In the Future, We Will Wear Slime?

mostly sunken row boat in an algae-covered pond.
Emily MacDonald from Pexels

Have you bought new clothes this month? I have. In fact, the pandemic gave me far too many reasons to sit online and buy clothes that I’m just now having occasions to wear. My wardrobe is one of the big areas of my life that I don’t do great thinking about sustainability and climate change. I’ve eliminated plastic grocery bags and plastic packages, beauty and cleaning products. I’ve moved away from chemicals in my yard, on my walls, and my furniture. I compost. But green/sustainable fashion eludes me. I think some of this has to do with the fact that its just not clear how to make good choices about fashion, to cut through greenwashing, and put my money in things I believe in. Also, I find shopping for clothes exhausting (during non-pandemic times) so I try to do the bare minimum of looking when I need something.

But fashion, and the broader textile industry, is worthy of the attention of anyone worried about climate change and sustainability. According to Sustain Your Style, the fashion industry is the second most powerful force in climate change. This is likely due to the fact that it has its fingers in all levels of the environment, and it is something everyone uses. The biggest problems are water usage and deforestation. Along with those come chemical pollutants, ecosystem destruction, etc. etc. It’s messy. If any of us had the chance to tour the places where our clothes are made, its likely we would be as repulsed as people who tour slaughter houses and find they just cannot eat meat any longer. Our distance from the supply chain allows us to be complacent. Maybe this is a good thing. We do need clothes, though probably not nearly as many as we (Americans at least) have.

Our current mindset/approach to sustainability is to change buying habits to support sustainable or ‘green’ brands. That sounds great. But what you value as ‘green’ is not always what happens in a company. Its hard to find a big, known brand that you can feel good buying from.

For example, this thoughtful article by Jennifer Kurdyla discusses one of my favorite brands, Athleta, and its sustainability claims after it was awarded B-Corp status a few years ago. Not only does the article problematize choosing to buy based on a ‘green’ or eco label, it also considers what we’re really asking for when we want sustainable clothing. Is it just environmental standards? Is it worker opportunities? Is it accessibility to the brand itself with its pricing and community service? Kurdyla commits to a year without buying new things, which I think is an interesting idea that I would like to try, but this is also complicated. The next thing I know I’ll need are shoes. Buying used shoes when I have a disability and need a specific kind of shoe is tricky.

If you want to try the buying based on sustainability, this website has done a lot of research for you and gives ratings to big companies. I was particularly interested in their Nike rating because of the scandal that happened a while back. The funny thing about scandals is they sell ads and clicks for new sites but once the coverage dies down its hard to tell what has actually changed.

Instead of consumer practices and scandals, what I think is more likely to bring change is the fact of our changing climate. Stresses on resources, temperature changes, and destruction of ecosystems will soon force changes upon our fashion. Research is already happening in an area that I find fascinating — algae.

If you’re new the algae is amazing conversation, this Forbes article is a good overview on possibilities and research. You can think about algae as both a natural resource and a farmed resource. Farmed its great because it grows fast, you can grow it basically anywhere, and it doesn’t need fresh water. As a natural resource, it was already one of the most plentiful and varied organisms on the planet, but with pollution and warming water temps, it as become a problem that science is working to help us learn to exploit. One of the newest ways we’re thinking about using algae is in our clothes. Here are some cool people who are making bio-fiber from algae (that eventually turns into fabric), that is both eco friendly (they don’t tell us what that means) and also is good for your skin. As in, it releases antioxidants. Imagine the marketing campaign — like a cross between Coach and one of those Fuzzy drinks. Here is a more sciencey-article on how exactly we could end up wearing plants.

One fun part of my job as a speculative fiction writer is imagining what people in other futures and realities wear. Like Algae. Because I do a lot of reading (specifically Slime: How Algae Created us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us. And Susanna Clarke’s, Piranesi) I already knew this was a thing before headlines started popping up a few years ago. I frequently integrate algae into my future worlds. Algae is one of the most plentiful plants on the planet. Every year, a new study predicts how it will become part of our future. This week, our clothes could one day be made from algae. Imagine the remake of Waterworld in 2060 with algae clothes! I think it would be an improvement.

screen shot from the 1990s film Waterworld showing Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Tina Majorino all looking salty and rugged in end of the world buckskin-like fashion.
screen shot from the 1990s film Waterworld showing Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Tina Majorino all looking salty and rugged in end of the world buckskin-like fashion.

When I think about sustainability and I get all worried about consumer responsibility, I almost always end up thinking about capitalism. Yes, consumer habits impact capitalism, but there are too many humans operating at different levels of need for some kind of consciousness movement to change practices. We have the clothing industry we have now due to the resource exploitation, networking, and standardization of World War II. The factors that have made that model profitable are not always going to be the same.

I think the reason algae is so fascinating is because it is clear that the industry will have to adapt because climate change is going to make the current model more and more terrible until it becomes unprofitable. I would love to believe this will come from governments levying green taxes and passing laws for better practices, but more likely, it will come from greed and power, which are reliable. In a hundred years, we can hope that those toxic algae blooms that happen in Florida have been put to use making someone money instead of killing off an entire ecosystem.

Jaye Viner knows just enough about everything to embarrass herself at parties she never attends. Her novel, Jane of Battery Park, arrives in August