Envision wandering into Urban Outfitters to buy yet another outfit for an upcoming extravaganza. You find a dazzling leather-like trench coat, deep blue, but threaded with white to give the perfect ‘I am a bit edgy’ appearance. You check the price hoping it fits your budget – it does – but you also notice it says, ‘Material – 100% Jellyfish’. Would you still buy it?
Over the past decade, we have seen biosynthetic meat appear on supermarket shelves and environmentally conscious eating become on-trend. Yet, despite textile manufacturing also creating tremendous amounts of waste and planetary destruction, fashion has failed to catch up with this shift. Price and garment quality continue to decline. New collections appear infinite. We are buying more than ever and yet keeping our garments for less time. Around £30 billion worth of clothes hang unscathed in our closets and, in the UK, those that are used survive an average of only 2.2 years before we reject them.
“The State of Fashion 2020” (Business of Fashion & McKinsey) reports a dramatic shift in mindset, indicating that a global transformation of the fashion industry is starting. Fashion, technology and biology are converging to create new eco-fibres and sustainable production techniques – hoping they can scrape fashion into a greener future.
Jellyfish have caught the eye of designers due to their potential as a replacement for leather. Although granted ‘staple status’, leather undeniably has negative impacts on both our planet and people. The rearing of livestock is to blame for almost 15% human-induced CO2 emissions and an estimated 80% of deforestation worldwide. To convert an animal hide into leather, it must undergo a tanning process – a process that 90% of the time uses the toxic chemical Chromium. Its exposure has been linked with health issues, subjecting tanning factory workers to skin infections and respiratory difficulties.
A blend of global warming and overfishing has caused jellyfish to overpopulate, resulting in disruption beyond closing popular swimming spots. In 1999, they made 40 million people in the Philippines powerless by clogging their chief power plant. In 2013, they blocked the cooling filters of Sweden’s Oskarshamn nuclear plant, causing it to shut down. This is not an isolated case. The disturbance occurred two years earlier at Scotland’s Torness nuclear power plant. Once washed, salted and dried, these creatures can be cut and sewn much like leather but eliminating leather-associated pollution.
Synthetic fibres (materials created via chemical processing) have achieved fame due to their ability to be mass-produced. They are cheap but many plastic-based, meaning that when discarded, they live on for billions of years.
What if clothes could have a life beyond your wardrobe?
Innovative scientists at Bolt Threads and MycoWorks have explored this idea, creating a mushroom-based fabric called Mycelium. Though alien-sounding and a little bit gross, these fungi spores can be grown anywhere with minimal amounts of water to form clothing pieces without the need for sewing or altering. Once used, this material decomposes, releasing digestive enzymes and restoring nutrients back to the earth.
Jellyfish and Mycelium are only the beginning. Stella McCartney has explored the use of Micro-silk to fashion dresses; silk produced by genetically modified yeast cells. Despite its biodegradable nature, silk production involves exterminating billions of worms and has received concerns about inhumane child labour.
In 2019, H&M launched cowboy boots and a leather jacket composed of pineapple leather. Eco-friendly fibres have also been made from: algae, loti and cacti, remodelling fashion into something out of a sci-fi movie. With substantial technological advancements cheapening their use, we may find these materials become mainstream and available in affordable stores. But is this what we, as consumers, really want?
Do we need to wear coats made from jellyfish?
Fashion is inherently unsustainable, and this is becoming more commonly recognised. Over the last three years, the second-hand garments market has grown 21 times faster than the regular retail market. Thrift shopping is not only now trendy but becoming the new norm. Yet, although this behaviour appears sustainable, it is still a capitalistic activity focused primarily on sales. As the famous trendwatcher, Lidewij Edelkoor asserts:
“The system is seriously ill. Seriously, seriously ill. The overconsumption is leading to neglect, and there is no fantasy about fashion anymore, because we don’t give enough care to the making of clothes.”
Finding new methods of consumption could act as a remedy for this sickness, such as renting garments instead of owning them or marketing the importance of having less. Unfortunately, human behaviour is difficult to change. Biobased materials provide us with a more sustainable solution while allowing us to satisfy our inner consumer…I welcome you to the Biological Age of Fashion. An age where clothes are constructed from nature and for nature. I’ll have that jellyfish coat in black, please.
I guess the question is not whether we want to begin adopting jellyfish as a standard material but whether or not we have the choice.
By Natasha Fulton