How can the latest design and technology help to create wear without waste? And what can we all do to reduce the impact of throwaway fashion?
A refreshing alternative
If you’re wearing cotton, you’re actually clothed in cellulose – a natural polymer found in all plants. Cotton is the thirstiest fabric on the planet – 210,000 billion litres of water is used in its production each year. The large volume of water and toxic pesticides guzzled cause damage both to the environment and human health.
This ‘BioCouture’ jacket is also made out of cellulose, but it’s a bit different. Instead of coming from plants, the cellulose was produced by millions of tiny bacteria grown in bathtubs of sweet green tea, providing an ecologically refreshing alternative to cotton.
One man’s waste…
People in Asia and eastern Europe have used cultures of the BioCouture bacteria for hundreds of years to make a fermented health drink called kombucha. The bacteria Acetobacter use the sugar in the green tea to produce floating mats of cellulose. Scientists think these mats act as life rafts for the bacteria, keeping them afloat so they can access oxygen in the air.
Most people simply throw away the bacterially produced cellulose mat as a waste by-product. But designer Suzanne Lee is using it to make her unique line of BioCouture clothing.
If BioCouture fabric could be grown in bioreactors in the lab it would seem to be a perfect alternative to cotton. It’s natural, non-toxic and compostable. But it isn’t perfect: it breaks down a little too easily. Suzanne Lee says:
‘If you were caught out in the rain wearing the BioCouture jacket, it would probably turn to jelly because it absorbs water so easily.’
Alexander Bismarck at Imperial College London plans to add water-repelling molecules into the bioreactor whilst the bacteria are making the cellulose. These molecules should become part of the fabric’s structure to stop it going mushy when it gets wet.
Paul Freemont at Imperial College is also working on BioCouture, but he’s looking at how to manufacture bacterial cellulose on a large scale. Paul says:
‘The Acetobacter bacteria contain the specialised enzymes needed to make cellulose, but other types of bacteria grow much better in lab conditions. So we aim to “transplant” the cellulose-making enzymes into different bacteria – creating tiny, but highly efficient, living textile factories.’
Bacterial cellulose has the potential to be incredibly versatile. If research goes well it could have many different uses. Suzanne Lee definitely sees it as a fabric for the future:
‘One day it might be possible to produce bacterial cellulose in a huge array of different forms, feels and colours. In the future we could find ourselves surrounded by bacterial cellulose – in our clothes, our books and magazines, our cars, our buildings… the possibilities are almost endless!’