Ecologist Carole Collet. (Photo: Misha Haller)
Carole Collet. (Photo: Misha Haller)

What the Fashion Industry Can Learn From Biology

Ecologist Carole Collet explains why the textiles of tomorrow will be made in collaboration with living organisms such as trees, algae, and fungi.
By Mara Fisher
February 1, 2022
11 minute read

Carole Collet, a professor of Design for Sustainable Futures at Central Saint Martins (C.S.M.) in London, has spent decades studying how biological systems might help humans create a more regenerative future—one that shifts the focus from merely lessening society’s negative impact on the planet to exploring ways in which art, architecture, and fashion design can actually help restore the earth’s biodiversity. Collet’s investigations narrow the gap between the hypothetical and the viable. Her project Biolace, for example, first exhibited almost a decade ago, explored the concept of modifying the DNA of plants to produce delicate, latticed textiles. Now, among other things, she’s looking into fabric-like matter that is naturally grown by trees. Her work generally falls under the field of biodesign, an emerging movement of scientists, artists, and designers that integrates organic processes and materials into the creation of buildings, objects, and clothes.

Collet also co-directs C.S.M.’s Design and Living Systems Lab, which she founded in 2013 with the aim of developing new ideas around designing using living organisms, and serves as the director of Maison/0, a creative platform developed with C.S.M. and French luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which empowers emerging designers  to experiment with regenerative practices in high fashion. Recent projects created through the initiative by masters students in C.S.M.'s biodesign program include Algae Palette by Tahiya Hossain, a collection of textile prints dyed with colors extracted from algae; Excessories by Cassie Quinn, a line of sequins and textile embellishments created from a pigmented biopolymer derived from the shells of seafood waste; and Hyphae Hues by Julia Jueckstock, a system for growing nontoxic textile dye, produced by fungi, directly onto textiles.

We recently spoke with Collet about the growing importance of biodesign and about her vision for the next chapter of textile production, which, she believes, will look to nature to teach us how to sustain it.

There are several buzzwords the clothing industry uses to describe its efforts to reduce its environmental footprint. How do you think about the terms “sustainability” and “regenerative design” in relation to fashion?

Over the past twenty years, “sustainability” has become this very generic term. It doesn’t mean much anymore. It can include anything from designers using materials made from recycled materials, to designers saying their product is recyclable, to designers going fully circular. It’s become this very wide umbrella—a sort of “anything goes” word.

But at the same time, we’ve tripled our world population in seventy years. So, even though we’ve developed these “sustainable” strategies, we need to really look at a radical way of thinking. Doing “less bad” doesn’t work anymore, because the pressure we put on the planet—simply by means of our world population—is going beyond what the planet can sustain, both in terms of biodiversity and climate.

The idea of regenerative design is, instead of doing “less bad”—trying to cut down on our carbon emissions and our impact on biodiversity—what if we started designing with the idea to repair biodiversity and climate? Straight away, that different mindset changes the starting point and the creative process. I think the new generation of designers find that notion of “regenerative” really powerful.

Biodesign is informed by biology, by how nature works—it’s biomimicry. We’re trying to get closer to how nature makes—and adopt its principles. What can we learn from nature? If you look at an ecosystem without humans interacting with or distracting that system—think of a virgin forest—it’s in itself regenerative. Everything is produced using local nutrients and solar energy. There is no waste. The leaf of a tree falls on the ground and becomes a nutrient for the next season, nourishing the soil and the microorganisms within it. Nature makes in a way that’s inherently renewable. I think that’s why biodesign is very exciting for me. It’s not an established field where there are set ways of doing things. It’s a quest to try and see what we can biofabricate in the way nature biofabricates at ambient temperatures. We’re slowly trying, and slowly getting there.

How are designers choosing which organisms to use, or draw inspiration from, when developing biomaterials?

It’s about first identifying what you’d like to achieve, finding what animals exist that do that thing very well, then determining what we can learn from them.

For example, a lot of our waterproofing and stainproofing is done with chemicals. If you’re looking at developing a new bio-based coating to make a fabric stainproof, you could look at examples where nature creates a material that nothing sticks to. You could look at particular types of pitcher plants, for instance, that have inner coatings. This, again, is the notion of biomimicry.

Many recent innovations with biomaterials—such as glass created from mussels or leather made from mushrooms—seem to focus on replicating materials and textures we already use. Is this in the interest of creating a more seamless adoption of these new materials?

We have a human history that is inherently connected to textiles and how we relate to them. The first traces of fibers we’ve found are twisted yarn from thirty-four thousand, five hundred years ago. These humans knew how to turn bits of the environment into fiber, and then turn those fibers into fabric. That knowledge is so many thousands of years old but, up to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, that’s all we did—there was linen, silk, wool, fur, and leather. There was not much innovation. Then, in the early twentieth century, we had all the petrol-based textiles—acrylics, polyesters, all the different coatings—created to mimic natural fibers.

I think the twenty-first century is about innovating new ways of doing things with biotextiles that are bio-based and post-petrol. There are biomaterials made from biowaste, like mycelium leather and algae-based fibers. I’m currently researching how some trees make an inner bark that looks like a woven cloth. Weaves have a warp and a weft, but some trees can actually create this woven-like “fabric.” Can we grow fabrics, as opposed to using fibers that are then turned into fabrics? These are more far-away questions. It would take a lot of time to get there, but to me, that could be the next level of invention.

When confronting the issue of the fashion industry’s enormous environmental footprint, we see two primary strategies. Some designers create products that are extremely durable and will last for generations, while others tout the biodegradability of their products as a solution to the incomprehensible volume of clothing produced each year. What are your thoughts on these approaches?

I think both are very relevant. This notion of durability or fast disintegration exists in nature, too. For instance, the oak tree is very long-lasting and sturdy, and can grow for a very long time. And then you have grasses that die and are reborn every year. It’s not about what’s right; it’s what is right for a particular context or use.

Even if a cotton T-shirt is in theory “biodegradable,” if it’s been dyed with chemicals, that’s a problem. You also need the right conditions for biodegradability. For instance, where can it be composted? Does it need to be heated compost? Or can it be garden compost? Unfortunately, we do not currently have an industry or system to compost fabrics or materials.

Biodegradability is one thing, but it’s more reusability that matters. We need to promote more reusing and reselling, and if it’s too damaged, then recycle it so that it can be formed into new fabric again. Cotton can be shredded and turned into new cotton fiber and reused. Every time you do that the quality of the cotton diminishes because the fiber gets shorter, but it’s better than letting it sit in a landfill.

What do you see as the pathway for bringing more regenerative materials to the consumer market?

For me, what’s really exciting—and it’s already here, but it’s only going to expand in the future—is regenerative agriculture, which explores how we can produce wool or silk or cotton in a way that is still very productive but that regenerates soil and biodiversity, and is carbon-negative. Cotton, for instance, is a disaster for the planet. Currently, it leads to the depletion of our soil, which in turn has a radical impact on water consumption—particularly with conventional cotton, which is very intensive in terms of pesticides, which deplete biodiversity. The two main fibers currently used in the textile industry are cotton and polyester, so if we could only have regenerative cotton farming, we would already have a radical impact on the planet.

Polyester—that’s where we go into circular thinking. Virgin polyester should just not be happening anymore, as it further incentivizes the need to extract oil. We’ve got so much polyester already out there, so instead of dumping it, we should reuse what already exists. Using recycled polyester or polyester made from ocean plastics helps incentivize removing plastics from our oceans and our rivers.

The key is to shift the way we think about designing fibers to ways that serve our species and other species. How can we make fibers that help replenish our insect population? If we stop using pesticides, we will not be killing those insects anymore. Regenerative farming, new biomaterials, and circular loops for anything that’s petrol-based—these are the three key directions I’m interested in for the future.