The fashion industry is accelerating climate change, generating between 4% and 10% of global climate emissions. But what if our clothes actively sucked carbon out of the air?
At this year’s Paris Fashion Week, a collaboration between design studio Post Carbon Lab, clothing label EgonLab, and French car company DS Automobiles explores this idea. The organizations unveiled a collection of garments that sequester carbon from the atmosphere. It’s an experimental project, but it points to how the fashion industry can take advantage of the many material innovations that are already on the market.
The four unisex pieces in the collection—a bomber jacket, trench coat, and two T-shirts—are covered in live algae that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, transforming it into oxygen. This coating was developed by London-based Post Carbon Lab and is made from natural ingredients like minerals and yeast-derived nutrients.
The clothes look and feel normal, but because there are living microorganisms on them, they need upkeep, such as daily misting and regular sun exposure. They need to be hand-washed with detergent that has a neutral pH, and stored in bright, airy spaces away from direct heat. The amount of carbon the garments capture depends on how healthy the algae remains. If they’re well cared for, they can sequester carbon indefinitely; they also tend to absorb more carbon in warmer conditions than cooler ones.
What’s radical about these garments is that they force us to completely reimagine our relationship with clothing. These pieces are alive and require tending, much like pets or plants. But they’re also a clear reminder that our clothes are intricately connected with nature: They are made from natural resources and their existence directly impacts the health of the planet. This algae coating is still very experimental and not ready for mass production, but it might inspire other designers and material scientists to develop clothes that have a symbiotic relationship with nature, rather than an exploitative one.
While it does take natural resources and carbon emissions to manufacture the clothes in this collection, they will also actively suck carbon from the atmosphere. Algae is remarkably effective at carbon sequestration, although creating the algae coating takes a long time—from 7 and 10 weeks, according to Post Carbon Lab. But in that time, the clothes remove 1.45 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, equivalent to the amount a 6-year-old oak tree would sequester in a year, according to Dezeen.
DS Automobiles, a luxury brand that spun out of car company Citroën, spearheaded this fashion collaboration to highlight its efforts to switch to electric and hybrid vehicles in an effort to reduce its emissions. The partnership also underscores how the auto and fashion industries can be aligned in their sustainability goals: Both are significant polluters and carbon emitters, so it makes sense to exchange ideas about how to move toward more sustainable practices.
We see this complementary approach at work in fashion brand von Holzhausen, founded by former car designer Vicki von Holzhausen. For years, she explored more sustainable alternatives to leathers in luxury car interiors. Since founding her fashion label, she’s used this knowledge to create high-end accessories that are made from a more eco-friendly leather alternative.