How can biology help enhance sustainable textile design?
Reported by Jack Byrne, Journal Editor at Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE)
London-based professor, Dr Veronika Kapsali, delivered CSaP’s final Future Leaders Fellows seminar of the year to discuss how biology can show us how to design materials for resource efficiency, longevity, and recovery (RELR). As a researcher in the emerging field of biomimetic textiles, and Professor of Materials Technology at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (UAL), Dr Kapsali presented her work on an AHRC-funded initiative she leads - Bio-Inspired Textiles (BIT) - that aims to identify the potential for nature-inspired design in textile development.
Initiated in response to the growing need to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption), BIT aims to enhance the sustainability and circularity of current textile design processes.
What is bio-inspired design and why is it so important for sustainability?
Bio-inspired design draws lessons from biology to inform design in the man-made sphere. Today, strands of biomimetic design are found in many rapidly growing, high-tech sectors, including in the field of optics, robotics, material science, and renewables, among others.
On the issue of sustainability, Dr Kapsali continued by stating that much of the current focus of the textile industry’s decarbonisation efforts centre primarily on improving material choice - that is to say, choosing more sustainable materials - and increased textile reuse and recycling. While Dr Kapsali acknowledges that such avenues are critically important for the industry achieving its emissions reduction targets, she nonetheless believes that current approaches fail to acknowledge another, crucially important, and currently underexplored avenue: textile design.
…what we're seeing as part of this research is that design has more agency and can contribute towards these sustainability pillars beyond just material choice.
Biomimetics in practice: the BIT effect
Dr Kapsali illustrates the importance of bio-inspired design with an example from the BIT research initiative she leads. Here, a study participant, a fashion designer, was assessing gradient structures - of composition, property, and architecture - in biology, which are highly efficient at dissipating the energy associated with impact. In a horse’s keratinised hoof, for example, hydration gradients have been shown to alter the mechanical properties of the hoof, leading to enhanced energy dissipation and ultimately to reduced impact-associated damage to the surrounding tissue. In this case, the participant implemented a gradient formation of wool fibres using a traditional wet felting technique to engineer localised variations of stiffness that allowed bending and folding at strategic locations to enable the creation of a 100% non-woven, seamless wool garment. According to Dr Kapsali, a key finding of the BIT study was that participants were able to both demonstrate and embody resource recovery, efficiency, and longevity (RELR) in their design processes. The industry’s pathway towards net zero lies, at least in part, in improved understanding of the potential of bio-inspired design, says Dr Kapsali.
Following her presentation, the seminar proceeded to an insightful and vibrant discussion involving academics, government officials, venture capitalists, and policy professionals, among others. The discussion explored two main areas: considerations for government policymakers and the sustainability-profit conflict.
One participant asked: how can the principles of bio-inspired design in textile manufacturing be harnessed by the government to achieve its strategic goals for a post-Brexit Britain? Dr Kapsali stated that, in terms of industrial strategy, there is both space for improvement and a need for improvement, if the UK is to meet its long-term emissions reduction targets. She explained that the textile industry, generally speaking, must experience somewhat of a renaissance. In her view, textiles sit at the boundaries of what is considered “interesting”. Dr Kapsali’s research aims to revitalise the field of textile design and to offer a fresh perspective on the current practice of the textile industry.
On the issue of the sustainability-profit conflict, one participant stated that if these principles are to be adopted by textile manufacturers, they must not compromise the current working business model, which is to maximise profits. Failure to comply with this model, the participant asserts, will ultimately “prevent widespread adoption of these principles”. Dr Kapsali does not dispute this fact. While it is true, she admits, that businesses benefit from a high degree of turnover as it ensures a recurring stream of customers, she disputes the idea that “longevity”, in the context of her line of enquiry, extends unnecessary beyond the lifespan of products. Dr Kapsali’s approach aims to match textile lifespan with the intended lifespan of the finished product. The conversation then naturally proceeded to the issue of “greenwashing” - the deceptive use of marketing by organisations to persuade the public that a product or service is environmentally sustainable - in the textile industry, which is growing in prevalence and intensity in several sectors. Dr Kapsali appears hopeful, however, that bio-inspired design, embodying the principles of RELR, can find home and practice in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). They “have the ability to pioneer higher value”, she said.
..the UK potentially is a good test ground for this because the majority of our fashion and textile industries are SME based…. they're smaller companies that have the agility to test out new products and really pioneer higher value.
The seminar made clear that current manufacturing methods fail to appreciate the importance of design to produce sustainable textiles. According to one participant, in terms of enacting policy changes, the benefits of biomimetic design in textile manufacturing should be contextualised to create employment opportunities and reduce emissions - issues of central importance to policymakers.
The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme supports talented people in universities, businesses, and other research and innovation environments. It also allows universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators or to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas. Learn more here.
Image Credit: Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash
Mr Jack Byrne
Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE)
Dr Veronika Kapsali
University of the Arts, London (UAL)