This story appears in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
If today’s sustainability mantra is “from farm to fork,” tomorrow’s could be “from farm to fashion.” That’s because, for a growing cadre of eco-minded designers, food waste is the new black.
Sacha Laurin’s medium of choice is the bacterial “colony” left after brewing the tart, fermented tea known as kombucha. Once dried, the material becomes a rather pungent faux leather, which the California designer sews into haute couture dresses, jackets, skirts, and more. In Sicily, a start-up is working with discarded citrus peels, seeds, and other juicing by-products to produce a silky yarn. And a London company is helping support Filipino pineapple farmers by turning the plants’ unused leaves into a textile that can be crafted into shoes, bags, and laptop computer cases.
More than a billion tons of food is lost or wasted every year globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, some of it the result of large-scale production. This excess offers an opportunity to create a range of sustainable fabrics, says University of Leeds textile chemist Richard Blackburn, such as a renewable polyester from the sugar in surplus crops, including corn.
Kombucha apparel is not yet commercially available. But it is scientifically viable, says Australian biochemist Peter Musk, who oversees college art students working with the tea. If they have anything to do with it, the drink could one day be coming to a closet near you.