them right in the ground when your baby outgrows them to start cultivating their next pair of shoes.” Her students (who called themselves “Team #GROWAPAIR”) debuted their creation at last year’s Biodesign Challenge Summit, a bioengineering competition for college students held at MoMA—The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Silk textile exposed to S. Coelicolor bacteria for 34 days. Credit: IMMATTERS Studio 

Another fast fashion environmental problem that bioengineering could address is dyes, Schiros says. Commercial textile dying uses approximately 3,500 human-made chemicals, including lead- and petroleum-based substances, according to the Swedish Chemicals Agency (pdf). Of these, the agency was able to detect 2,400 in finished clothing products. Five percent of the chemicals found are potentially hazardous to the environment and 10 percent of the 2,400 chemicals found in finished clothes may harm human health, the agency says. Making these coloring agents adhere to fabric also often involves using poisonous solvents, fixing agents, salts and large quantities of water. Lab animals exposed to some of these dyes exhibit adverse health effects, including allergic reactions as well as reproductive and growth problems (pdf). The EPA has declared one commonly used clothing dye ingredient, benzidine, and its derivatives to be “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.” Dyes that contain it, along with other so-called “azo” dyes, are banned from import by the European Union. Such chemicals may leach from clothing into skin and are also found in textile dye factories’ wastewater—which is often dumped directly into the environment without treatment.

Some researchers think bacteria might also help mitigate the dye problem. Innovators including Cecilia Raspanti, co-founder of TextileLab Amsterdam; Laura Luchtman, owner of textile and design studio Kukka; and Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder of biodesign lab and creative research agency Faber Futures are using naturally pigmented bacteria to dye natural and bioengineered textiles. Luchtman says her process involves autoclaving a textile to prevent contamination, then pouring a liquid medium filled with bacterial nutrients over the textile in a container. Next she exposes the soaked textile to bacteria and leaves it in a climate-controlled chamber for three days. Finally she sterilizes the textile again, rinses it with a gentle laundry detergent to wash out the smell of the bacterial medium, then lets it dry. Bacterial dyes can be applied in a variety of colors and patterns, are nontoxic and require at least 20 percent less water, Chieza says.

But significant challenges remain in using such techniques to replace both textiles woven with nonbiodgradable human-made fibers and dyes made from problematic chemicals. Producing bioengineered materials durable enough to stand up to normal wear and tear is a major hurdle, Schiros says. She has tried to overcome this by treating some of her textiles with indigenous preserving techniques—such as tanning with smoke instead of chemicals—which she says lend her bio-leather strength and water resistance.

These ecologically benign textiles are so far limited mostly to the realms of the laboratory, science competitions and high-fashion runways. But researchers who promote them say it is just a matter of time before such innovations are rolled out in some form for consumer markets. What needs to be tackled first, Chieza says, is making bioengineered apparel comparable in cost to conventional clothing. For example, Luchtman sells bacterial-dyed silk scarves for $139 whereas a similar silk scarf dyed conventionally can be purchased for as little as $10. “Similar to the debate around renewable energy, cost-competiveness will not only rely on solid science and a technology that works—it will need to be enabled through government subsidies and a mental switch towards investing in R&D,” Chieza says.

Melik Demirel, director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) and a professor of engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, agrees that getting biodesigned clothing into consumer markets may take some time. But if the production processes can be scaled, he says, the benefits would outweigh the challenges. “Protein- or sugar-based fibers are naturally biodegradable, and nature knows how to recycle them,” he notes.

Also, textiles could be reused before being sent to a composting facility to biodegrade, designers who advocate this research say. Repairing or repurposing textiles and dyes over and over again, to delay making them into waste, is a primary principle guiding production of bio-based textiles and the nonchemical dyes used to color them.

Suzanne Lee—who founded the annual biodesign summit Biofabricate as well as a London-based bio-design consultancy firm called Biocouture—emphasizes the importance of this kind of cyclical thinking as a path toward scalability and success for these new materials. “If fast fashion is to persist, the materials that are used must begin to be able to be cycled back into the raw material textile streams that feed that segment of fashion,” Lee says. “They shouldn't be destined to a landfill during the design process; it’s on all of us, especially designers, to strive for this change.”