Making clothes that breathe

Fashion needs creative thinking to tackle the climate crisis and London-based biotech startup Post Carbon Lab has some disruptive ideas that might just help
Clothes that breathe
Photosynthetic coated fabric from Post Carbon Lab Post Carbon Lab

Imagine clothes that could reduce your personal carbon footprint as you wear them. Usher in the intriguing world of Post Carbon Lab where fashion photosynthesises.

This biotech startup is piloting microbial pigmentation and photosynthesis coating for textiles. From their facility in East London, they treat existing fabrics with naturally occurring micro-organisms, such as algae, which then “live” on the finished product, extracting CO2 from the air while emitting oxygen, thus rendering the wearer climate positive.

Founders Dian-Jen Lin, a graduate of London College of Fashion’s MA fashion futures programme, and Hannes Hulstaert, who studied architecture in Antwerp, describe their organisation as “a transdisciplinary design research studio with a focus on sustainability”. Their ambition is to become the world’s first climate-positive dye house. Just don’t ask them to sell you a t-shirt.

Post Carbon founders
Post Carbon Lab founders Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert Photosynthetic

“The obvious thing is to make a sustainable product and sell it,” says Lin. “I’ve had this conversation with many people from serious business backgrounds who think we need a product-based model to thrive in the economy. However, we resist that.”

For Lin and Hulstaert it comes down to purpose. “Why are we doing this? The reason is not to chase huge profits,” says Lin. “You can easily imagine us chugging out t-shirts treated with our process, we have the facilities to do so, but that is not disruptive.”

Getting people to think about the lifespan of their clothes

On the surface, Post Carbon Lab is in the business of carbon sequestration, but there’s deeper stuff at play. The duo started out with a design provocation: what if fashion could have a positive ecological role?

“We want to get people thinking about their responsibilities,” says Lin. “To embed a ripple effect through the notion that if you don’t take care of [our treated fabric], it could possibly die. It makes people’s heads spin because it’s a different way of looking at sustainability.”

In January, Lin spoke at the 9th Future Fabrics Expo about the challenges of embedding innovation in the fashion supply chain. For starters, Post Carbon Lab’s results are not standardised, at least not yet.

We want to get people thinking about their responsibilities… if you don’t take care of [our treated fabric], it could possibly die

“It’s not like [ordering] a Pantone colour,” she says. “It will be within a range, but maybe light purple to a lighter purple.” And while their bacterial pigment dyes are fixed, the photosynthesised coatings can change colour according to conditions. “We have to put a lot of effort into communicating,” says Lin, but that’s a positive when your approach is collaborative.

“We want to open the door to research and the lab,” Lin told the Expo. By employing the service provider model, they’ve side-stepped the barriers to entry – risk, investors, non-disclosure agreements – that mean many prototypes take years to reach market. “Send us a message by Instagram; we can have a chat. Tell us what kind of garment you want to coat,” she said.

Last year, emerging designer Olivia Rubens did just that. The result was a series of “living knits” that debuted at Helsinki Fashion Week in July. “I love that you literally have to take care of it like a plant,” says Rubens. “You can actually see it dying if you neglect it.”

Revolutionising the fashion supply chain

There are three elements to keeping the treated fabric healthy, explains Lin. First, light, “which can be moderate; they are not very light intensive”. The second is ventilation. “You can’t put it in a very dark enclosed environment for long, which is good, because that would defeat the object. You want to be interacting with it, so it can capture your carbon emissions and emit fresh oxygen.” Third is air moisture. “You can do that through spritzing,” she suggests or by hanging the garment in the bathroom after a shower.

Lin is excited by the possibilities of multiple hands forming a chain of custodians for the living fabric. According to Fashion Revolution, a hundred pairs of hands touch a garment before it reaches the customer.

“As a bio-dye house, we come in with our photosynthetic coating quite early on, say, after the farm or after the fibres have been extracted. Then afterwards? Let’s make a guess: there could still be 50 or 60 people involved in bringing this garment to you and those people all have to rise to the challenge of taking care of the treated piece.”

It sounds like a logistical nightmare though? “Maybe we’re too idealistic,” she laughs. “But piling up products before they’re ready to be sold is an old business model. Brands are looking to reduce inventory as much as possible, adopting pre-ordering and resale models, which are challenging the idea that you have to collate stock in one centralised area. Potentially the supply chain becomes much more distributed and localised.”

Can Post Carbon Lab scale sustainably?

Lin and Hulstaert are still trying to figure out how best to scale Post Carbon Lab. “At the moment, our target market is Europe-based small and medium-sized enterprises,” says Lin. “We are still small. If you want to amplify carbon sequestration, it’s really good to scale up. But do we want to export to Australia, America, Asia? How does that add up from a carbon perspective? We can’t forget why we are doing this.”

Fashion’s climate impacts are in the spotlight. In August, Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company published the Fashion on Climate report that revealed the sector was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas in 2018, roughly equivalent to the entire economies of France, Germany and the UK combined. Emissions from fashion account for around 4 per cent of the global total and are way off track for meeting Paris Agreement targets.

Brands’ carbon neutrality goals tend to focus on offsetting emissions, rather than reducing them. Few are willing to discuss degrowth or completely new business models.

“Mitigation and offsetting aren’t enough,” says Lin. “We need a paradigm shift, regenerative practices, to stop thinking someone else will fix this stuff for us. We need to take care of our own carbon emissions. But also, and this doesn’t get discussed enough in the sustainable fashion conversation, it’s much more sustainable to take care of what you have right now than to buy new clothes. Maybe it’s not about selling brand new products?

“We’re still gathering data on how Post Carbon Lab’s users feel from an emotional point of view. We are asking them, ‘Does having to participate in this care practice make you feel more connected to your garment?’” So maybe it’s not about money either. How might the industry grapple with that?