The Slow Fashion Start-Up Using Photosynthesis to Create Climate Positive Clothing

Image: Dian-Jen Lin wears the Euglena print photosynthesising jacket, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

From photosynthesising fabric coatings to zero-waste bacterial dyes, Post Carbon Lab blends alchemy and aesthetics into actively regenerative fashion. Eco-Age’s sustainable fashion and textile assistant speaks to co-founder Dian-Jen Lin to find out more.

Post Carbon Lab is a transdisciplinary design research studio that could play a key role in the positive future of fashion the planet so desperately needs.

The brainchild of Dian-Jen (DJ) Lin and Hannes Hulstaert, the start-up is their answer to the familiar question faced by many of today’s designers: how can I design ‘stuff’ for a positive future when it’s this exact same ‘stuff’ that jeopardises it? 

Harnessing the power of science to create climate positive clothing certainly seems like a good place to start. The creation of photosynthesising textile coatings is just one of the many futuristic developments underway at Post Carbon Lab, allowing garments to be coated with a living layer of photosynthetic microorganisms that rid the air of harmful CO2 pollution through daily wear. 

Could actively regenerative initiatives like this redefine the purpose of fashion in an oversaturated consumerist landscape? We caught up with DJ for a deep dive into post-carbon design, and some of the innovations being piloted by the studio.

Images: Microscopic view of the Photosynthes Coating, Photosynthesis coating applied onto the Euglena print jacket, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

What was your inspiration for starting Post Carbon Lab? 

Coming from design backgrounds, we often question the purpose of our own creations — why continue to design and make in a stuff-saturated world? We find it tremendously difficult to justify the act of making something in an era of climate emergency because, ultimately, we have to take something that is directly or indirectly derived from nature and yet the process and the result are not always benign or beneficial to nature. So why make or design at all? 

Post Carbon Lab is established to reflect our nucleus of regenerative sustainability and dignity. With such values at the core of our practice, we noticed that plenty of the existing systems and infrastructures have become unfitted and almost obsolete for the futures that we envision. ‘Post carbon’ refers to ‘post-carbon-emission’ – meaning that we design for a world in which we have moved beyond our high carbon dependence, building infrastructures and policies that ensure no end-users have to worry about carbon footprints anymore because those design decisions and calculations are cleverly engineered and holistically assessed prior to their implementation.

This is why we are a laboratory, a testing ground, for not just bio-manufacturing, design and fashion but also to explore alternative forms of existence in better ecological, economic, cultural and societal contexts that we hope to nourish. 

Image: Regenerative silk with the Photosynthesis coating, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

What does it mean for a fabric to be climate positive? 

To assess whether a fabric is climate positive or not, we need to consider the footprint throughout the potential life cycles of the fabric holistically. The first step is to look at where the fibres are from and separate them into three categories: plant-derived, animal-derived and synthetics. 

Generally speaking, for plant-based fibres, the only time where carbon dioxide is actively absorbed from the atmosphere is during the growth period before harvest. In the case of an herbivore-derived fibre, such as wool and silk, its carbon sequestration period would be before the plants have been consumed by the animals. Afterwards, from spinning, dyeing, weaving/knitting, distribution, laundering to the end of life, every step only contributes to a greater carbon footprint. in the life cycle of synthetic fibres, which account for more than 60% of the fibre market, there is no climate positivity input at all. In any case, the truth is that if we choose not to use these plants for fibre production, we can prolong their carbon sequestration period. 

Images: Climate positive organic cotton tote bag coated with photosynthetic microorganisms, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

Can you tell us some more about the Photosynthesis Coating, and how it works? 

It’s just photosynthesis as we know it, with the help of photosynthetic microorganisms that we barely even notice or acknowledge. These microorganisms already create 70-80% of the oxygen we inhale through active photosynthesis. They take in atmospheric carbon dioxide, harnessing the light energy and water to convert carbon into glucose for the subsistence of the microorganisms while emitting oxygen as the waste product. 

Through the microbiological process of the coating, we aim to give finished textiles, garments or products an extra input of climate positivity during not just the production but also the user phase. We devised this coating in response to the lack of climate positivity input within the life cycles of the objects around us. One interesting thing is that it can be applied to a wide range of textile-based products made from both natural and synthetic fibres. 

For now, we still need to monitor more user cases of care maintenance and conduct a full life cycle analysis to conclude that textiles treated with our processes are absolutely climate positive. However, Photosynthesis Coating is the only treatment that presents the potential for textiles to not just mitigate and offset the overall carbon footprint but also contribute positively towards the climate during both the production and user phase.

Images: Bacterial pigment dyes minimise wastewater by allowing colour microbes to be woven into textiles, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

How could this technology shift the future of the fashion industry in a more positive direction?

Everyone in modern society wears clothes and thus engages with textiles in one way or another. When the Photosynthesis Coating is employed at a large scale, we are looking at amplified and accelerated carbon sequestration without the laborious efforts involved in tree-planting. Optimistically speaking, we may slow down (and even reverse) climate change if employed strategically and carefully, but we are still working on longitudinal studies to grasp the full scope of such applications.

The superpower of these microorganisms is one of the reasons that we exist and thrive today, they have terraformed Earth before the dawn of humanity and they are our beacon of hope for a post-carbon economy. There have also been debates about such applications in astrobiology as frontline terraformers on other planets. Though this starts to sound a bit like science fiction, scientists and space agencies are working hard to turn these fantasies into realities. 

Images: Bacterial pigmented drape front top, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

Why is it so important to you for fashion to be not just sustainable, but have an actively positive impact on the planet? 

Currently, the fashion industry alone accounts for 10% of all carbon emission and 20% of global water pollution. Other societal and cultural issues, such as inhumane working conditions, breadline insecurity, wage disparity, child labour and modern slavery are also serious offences that should never have existed in the first place. However, without the environment and a healthy climate, nobody lives — nothing lives. 

We tend to conveniently forget the silent ones that are suffering and dying without our acknowledgement. From the COVID-19 crisis, we learned two things: one, nature is healing and thriving even when we just choose to do nothing; two, garment workers and factories are deemed as mere cost centres and the life securities of these people are not necessarily the priorities of fashion brands. In the post-coronavirus world, fashion brands need to have well-grounded reasons for their existence than just providing nice designs and clothes (while exploiting natural resources and vulnerable people).

The only pathway for fashion to exist in this world is to not only fulfil an environmental and social baseline but also bring about positive impacts to regenerate and replenish the ecosystem as well as empower the marginalised and the voiceless. Ultimately, fashion businesses need to prove that the world is not better off without them. 

Image: Post Carbon Lab founders Dian-Jen (DJ) Lin and Hannes Hulstaert, Credit: Post Carbon Lab

How would you like to scale your creations up in the future? 

It has been a long and slow process for us to build an unprecedented production system from scratch while adhering to our sourcing policies and studio ethos. As a tiny start-up, we have access to limited funding and resources to allocate towards our upscale research and development, but we are planning to scale up to batch production to accommodate more volumes by the end of 2020. 

We believe that innovations should not stay behind closed doors, which is why we have adopted an open innovation operation model to collaborate with any interested designer, brand, business or individual to experience sustainable innovations first-hand while investigating the care and maintenance of different user scenarios. While we charge only the material and operation cost without the layer of profit, we hope to lower the threshold of accessing sustainable innovations and open the door of research and laboratory through cross-disciplinary collaborations. Since we would like to conduct longitudinal research on the textiles treated with our processes, we ask our collaborators to contribute their observations and user data back to our database for us to improve the services. 

We know it is hard to live sustainably and make mindful and conscious decisions, which is why we need more stakeholders on board to change the commercial environment together. For the next step, we would like to collaborate with influential players within the fashion industry to facilitate the sustainability movement with a top- down approach as well as continue to foster the eco-conscious, sustainability-savvy and open-minded community we have built through grass-roots collaborations.