Your clothes can breathe. Interview with Post Carbon Lab on living, algae-containing, fabrics.
This is a transcript of the podcast interview recorded for Sustainability Explored on 27 of February 2020.
This is Season 2 Episode 22.
You can listen to it here, or join on any of your favorite podcast platforms.
Anna: [00:00:07] Hi, and welcome to Sustainability Explored — a podcast on sustainability and innovation in business and economy, a safe and friendly place to learn more about sustainability across industries.
My name is Anna and I’m your podcast host.
Every week I invite one professional in the field to share groundbreaking ideas on sustainability in a certain sphere, shed light on complicated concepts, and explore them as deep as possible with me.
Today is Thursday and that means a new episode is released on this podcast. You’re listening to episode #22, season 2.
And you’re about to hear some interesting thoughts about an innovative solution on algae-containing textile from a UK-based startup called Post Carbon Lab.
Dian-Jen is a trans-disciplinary designer, with the academic rigor of a researcher, the analytical rationality of the scientist, and the aesthetic sensitivity of an artist. With over eight years of professional experience, she has worked across design research, material research, costume, fashion, and graphic design, system design, and even filmmaking.
The philosophy that has been pushing her trajectory towards improving the status quo by active engagement and interdisciplinary collaboration is “Design should always be drenched in sustainability and dignity”.
Join us for this exciting audio journey and let’s get it started.
[00:02:00] Hi, my guest today is Post Carbon Lab and one of the co-founders, Dian-Jen Lin. The second co-founder is a busy a little bit today, he will not join the call. His name is Hannes Hulstaert.
So, Post Carbon Lab, a little bit of pre-story. I came across an article on The Guardian on sustainable fashion brands or startups, new companies that will change the world very soon, and are helping to tackle climate change.
I invited Dian-Jen or DJ as she calls herself, D&J for the first letters of the name itself to tell me more about the technology, about her views on the sustainable fashion, on the future that awaits us.
Very happy to have you today.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:02:59] Thank you for inviting me.
Anna: [00:03:00] And extremely excited and intrigued already to hear more about what you have to share today with me and the listeners of Sustainability Explored.
Let’s start. Could you tell me more about the technology? What I know and what The Guardian briefly shared with me is that you are working on the new textile kind of, correct me if I’m wrong on the terms, that is made of algae.
What exactly did you come up in your research with and what is it?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:03:37] It’s actually not a new material and we don’t frame ourselves as a new textile per se. We see ourselves more like a service provider, meaning that we help people to treat their textiles without processes.
The processing, the treatment, we call it a photosynthesis coating, meaning that we using a living layer of photosynthetic microorganisms, which will employ either algae or cyanobacteria to form a living layer on top of most sort of porous fibrous textiles.
And then we’re able to embed these microbes on the textile surface to create and then subsist them on top of these textiles. Then they’re able to conduct photosynthesis during the user phase.
That’s the kind of the whole idea and how the textiles that have undergone our process works.
Anna: [00:04:44] Okay. Does it mean…am I correct to say that this algae level, like layer, is integrated on top of the regular textile?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:04:57] Yes, integrated, intertwined, or sort of like embedded. Or sort of grown into the textiles. That’s kind of the way we approach it. But there are multiple ways that we can undergo the process and the details would be depending on how each collaborator or client would be interested in pursuing how the look of the textiles would look like.
Anna: [00:05:28] You mentioned that the brands and the clients. Who is your client? And who is potentially interested in this technology?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:05:38] I’m actually not really allowed to sort of flag, I’m not allowed to disclose the brand name because we’ve signed NDAs, and then they would like to sort of keep the contents and the names away from publicity until the project is ready to be launched.
That’s why for the interview that we did with The Guardian we also kept it sort of vague. But the ones I can disclose are potentially small brands. I’m not sure you would know.
They are mostly like European fashion brands that we’re working with. And then some interests from the automotive industry. And then some people also working in interior design, working in product design, working in furniture, home wear, or like shoes, accessories that get contacted us, you know, men’s wear/ women’s wear.
And we’ve been working on either some simple testing or are doing some preliminary trials with them to see what’s the best way to produce pieces with them.
Anna: [00:06:53] What exactly does the technology do in terms of climate change? I assume, purification of air.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:07:01] Oh, I think, when you say purification of air is kind of an interesting… When in The Guardian article it says, it would clean up the air and clean up the air is in the premise. And it is set on the premise that we deem carbon dioxide as pollution, which is actually sometimes true because when the ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere becomes too concentrated, there is a chance that it becomes, actually, dangerous to humans, or to humans being in the environment.
Carbon dioxide can be deemed as a source of air pollution.
But essentially what it does through photosynthesis, it just absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide and converts the carbon in carbon dioxide into glucose or sugar. And then emits fresh oxygen as a waste product, meaning that it’s sequestering the carbon from carbon dioxide, which is a major cause of global warming.
In a simpler term to explain, this is indeed a sort of like cleaning the air, but it’s not necessarily working, I would say nitrous oxides. I mean, we’re working on one, a sort of a new process that is able to actually tackle air pollution and then sort of convert like nitrogen-sourced air pollutants into nutrients for these organisms.
But what we have now at the moment is purely sort of working with carbon dioxide and not nitrogen or sulfur or worse sort of the waste particles generated from combusting engines from vehicles. It’s not necessarily that yet.
But yeah, it’s mostly actually carbon dioxide, which is why we talk about climate change, climate emergency.
I hope that explains.
Anna: [00:09:22] A little bit, but I still have more questions :) As far as I understand this algae level, layer, sorry, I keep saying level because I see it in levels like fabric, I don’t know, pieces of plastic. Whatever. Threads. And then algae. These algae had to be, to stay a living… it says a living matter, right?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:09:50] Yes. And which means if you don’t take care of it, it will eventually die.
Anna: [00:09:55] Right. It has to have some light source always coming in? Right?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:10:03] It’s actually not as intense as you could imagine. I’m not sure how light condition is like in Ukraine, in the city you’re staying. In London, it’s actually quite gloomy all the time.
And we have probably like one week of summer who is just like genuinely hot. But then the rest of the day, and most of the time of the year is quite gloomy and yes, there is occasional sunlight. But that is not sort of like major or intense.
And the organisms that we have picked are sourced locally in London, and we basically train them as well to let them accommodate better to either the indoor environment, because we often, our clients would more likely to store these pieces, treated pieces, indoor.
We basically trained them to be able to become more suitable to the indoor environment, meaning that it’s got red low light intensity. And then also like doesn’t have that height of humidity concentration. So, we basically pick organisms that are most suitable in this environment.
And then, by giving them…You’re probably thinking like natural light you have to put in under sunlight or in the balcony.
Anna: [00:11:32] Definitely not in the wardrobe. Not in the closed, confined space.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:11:35] Definitely not. Definitely not in the wardrobe. It can survive from a domestic light: you’re working on your laptop maybe all the time, or if you’re doing chores in the house and you have some LED lights on. These lights are perfectly fine for the survival of these organisms and for the later, of course.
And then, apart from that, you do have to mist or sprinkle it from time to time. Depending on the humidity of your environment, you do have to…I mean, I don’t know how the weather is like in your city, but in…
Anna: [00:12:15] If you can see — also gloomy.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:12:18] Okay.
Anna: [00:12:19] Pretty much London. I would like to think it’s like in London.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:12:23] Perhaps that. Well, in London it also rains quite a lot. I don’t know, maybe like three days out of five days is always raining. In that case, the humidity in the air is quite high, meaning that they will be able to survive from that humidity.
But the way that I found the best to care for it is to put your pieces, treated pieces in the bathroom after you’ve showered. Because it has really high sort of humidity, the steam, and shower coming in. And you just put it there overnight and then the next day you can wear it as usual.
It’s not going to stay wet, but you can see that the color showing that it’s really happy.
Anna: [00:13:11] Speaking of color. Which color the garments are? Mostly green? Or you play with color? How does it work?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:13:22] At the moment, all the organisms that we’ve adopted for the photosynthesis coating process are green, but it has still quite a big range of green, ranging from sort of dark, black, almost like blackish green to more vivid, a bit more forest, kind of like woody green, to grass-green, sort of very vibrant, as if it’s “the sun shining on the grass” kind of grass- green.
There’s also a seafoam green, meaning like bluish-green or more sort of orangish-green.
Then there’s also yellowish-green and sort of in a warmer tone, and it goes into something like a brownish orange, red kind of green.
We have a quite wide range of greenness. And then this is in the case that the cultures… you’re taking care of the coatings and the proper way, and they’re happy.
And in the case that they’re actually not happy, that they need your love or attention, they would actually transition to a different color, meaning it could be purple or orange or almost red or yellow or white, or just transparent, the color would disappear.
It’s an element that we communicate. We make sure to tell our collaborators about these first. And then they decide whether it’s an interesting effect for them to play with it or not. But most of the time, people from the industry are not necessarily keen on the color change factor. Then we add in some pigments, also derived from these organisms, which we grow and then farming and then extract them ourselves to sort of suppress the color-changing factor.
That’s the process. Because we do have to work with the industry and I mean, we’re also piloting. The industry is trying to be sustainable and we’re trying to be sort of as scalable or as sort of applicable for them as much as possible.
It’s kind of trying to find that sweet balance between these two practices.
Anna: [00:15:44] The shades of green when they did the variations in green, do they mean different species of cyanobacteria? For the listeners: it’s the correct scientific name of the algae.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:16:01] Actually we employ both algae and cyanobacteria. And yes it means we either employ different species or it could potentially mean that there are ways of sort of manipulating the colors through the way you culture them or through the environment that you’ve been exposing them to.
So, there are several ways to achieve that sort of different coloration shade. But I mean, mainly we still remain in the green shade for photosynthesis coating.
And if you are thinking “I’m not actually a big fan of green and I’m not a big fan of living things”, we also do bacterial pigment dye, which is a pretty commercially ready because the finished piece can be treated like normal garments, washable, ironable, etc. It then works in the purple shade and we are developing other colors as well.
Anna: [00:17:09] So, you’re growing them in the lab? How did you come up with the idea? And maybe which other materials did you experiment with before you ended up using algae and cyanobacteria?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:17:21] Oh, as in bio, as in fabric materials, or as in the organisms that we pick?
Anna: [00:17:31] As a matter, as a wearable material… How did you come up with the idea that, let’s try to use living matter for our clothing?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:17:42] The textile substrates that you’re asking we’ve basically worked with the conventional type of textiles, meaning like wool, linen, cotton, silk, hemp, polyester synthetics, nylon, spandex. That wide range of textiles, five compositions that we come across on a daily basis, that we’ve tried out these materials.
And of course, because we employ a microbiological process and these processes end up rendering sorts of organic results, meaning that we don’t produce like a standardized look.
Every single time, every single batch, every single piece of material can present a different outlook. In terms of how the microbes prefer to be distributed on this piece of textile can be different from another piece of textile. Despite the fact that they stay from a hundred percent parts, for instance.
Within our process, it’s really important to invite our collaborators to let us test with their samples first. And we basically produced like a tailored result for them to reflect on later on. Meaning like, if I were to prepare a set of samples and those samples might not be so relevant to you per se, because, they could still look different if it’s on say, your textiles.
And we prefer to get the samples from our clients or collaborators, and then we treat it so that they know exactly how your textiles (in what’s of timeframe and what kind of color scheme and what sort of patterns distribution) can look like.
Anna: [00:19:56] Last week I had an episode interview on sustainable fashion with Claudia Szerakowski, she’s a circular fashion consultant. And we spoke about pricing.
If a regular H&M (or name another brand) t-shirt costs five bucks, the consumerism approach of ours as clients: we buy it fast, we consume it fast and we throw it away fast.
Your technology, if I understood you correctly, it’s not yet fully commercially available. But do you have any idea about the pricing? Because the technology sounds very interesting. Does the price bite?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:20:43] If you’re comparing us with H&M I don’t think we’re in the same scheme, definitely yet. The reason that we’re sitting here talking about this is that we want to explore sustainability. And you just brought up H&M. And I think the sort of scale of consumption and production that H&M is currently doing is not sustainable in the beginning at all.
And the other pathologic thing behind this whole sort of fast fashion and cheap fashion obsession is that we are expecting …because we’re spoiled by Primark, H&M, Zara, thinking that a t-shirt can only be five bucks.
But the truth is that if you came from a fashion design background, anybody would be able to know that if we ourselves go to a fabric shop, buy the textiles, sell the textiles, and then, you know, finish all the things and an even do like a pattern, whatever, that is going to cost more than five bucks, for instance, five pounds, whatever — it’s not the cost on sale t-shirts that you brought up.
On sort of anything that we see in the store is not actually reflecting the actual cost in it at all. People of the world and nature all over the world are taking the invisible cost. For our pricing, we’re already only charging the material cost, but of course, it’s still going to be more than five pounds.
So, there’s that sort of talk, in scale. If we’re talking about global distribution, distributing sweatshops are like the workloads to sweatshops in developing countries and paying these people really poorly. Then, you know, what’s the point?
Anna: [00:22:42] Right. It’s not sustainable. At all.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:22:45] It’s not sustainable and ethical at all. It’s exploiting people in developing countries so that we can have cheap things that we wear once and throw away. And that’s not where we want to come in either. I mean, if you are, if anybody is expecting to buy photosynthetic t-shirts in a few years’ time with only five pounds, I think this whole conversation is sort of going to be a greenwashing thing.
We’re saying like we’re trying to save the world and we’re hiring, I don’t know, people in developing countries and then we’re paying them really poorly wage so that you can feel that you’re justified to be saving the climate with only five pounds. Is that the right conversation to have, actually?
Anna: [00:23:30] Not at all.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:23:31] I think that’s entirely wrong. I mean, at the moment we’re still piloting, meaning that we are only charging the material costs that we employ to sort of treat your textiles or treat your garment pieces.
So we’re trying to lower the threshold of sustainable innovations because often you can hear something really cool coming up, say, other algae related innovations, they’re trying to make fibers from algae and then use that to spin or to weave new textiles.
And then these material innovations are really important, but then they take a really, really, really long time to develop. And not just that they also don’t deal with anything that’s already existing. And the most sustainable thing you can have is not the next climate positive t-shirt. No! It’s what you already have!
That’s the most sustainable thing you can have, meaning to not buy anything new, meaning to buy as much secondhand as possible. And the reason that we set up as a service provider is to sort of tackle that part in the sustainability talk because people and companies, capitalism, the market wants us to consume as many new things as possible.
A lot of us have a lot of things in our wardrobe already and maybe we wear, you know, 5 out of 20 things every week. And we sort of want to position ourselves a bit more different in this whole sustainability, new material, innovation kind of talk. We want to tackle what’s already there and then to help people that still have to need to produce new things and make those things more sustainable.
And also beyond that, we want to make things not just sustainable, but to give this thing that has to exist or that is already existing another ecological purpose. That is why we started the photosynthesis coating.
Anna [00:25:38] When you say service providers that you, as a Post Carbon Lab, are service providers, what do you mean by that? I am a little bit confused.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:25:50] At the moment, we’re also exploring different ways of funding ourselves. I don’t know if you’re familiar with how startups work. But if you’re trying to start a company, and you’re trying to gather as much funding so you can buy equipment, buy the materials, hire offices and hire people, for instance.
But then a lot of time before you have the people come in, equipment coming in, you are still not ready to produce anything, to sell whatever in the first time. Like, the next instant, meaning that there’s a gap of the funding coming in and the things that you need to have to pay for already to actually start generating revenue.
A lot of the startups in our stage choose to work with a minimum viable product. Like a tote bag or like a badge or like a small cup or something that’s easy, small, and cheap, so that they can start making these products to bring in revenue ready. And this is a very common approach when people try to generate revenue to be able to kickstart their company.
In that sense, meaning we will have to start selling new products… you know, people already have cups, people already have coasters. People already have bags or tote bags, for instance. And the fact that if we were to take the routes that no more startups would take, meaning that we have to produce more.
We have to produce things that actually people might already have, and it just comes with the new twist or new pack, or they buy it as a gift, as a novelty gift to give to other people. But this whole thing is still promoting consumption, promoting them to have things that they don’t necessarily need, but they kind of want.
Anna: [00:28:06] That’s the feeling I get, you know. I’m like: what’s the price? What’s the price? Well, let’s say in two years you have this commercially available. How much it will cost to me on my individual level? Maybe I don’t need a new, new thing, but it sounds so appealing. I’m the most sustainable person in terms of the wardrobe that I know I can wear things for 10 years.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:28:30] Oh, definitely. Definitely. I mean, your question is what the price would be in two years’ time? I’m not sure. I won’t be able to tell you that, to be honest.
If we were to scale up, we are also not going to be able to accommodate worldwide, but we do plan to set up hubs everywhere in the world.
You’re in Ukraine, maybe we can still serve you through London. I mean, we probably will do some calculation in terms of what’s the best way to control the carbon footprint so it’s justified.
We’ve got inquiries from Australia, from Asia, from the United States.
And at the pace that we’re growing now, we can potentially accommodate these demands at a later date, but not now. And I really can’t tell you what price would be in that time.
Of course, we’re trying to aim to be competitive pricing, something that people can afford. At the moment, we’re just doing these pilots and you can also afford as well. The sample testing, we charged 30+ pounds.
Depending on how much… if you send me, I don’t know, like of a meter, and if you sent me like five centimeters, of course, would be different pricing. It would be like 30, maybe like around 30 pounds to 90 pounds that we charge. And then you can already work with those materials. And this is the price we’re charging now as a small company.
Because we’re trying to encourage people to take part so we can gather more feedback. On how they treat, how our processes have worked with their individual environment.
Meaning, say, you in Ukraine, your weather, climate condition, your light condition can be different from London. And also, not just the environment will factor, but also the care and emotional level.
We want to collect not just sort of quantitative, but also qualitative data on how people actually interact with these materials that have been treated. You know, if they actually bother to take care of them or on average how long it takes for average consumers who kill our coating, for instance.
We need to get more and more data on this end. So, then we can actually improve our research and the performance to be able at a more commercially ready level like you said. I hope that makes sense.
Anna: [00:31:27] It does. Who are you by the background? Is it fashion, or biology, or engineering? I’m very curious to know.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:31:36] I came from a fashion design background. And then I had years of experience working in the fashion industry and it just didn’t work out for me at all. I hated the environment, and the working. People are nice, but the environment is very stressful.
Especially before runway shows and fashion weeks. You can stay in the studio until five and then the next day you have to go in and like, I don’t know, eight again. So, you basically sleep in the office for three hours, for instance.
And you’re not necessarily being paid more. Because you’re expected to work more because there’s more workload and not more people coming in for instance. And there are also times that’s like, you know, you actually visit the factories and you see what kind of condition they’re in.
We’ve all heard from these kinds of dark secrets of the fashion industry. Because the truth is that the fashion industry is very, very old. We working on very, very old systems, where slightly recently, the people are putting in more technological updates and trying to digitize things, but somebody, somewhere still has sew things.
We don’t have robots that are able to sew t-shirts yet. No, we still need people to sew it because garment making is laborious. It requires a lot of precision and requires lots of effort to take these little techniques: you know like you have to stretch it a little bit, sew the seam. While on the other seam, you have to shrink a little bit, or else the whole garment is not going to work.
And these things are really difficult to teach robots. Because robots are standardized. I think there are definitely companies working on doing that, but we’re definitely not at that stage yet.
So, I came from a fashion design background working in the fashion industry, and then I divested into all the other kinds of design realms. But I’ve always had an interest in sort of scientific projects. I’ve done scientific fairs back in high school. And we even won awards back then, but then I didn’t decide to pursue science further at the point.
And then after I studied a master’s degree doing fashion sustainability in London. Then I did the collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London, where I was able to learn more about the microbiological protocols, the nitty-gritty of the lab work involved. And then also say like the workflow, the health and safety standards, for instance.
And then that’s why I was able to discover this whole new world where microbiology and the microbes that we live with, that are so invisible, actually, have this really powerful mechanism that we can potentially apply to design, to fashion.
And then the disciplines start merging.
And that’s why we’re doing Post Carbon Lab, where we do both bacterial pigment dyeing and photosynthesis coating, and they both use microbiological processes.
Anna: [00:35:32] Extremely interesting to me.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:35:34] Thank you.
Anna: [00:35:35] We’re running out of time. We’re approaching the end of the interview. One last question. What’s your idea of the future of fashion?
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:35:46] I think the future of fashion needs to be better than what we have now, for sure. And from the rate that we can observe how fashion has changed over the past few years, we can see that people are taking an interest. People are asking a bit more questions in terms of who’s producing my garment and how sustainable are your materials, for instance.
But I think if we’re comparing to rates of how people are gaining awareness and then how fast our carbon emission is like skyrocketing every year. Every summer we’re having new high heat coming up. Every winter we’re having new snowstorms in the least expected places in time.
I think we’re basically kind of running out of time for the fashion industry to change. So, we definitely, for the future of fashion, we need something that can drastically change people’s behavior, drastically change the ecological input and output from the fashion industry. And then be able to regenerate or be able to replenish, be able to reverse the wrongdoings that it has accumulated from the past to the current time.
And if we don’t have things that fit into these three kinds of categories there’s no fashion industry anymore.
Anna: [00:37:18] I would add number four is the social aspect.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:37:23] Oh, definitely need the social aspects, but if we don’t have nature, if we don’t have the environment, there’s no social aspect either.
I’m just saying with the environment, we’re working on a really, really tight schedule. We have to reverse global warming within the next 10 to 12 years. And after we’ve reversed global warming, I mean, of course, it’s the best if we can have the social side of things, also go hand in hand. But for those to know nature, there’s no society to work with either. Is it?
Anna: [00:37:55] And there is no conversation, the conversation ends there.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:38:00] And there’s no fashion either. There’s no industry either. There’s just like men eat men or everybody digging tree roots, trying to survive, eating bugs, for instance.
I mean, it’s kind of a dark road if you think that far. And I’m not trying to be pessimistic. And we are doing this because we are trying to be climate optimists. We’re saying: “Despite, just put on a different kind of clothes” and you can still do your thing, but it alleviates your own carbon footprint a little bit. If you take care of it — good enough.
We’re asking the least from people already, I’m not asking you to plant trees, make donations, large donations to environmental organizations, or go to beach cleanups.
How many people do that? Right. But climate change is pressing and it’s urgent.
Anna: [00:38:55] And on this positive note, I wish all the best of success to Post Carbon Lab. I think with the right persistence and the right... I very much liked your philosophy, you know, today and our pre-conversation.
The philosophy of sustainability, of taking the right path of thinking also: “Okay. I produce this, but I’m also thinking about the carbon footprint of my logistics, of my supply chain. How am I going to ship to Australia?”
Very few people, even in the purely environmental businesses, because after all, it’s a business, even though at the startup stage at the moment, very few business people think of it further, you know, “What’s my supply chain. What’s my logistics. How am I going to ship it? Plain, train, bus on foot, you name it.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:39:51] I think it’s very, very vital if any new businesses coming up, they need to consider these things. I mean, not just on the environmental side, but consumers are getting more and more critical and more educated and more aware of these issues now.
So, if you’re unable to justify that, just because we have to make money to survive, then better business going to emerge. Better business models are going to emerge. And people that are pushing these boundaries are the ones that will be able to survive in this next coming time.
That’s how we see it. And we pushed ourselves with the harshest and most radical way that we can approach sustainability at the moment. That’s how I see it.
Anna: [00:40:39] I’m very, very, very happy to talk to you today. Thank you very much for being with me today. That was Sustainability Explored Episode #22. Oh my God, we are approaching the end of Season 2.
And that was Dian-Jen Lin from Post Carbon Lab. Thank you very much and have a good day.
Dian-Jen Lin: [00:41:06] Thank you too. Bye.
Anna: [00:41:08] Bye. Bye.
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Podcast host Anna Chashchyna
Episode guest Dian-Jen Lin
Transcript editor Anna Kharybina