Rows of shallow plastic bins cover nearly every available space inside one of the textile and clothing labs in LeBaron Hall. The lab is really more of a “greenhouse,” but it is far different from the other greenhouses on the Iowa State University campus.

Instead of soil and seeds, each plastic bin contains a gel-like film consisting of cellulose fibers – a byproduct of kombucha tea – that feeds off a mixture of vinegar and sugar. The film is grown by using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Young-A Lee, an associate professor of apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State, says the properties of this SCOBY film are similar to leather once it’s harvested and dried, and can be used to make clothing, shoes or handbags.

“Fashion, to most people, is an ephemeral expression of culture, art, and technology manifesting itself in form. Fashion companies keep producing new materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfill consumers’ desire and needs,” Lee said. “Think about where these items eventually go. They will take tremendous underground spaces of Earth like other trash.”

The cellulose fiber reduces waste by creating a continuous cycle of reuse or regeneration, what is known as cradle-to-cradle design, Lee said. Even if clothing is recycled or repurposed, it still eventually ends up in the trash. Lee envisions a truly sustainable fabric or material that is biodegradable and goes back into the soil as a nutrient rather than taking up space in a landfill. And using the SCOBY gives new purpose to the tea byproduct, lessening the fashion industry’s dependence on nonrenewable materials.

Working with a novel fiber is not without its challenges. Lee and her research team received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop sustainable clothing and shoes from the harvested cellulosic fiber. They’ve conducted several tests to determine if the SCOBY-based cellulosic fiber is a viable alternative to leather for the fashion industry.

Despite the challenges, Lee says this is a necessary step forward. More is at stake than just the waste from cheap, disposable clothing. The chemicals used to make the synthetic materials and dye fabrics can contaminate the water and soil, Lee said. The fashion industry is working to do better, but consumers must also be on board.

“Socially conscious awareness from the consumer end plays a lot,” Lee said. “Employees who work in the fashion industry need to be fully educated on this movement. The industry cannot shift things at one time. It is all about people in this industry. The key is changing their values to consider the betterment of people and the planet in a long run, instead of focusing on a consumer’s short-coming interest.”

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