Nature’s Secrets

Can fashions be environmentally sustainable?

July 14, 2013 

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.”

John Cage

music theorist

I own a backpack with its own solar array. When traipsing around in remote Amazon jungles, I can charge my laptop or cellphone from sunlight. This backpack gets more attention in airport security than any amount of liquids or gels and has the benefit of inspiring a teachable moment with many fellow travelers about the importance of sustainable energy. It also provides me, as a scientist, a fashion statement that conveys my passion for clean energy. At a global scale, Americans consume a disproportionate amount of energy, so efforts to seek sustainable and clean sources are paramount.

What about combining those two economic forces of fashion design and energy production into an economic solution? Several entrepreneurial companies are doing just that. In addition to solar-powered backpacks, what about power-generating Wellington boots, where heat from your feet charges your cellphone? British communications company, Orange, is collaborating with an energy group called GotWind to create such outdoor footwear. Another British inventor, Elias Stores, is developing a flexible fiber that is both piezoelectric (creates energy from movement) and photovoltaic (collects energy from the sun). So-called piezoelectric fibers could someday allow consumers to create energy from movement.

Many designers are embracing sustainability by becoming more conscious about recycling fabrics – in North Carolina, Raleigh Denim combines a great fashion look with an efficient use of fabrics; and New Zealand designer Holly McQuillen is committed to “zero-waste” patterns for her clothing design.

Not only is the efficient use of fabric important in clothing production, but the materials are important as well. The Germans have created a new fabric called Qmilch made entirely from milk that does not pass inspection for human consumption. Only 2 liters of water are required to create 1 kilogram of fiber using the protein casein (extracted from milk transformed into powder); in contrast, cotton requires enormous quantities of water for production.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiels is funding a startup company determined to produce artificial leather, without the large energy footprint of cattle. Many companies are turning to biodegradable fabrics – Puma’s new In-Cycle sneakers reportedly undergo 90 percent decomposition within six months of disposal.

In our world of limited natural resources, innovative clothing designs could be a win for the consumer, a win for our personal energy budgets, a win for the environment and a win for the economy.

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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