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‘Design for Decomposition’ Launches in Hopes of Making ‘Bio-Compatible’ Fashion a Reality

·4-min read

Waste can be the basis for change, according to a new initiative launched Tuesday, aptly dubbed the “Design for Decomposition” initiative.

Through this multiyear effort, nonprofit The Biomimicry Institute (founded by biologist and author Janine Benyus) will look to pilot commercially ready decomposition technologies that convert wasted clothes and textiles into bio-compatible raw materials — or those that jibe with nature, and eventually, decompose.

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Wool and mycelium (mushroom leather) are some of today’s bio-compatible materials, and commercially ready technologies spanning bacterial, enzymatic and anaerobic digestive processes are on the decomposer’s agenda for change.

The Biomimicry Institute has looked at more than 130 different technologies in its preparation for pilot.

“The biggest question is, ‘How do we get fashion to operate as an ecosystem?, and it comes back to following the adaptive cycle that nature follows which is: primary production, consumption and decomposition. And what we have right now is missing that link,” ​​Beth Rattner, executive director for the Biomimicry Institute, told WWD. Rattner counts herself a systems thinker, or one who considers all parts of a whole. “When you go from consumption back to primary production without any sort of nourishment back to the system, and I mean planetary system — not just the fashion system — you’re missing a huge part of the triangle.”

The pilot will last two years, bringing on a number of regional partners, among them The Or Foundation, the Metabolic Institute, The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel Limited, the University of Ghana, Yale University, Accelerating Circularity, the Celery Design Collective and the California Product Stewardship Council. The Laudes Foundation has provided catalytic funding for the initial grant (totaling $2.8 million) to initiate pilots in Western Europe and Ghana.

While the Biomimicry Institute did not disclose launch partner companies, retailers and “major outdoor industry brands” are said to be in conversation.

The institute and its partners will explore decomposition options, demo of affordable and scalable solutions, the biology behind decomposition and the final proof of concept. The initiative stems from a report released last year on “The Nature of Fashion,” in which the Biomimicry Institute detailed the benefits of understanding bio-compatibility in fibers and moving to a regenerative fashion system.

Rattner’s hope is that this initiative is just the beginning.

“This two-year pilot isn’t going to change the whole system, it’s enough to be a proof-point for more investment [in decomposition] by brands, by waste management companies, by municipalities, etc. And that will be the win,” she said.

The pilot seeks to approach decomposition from all social and environmental angles.

Along with the Metabolic Institute, The Or Foundation, a nonprofit trying to shift the tide on waste equity in Ghana, will be a strategic partner alongside the Biomimicry Institute to advance equitable social solutions across the pilot. With some 15 million used garments from North America, the U.K. and Europe (dominated by polyester fast-fashion garments) flooding into countries like Ghana weekly, many — or about 40 percent of these clothes — end up in informal dumps, according to The Or Foundation.

“From a biomimetic perspective, we’re looking at true system design in the context of the natural world — and not giving way to some lax demands from industry to keep ‘business as usual,’” said Biomimicry Institute’s communications director Lex Amore. “At the end of the day, we don’t believe the current system of keeping fibers made from synthetic materials makes sense in rotation. It’s an illusion that we can control the technical loop, and in fact, it has been disproven with the many repercussions seen from microplastics. It’s going to scatter, and this initiative serves to do something about it.”

As for what sets this initiative apart, Amore said, “the difference from this pilot versus others is we are actually going to simultaneously address the problem of waste by integrating decomposition technologies that work, while also taking the harmful materials out of rotation to move into the systems we really want to design in.”

In a fashion industry pitted over overproduction, the pilot seeks to explore nature’s idea of abundance.

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