Biodegradable Fabrics; Clothing of the future

The fabric of the future could be created in a lab, made to disintegrate faster without leaching dangerous chemicals into the earth as it breaks down. A small but growing group of innovators are trying to stop the wastefulness and pollution right at the source, by developing a new way to produce fabric. Making material, with the thought of disposing responsibly, at the onset.

Biodegradable fabrics made in a lab. Lexy Silverstein Sustainable Fashion
Small samples of bacteria-dyed silk in petri dishes. Credit: Laura Luchtman & Ilfa Siebenhaar

Why is this so desperately needed? Most people know that fashion is a major global polluter but look at this fact below and let that sit in:

Lexy Silverstein, Biodegradable Fabrics, Sustainable Fashion
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;

Think about it, that cheap t-shirt you buy could live up to 200 years in some landfill. Not only is that piece of clothing taking up space on this planet, for practically FOREVER. But that's not all. As that piece of clothing decomposes it releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas which is a significant contributor to climate change. And there's even more...the dyes and chemicals in the fabric and other components of the clothing, shoes and accessories can leach into the soil, contaminating both surface and groundwater. Oy! Now think about that cute $5 top of Forever 21. Do you look at it any differently?

Textiles in landfills can linger for hundreds of years.

Obviously, step one, reduce waste. Did you know that up to 95% of the textiles that are landfilled each year could be recycled. Matter of fact, if every article of clothing's lifespan could be extended just 9 more months, it could reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30%. A big next step is for the textile industry to innovate a better product that is less harmful for the environment.


I recently read the most interesting article in Scientific American that explains what some textile innovators are doing to combat fashion pollution at its earliest stage. "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." Biodegradable fibers are those which decompose quite easily and naturally using microorganisms. For example, 100% cotton fabrics are biodegradable. Hemp fibres become naturally softer over time and therefore make the fabric easily biodegradable.


  • Acrylic

  • Polyester

  • Rayon

  • Nylon

The process of making this biodegradable fiber is simple to understand but, I'm sure, not as easy to produce. According to this article, unlike many of our current clothing that are woven from plastic-based acrylic, nylon or polyester threads and then cut and sewn into fabrics, the new fabrics would be bioengineered. That means they'd be made from living bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells or fungi—which would break down into nontoxic substances when eventually thrown away. Another benefit is the organisms can be grown to fit molds, producing the precise amount of fabric needed to create an article of clothing without generating any excess materials to throw away. How cool is that?

Lexy Silverstein Sustainable Fashion Blogger
Drying organic silk dyed with bacteria. Credit: Laura Luchtman & Ilfa Siebenhaar

One organism of choice is algae. There are three steps to make alga-based yarn. First, a sugar called alginate is derived from kelp...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. So far this research is promising because the fiber is strong and flexible making it useful for a wide range of different garments. Another plus, the alga biodegrades faster than cotton and doesn't require pesticides or large areas of land to produce.

Theanne Schrios, a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T. in NYC) has used her fiber (explained above) to knit items, including a top that she wore when she delivered her TED Talk on sustainable fashion.

Biodesigned clothing is hopefully the wave of the future. There is still much work to do and then it has to be scalable and affordable or it'll be an idea stuck in a lab. Watch this space.

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