The Science of Fashion

This Valentine’s day, whether you’re settled with a significant other, swiping on dating apps, or single in sweatpants, you’re probably going to post about it on social media. If you plan on posing with your boyfriend, best friends, or box of chocolates you’ll need a perfectly Instagram-able outfit. On a graduate student budget, fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Forever21, and Topshop are the go-to for recreating the looks of fashion accounts at a low price. However, it turns out that the small price tag on cheaply made garments comes with a huge environmental cost.

 

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Rack of Clothes. Image Credit Penn State via Flickr.

If you go through cheap clothes faster than a single girl goes through a box of chocolates on Valentine’s day, you’re not the only one—Americans threw out 10.5 tons of clothes in 2014, giving textiles one of the lowest recycling rates of any waste. Polyester and other cheap synthetic clothing discarded in landfills are not readily biodegradable and will outlast any relationship. But even splurging on real leather leggings for your galentine’s night downtown brings its own environmental and ethical dilemmas. In addition to controversial slaughterhouse conditions, the air and wastewater from leather tanneries contain chemicals that are toxic to aquatic life and crop soil, and are linked to cancer in humans.  Sticking to cotton jeans might not harm the animals, but irrigation to grow cotton in dry climates like Central Asia has nearly drained the Aral sea. For those expecting to be wearing a ring by the end of their valentine’s date, the unfair labor practices, habitat destruction, and pollution resulting from diamond mining might make you reconsider that princess cut stone.

 

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Shrinking Aral Sea (left 2014 and right 2000). Image Credit NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Photostraem via Flickr.

So, where can we find fashionable items with a less devastating environmental impact?  To answer that question, we need to turn our attention away from the mall and towards the lab—specifically the Future Tech Lab.

I found out about Future Tech Lab from none other than Instagram. Popular fashion blogger Miroslava Duma is CEO and founder of the worldwide collaboration of investors, scientists, and fashion designers who work together to create and implement more sustainable fashion practices.

An item from Salvatore Ferragamo’s collection of clothes made from orange peels would make the perfect Valentine’s gift. The Future Tech Lab company that makes the fabric, Orange Fiber, was founded in Italy where a reported 700,000 tons of citrus waste are produced each year from orange juice factories and other citrus industries. For her graduate dissertation, Orange Fabric founder Adriana Santanocito found a way to chemically extract the cellulose from orange peels in a form that can be made into yarn. Fabric made from this yarn has a soft, light feel reminiscent of silk. The production of this fabric not only uses less water than cotton, but makes use of a product that would otherwise go to waste. Other companies have also successfully made fabric from milk and soybean waste.

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Orange Peel. Image Credit Marc Bonica via Flickr.

You can soon wear those leather leggings on Galentine’s Day without upsetting your vegan friends thanks to companies like Modern Meadow. Scientists at Modern Meadow engineer yeast to make the basic building block of leather—collagen. Collagen is the protein found in skin that gives it elasticity and strength. The collagen the yeast churn out is purified, pressed into sheets, and tanned to turn it into a material that looks and feels like leather. Future Tech Lab company In Vitro Labs is also developing techniques for lab grown fur to expand the possibilities of cruelty-free outfits.

Leather and fur aren’t the only products being grown in labs. Scientists at Diamond Foundry are literally growing diamonds atom by atom in plasma reactors hotter than the surface of the sun. In these low pressure, high temperature reactors, the energy from microwaves are used to break down molecules of hydrogen and methane gas. The atoms then attach to a thin diamond sheet placed in the reactor to grow the diamond to a typical gem size. This process of chemical vapor deposition isn’t unique to Diamond Foundry, but their reactors operate at much hotter temperatures.  The ability to grow diamonds will make them more readily available, which will lower their cost and reduce the demand for unethically sourced diamonds. It might even inspire your boyfriend to propose on Valentine’s Day.

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Diamond. Image Credit: Fancy Diamond via Flickr.

Innovations in textile manufacturing like those from Fashion Tech Lab and other companies are on their way to making the fashion industry more sustainable and ethical. Even if you may not make good decisions in your relationships, you can at least make good decisions in your fashion choices.

About the Author

image01Megan Prescott is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Georgia. She dedicates her time outside the lab to serving as President of UGA’s Women in Science (WiSci) organization, volunteering with the Junior League of Athens, and continuously watching The Office on Netflix. She counts each day she leaves the lab without giving herself TB as a success. More from Megan Prescott.