Chapter 11. Biomimicry – Fashion & Sustainability

Chapter 11: Biomimicry

‘The point is not to impose a pattern of our own making and disrupt natural patterns, but to remain ever mindful that human cleverness is subordinate to nature’s wisdom.’

Wendell Berry

In recent years we have come to understand that safeguarding natural systems is more than an act of altruism, for these systems ‘cradle and nourish’30 our societies and economy, providing for us both materially and spiritually. Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, presents additional reasons for protecting the environment, for in a time of ecological crisis and shrinking resources, nature offers us a wealth of insights to apply to our own way of living. Biomimicry is the practice of emulating nature’s patterns and strategies to direct product design, processes and policies and as such draws its inspiration from the living world.31 Benyus contrasts the rich and diverse natural world with the systematic taming and simplification of nature through human activity and the subsequent destruction of species. We understand that ‘the only way to keep learning from nature… and its wellspring of ideas… is to safeguard its naturalness’.32 That the study of biomimicry can trigger this level of understanding in designers is in itself of great value. It draws us far beyond the limits of the narrow and intellectual habitat of industrialized design and reminds us of the dual nature of our present circumstances as designers: how small a part we play in, and yet what enormous responsibility we have to, the ‘whole’.

Practical application of biomimicry

Being inspired and awed by nature is one thing, but practical application of its lessons is an altogether greater challenge. Stewart Brand, ecologist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants, critiques the practical limitations of biomimicry, noting that nature is extremely difficult to mimic in detail because natural processes are the ‘irrational product of timeless evolution, rather than design’.33 Brand favours supplementing nature’s design with ‘as much human intervention as necessary’, in order to enable rapid implementation of ideas, and presents the aeroplane as an example, in which a bird’s flapping wings became stationary and the human invention of the propeller eventually enabled human flight.

That nature’s processes are irrational and spontaneous and may take millennia to evolve can be a challenging concept for designers to grasp since we work to such short deadlines and ‘lock in’ our designs before production. But an effective visual metaphor is provided by Donella Meadows’s reference to fractal geometry. Using the example of an equilateral triangle, Meadows explains that when another such triangle is added at the centre of each side and the pattern repeated, an elaborate shape results – called a ‘Koch snowflake’ (see fig. 6). Meadows notes that out of a few simple rules of self-organization, enormous diversifying crystals of technology, physical structures, organizations and cultures can grow – including our own.

More than a tool for copying nature

The Koch snowflake helps us understand why mimicking the complexities of evolved nature is difficult. But it also illustrates that biomimicry is not simply a tool for copying. Rather it is understanding and applying nature’s principles – surprisingly simple at their core – that is more the point. This distinction of purpose is critical, for in our culture where the market, high speed and low cost direct design ‘innovation’, it is all too easy for designers to fall into using biomimicry to serve the status quo of manufacturing and selling novelty, and degrading the environment in the process. Benyus’s basic guidelines can provide designers with a tool to assess and evaluate their own ideas and actions, and maintain focus on ecological gains – to inspire not just the quality of things but rather to inform the ‘fitness’ of those ideas for the context in which they are placed and to direct the nature of whole systems.

FIG. 6 A Koch snowflake illustrates the delicate and intricate patterns that can develop from a simple set of organizing principles or decision rules.34

Nature as a model – where nature is imitated or used as a source of inspiration for designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g. a solar cell inspired by a leaf.

Nature as measure – where nature is used as an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovation, e.g. considering how much energy (and what type) does the solar panel use in its production and whether the energy it saves during use justifies this investment.

Nature as mentor – where nature is viewed and valued in a new way. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it, e.g. developing solar technology that can be installed close to point of use, rather than developing desert wilderness areas into solar panel farms.

It is not only through nature as model but through nature as measure and nature as mentor that the truly transformative potential of biomimicry can be fully realized, as the above examples illustrate.

How will we make textiles?

Biomimicry-inspired ideas for sustainability in fashion typically start as most initiatives do – centred on physical materiality: the enhancement of fabrics, or engineered fibres, surfaces and finishes. But since these developments often require highly technical physical or molecular engineering, innovations are frequently housed within the labs of technical universities or performance fabric suppliers. Fashion designers may therefore become quite frustrated at the lack of access and the lack of means they have for implementing and actualizing biomimicry innovations.

These frustrations are indicators of old work habits – where designers are ensconced in studios, fulfilling industry expectations as stylists and purveyors of novelty. In this pattern of practice, designers rarely, if ever, interact with scientists and technologists; the unfamiliar and rich territories between disciplines remain unexplored, and the synergies of interdisciplinary collaborations remain unignited. Interrupting these old working patterns is cumbersome and awkward. We have become so fragmented as an industry and so isolated in our specialities that pathways between each are simply nonexistent. Yet biomimicry is as much about opening up these routes as it is about innovating products. For designers, too, are ‘complex living organisms that evolved in and function best in a dynamic and diverse environment’.35

Breaking out of siloed patterns of practice

Inventor and entrepreneur Nick Brown succeeded in breaking through the silos of practice out of sheer necessity. Inspired by the transpiration activity of trees, he developed and patented a technology, prototyped and tested a range of technical textiles, and approached a number of companies to manufacture them. Finding no willing partners, he started his own company, Páramo, which now specializes in ‘smart fabrics’ (see page 77). One of the patents, the TX.10i elastomer, involved altering and strengthening the molecular structure of mineral wax, changing it from its typical brittle quality and making it elastic and resilient. Termed Nikwax, the elastomer bonds to anything that is not water-repellent, but leaves spaces between fibres open and breathable. In addition to providing water repellency, the technology traps air next to the skin, directs moisture away from the body and prevents external moisture from coming in, insulating the body in much the same way as the water-repellent fur of seals, otters and bears. What is most notable in this case is that the resulting fabrics may never have come to market were it not for the innovator’s ability to corral allies, work with people of varying backgrounds, and hone organizational skills while maintaining a tireless entrepreneurial spirit. All are crucial qualities that are enhanced by working across sectors, as natural systems do. Here we witness nature as mentor.

Collaborations across sectors

Cross-sector bridges can also be forged when the market seeks out researchers for specific development. Such was the case with the biomimicry innovations housed in the universities of Bath and Reading in the UK.36 Prompted by a contract with the Ministry of Defence and a brief that called for eliminating the need to carry extra clothing in desert environments, the design challenge was to develop single fabrics that would render the wearer comfortable in a wide range of desert temperatures from daytime heat to nighttime chill. Finding inspiration in the way pinecones open and close, these researchers created technical materials that adapt and flex in response both to the activity of the wearer and to the level of moisture in the air. A resulting single textile is constructed from two bonded layers. The top layer features tiny spikes of wool, each only one two-hundredth of a millimetre wide. When the wearer sweats, the tiny spikes react to the moisture and automatically open up, allowing air from the outside to pass through the material to cool the body. When the wearer stops sweating, the spikes close down again to prevent cool air from getting in. The lower, water-resistant layer blocks rain and moisture from entering whether the spikes are open or closed.

Jacket by Páramo features Nikwax treatment and fabric technology inspired by the transpiration activity of trees.

Besides using nature as a model and drawing innovations for garment design from particular species engineering, biomimicry asks us to learn from the larger operating systems of nature itself and to explore opportunities in production systems and business models. A biomimicry-inspired garment, for example, may effectively deliver multiple functions (waterproofing, insulation and breathability), fulfilling the needs of military personnel in a desert environment while also reducing the number of layers in an outfit. But a mainstream wearer who seldom encounters such extreme temperature ranges may well layer the garment to create a trendy look, rendering the technical features as mere novelty and the garment overbuilt for its end use. Nature’s logic would never allow this, for it is a waste of resources and energy. Moreover, when the likely business model of the company selling the product is dependent upon more sales, there is no incentive for the company to communicate anything but the novel aspects of biomimicry to the wearer. Fabric and product development, ecology, business motivations and consumer behaviour must co-evolve to achieve optimum sustainability benefits. The true power and potential of biomimicry may be diminished if the design ideas it inspires (nature as model) are developed in a cultural vacuum where nature as measure and nature as mentor are ignored.

How will we manufacture?

Current industry transforms nature’s resources into products with little regard for social and environmental repercussions, placing emphasis on getting the product made and shipped to market as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. The underpinning economic directive of this business model is to expand and grow: to increase productivity of labour, to increase speed to market, to influence consumers to buy more to maintain and increase this flow of goods. As a result, it is estimated that only six per cent of the flow of materials into the US economy actually ends up as products.37

Designing business and manufacturing systems to mimic nature

Janine Benyus describes stages of businesses in evolutionary terms as operating like ecosystems, providing a useful metaphor for understanding what are usually invisible company operations. In nature, the above industrial scenario could describe a ‘stage I’ immature ecosystem. Here, typically, opportunistic and colonizer species predominate. Since sunlight and soil nutrients are readily available, type I species are linear, avidly consume resources, leave waste, and move quickly to exploit new areas. They reproduce quickly and take no time to process efficiently or to cycle resources. Their waste does, however, fertilize the soil and provide opportunities for ‘succession’ species in stage II. These are largely perennial plants and berry bushes, which produce fewer seeds and build roots and sturdy stems for more rigorous growth. Finally, type III species such as trees develop. They are masters of efficiency, and take out of the ecosystem no more than what they put into it. They generate fewer offspring, and live longer and more complex lives in elaborate synergy with the species around them; they put energy into creating and optimizing symbiotic relationships, rather than into rampant growth, and they endlessly juggle materials, with virtually no waste.38 In a world of declining resources and limited space for the expanding human population to provide for itself, the ultimate goal of biomimicry-inspired manufacture is to build economies, businesses and manufacturing systems that operate in a dynamic equilibrium like a complex stage III ecosystem.

Cycles, loops and businesses clustered in new ways

In manufacturing, mimicking the structures of a complex ecosystem imagines a system with no landfill, no smokestacks, and no effluent pipes. Instead, industries are clustered so that the waste from one (materials, heat, water, etc.) can easily become the resource for another and where throughput is continuously cycled, with zero emissions to the surroundings.

Attempts to transition to a stage III company are, however, frequently awkward, because established ‘stocks’ of information and ways of working take time to change direction and purpose.39 Alliance-building and partnering with other companies is critical, yet it runs counter to usual fashion industry culture, and it naturally takes time to build trust and redefine new boundaries of business. To enable this change, a logical first step may be to set up loops and cycling systems internally, so that the benefits and challenges can be easily tested and observed and working mechanisms recalibrated as needed. Establishing an external partnership or network and working with other companies and industries then become mid- to long-range goals respectively, forming a continuum of change. Once new infrastructure and working patterns are established, benefits can be significant; the systems of product development become optimized, with increased efficiencies and innovation integral to the new mode of business.

Manufacturer Pratibha Syntex, for example, is in the process of adapting its business around a number of textile-recycling initiatives at its facility in Madhya Pradesh, India. This has included designing new products and building a spinning facility to process its textile waste into recycled yarns and garments. The new product initiatives have been so successful that the company no longer generates enough of its own waste to run its recycled yarn-spinning operation at full capacity. Responding to this ‘hiccup’ in the flow of recycled materials, Pratibha has recently linked to an external source for industry-wide production waste, to supplement its own material flow and keep up with its recycled yarn sales.

Shifting mindsets to catalyse innovation

What is even more remarkable is that the success of Pratibha’s recycling programme has helped to catalyse a shift in mindset within the company; from one of maximizing product throughput, to minimizing material input and optimizing the productivity of incoming resources. Creativity is now focused on how many different ways to reduce waste and on opening up new markets to accommodate any that remains. This is spurring unexpected innovations such as designing away waste from the outset. As operations shift to accommodate recycling as well as new product development, the company will become conditioned and more adaptable to the fluctuating proportion of recycled-to-new product demand from season to season. In the meantime, testing an increased menu of products and markets benefits the company as a whole, affording increased flexibility across industry sectors and improving the long-term resilience of the business. Recycled products represent two per cent of the company’s current production, but this is expected to reach 20 per cent in the next three to five years.40

‘Net shape’ knitted shirt by Pratibha Syntex, made from a single tube of fabric with no waste. Stage I company.

One innovation to emerge from Pratibha Syntex’s new approach to manufacturing is a low-waste-in-pattern-cutting garment. The ‘net shape top’ is made from one tube of knitted jersey. Vertical cuts made parallel to the sides form the sleeves and body when sewn. Horizontally repeated parallel lacerations at the top and down the sleeve are then ‘picked up’ and looped through each other by hand to form a chunky-knit texture. This looping action pulls the jersey fabric inwards, to form the yoke shape and shoulder line of the garment, and the final cast-off edge forms the neckline.




How will we conduct business?

‘Design mentality can reshape production processes – and even the entire structure and logic of business.’

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins

As stated earlier in these pages, the fundamental principle of a company in the growth economy is to maximize earnings. This prime motivation directs the behaviour of the organization and everyone working in it, including design. From sourcing and supply-chain operations to employee payroll and general practices, emphasis is placed on driving costs down while driving sales up. Wherever possible, the expense of conducting business is externalized and effectively passed on to the rest of society. While financial returns accumulate with the shareholders of the company, costs for restoring degraded environments and supplying unemployment benefits are borne by the government, supported by rates and taxes, the effect being that the public subsidizes the true cost of business activities.41

The attention that the private sector pays to monetary values over all else makes capturing a range of social and environmental values in the design process difficult. For if there is no distinction between money acquired through means that enrich the environment and society and that created by means that impoverish society,42 then the cheapest route is always the immediate choice. What seem to be the more expensive ‘sustainability’ initiatives in product development are then rejected, even if over the long term they result in savings. As difficult as it is for designers, the challenges are many times greater for any ‘responsible’ company to internalize costs when it competes in a marketplace with other companies that do not. For it is competitors who set the market price.

A broader set of values

Nevertheless, as the economy transitions towards sustainability, a broader set of values not typically captured by the private sector is being demonstrated in a growing number of ways. Collaborations among traditionally competitive companies have been formed to set industry-wide standards for a range of issues, from supply-chain terms of engagement to management of resources in textile processing. Several companies now pledge a portion of their sales revenue to NGOs, thereby redirecting wealth to support activities for the common good. In more progressive companies, social and ecological goals have been integrated into employee job descriptions and performance criteria, driving fundamental changes in corporate culture. Socially responsible shareholders and organizations such as As You Sow are influencing investors to direct company actions beyond the single goal of profit. ‘Sustainable’ product lines start to internalize some of the environmental costs of business practice and, when identified at retail, express values to the consumer beyond a monetary transaction and thereby start to influence the mainstream cultural mindset.

Influencing the fashion mainstream is one of the greatest challenges for sustainability and also one of its greatest potentials. Fashion touches the lives of almost everyone, every day, and can be an effective vehicle for changing minds, attitudes and behaviour. To this end, outdoor company Patagonia is working with retailer Walmart to provide mentorship on sustainability actions and strategies. This unlikely partnership has benefits for both. Clearly Patagonia’s experience and expertise in implementing sustainability programmes over the last 20 years speeds Walmart’s learning. And Walmart’s scale and purchasing leverage can move the industry more quickly and broadly than a smaller company ever could. Effectively, Patagonia sees its sustainability actions amplified through Walmart, and perhaps realizes indirect benefits such as greater availability of low-impact fabrics and processes industry-wide.

Different business logic

While these examples start to move existing businesses and the economy towards sustainability, altogether new models based on fundamentally different logic drive distinctly different behaviours for business. Rather than emphasizing growth for growth’s sake, and accumulating monetary wealth for a few shareholders, profits are reinvested to generate revenue with the explicit purpose of growing the benefits to an increasing number of beneficiaries. There are already several examples of businesses that build wealth or ‘increase beneficial output in the local communities they serve’,43 evidenced in community banks, farmer–broker co-operatives, employee-owned businesses, community-supported agriculture initiatives, and so on. These provide models for application in all industries, including fashion.

Just as social and environmental values are permeating the private sector, so the culture of efficiency and entrepreneurship typically attributed to business is influencing the non-profit sector. Goodwill Industries, for example, balances its core goals of social good with an opportunistic approach to new market niches. Having started as a clothing thrift-store, the organization now recycles a broad range of items, from used books to shoes and jewellery, discarded computers and electronics. Analysis of what sells best in their A, B and C stores is remarkably similar to the tracking systems of any conventional fashion business. But in addition to providing an effective resource and recovery service to the community, Goodwill’s dual competency is in providing job training and vocational employment support to individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area who would otherwise face a range of difficulties from physical disabilities and homelessness to histories of incarceration and long-term dependency upon welfare. More than 85 per cent of Goodwill’s revenue is channelled into training programmes and services, covering a variety of client needs, from transitional employment and computer literacy to truck-driving lessons and English language skills. The organization also works with first-time non-violent drug offenders, offering literacy skills training, apprenticeships, and legal, health and family counselling.

A worker on Goodwill San Francisco’s training programme.

Real wealth

In this business model there is no love–hate relationship or conflict of values between financial and business goals and social and environmental goals; the more the business grows, the more people and the environment are served. Moreover, as the organization grows it also expands its ability to mitigate public costs for unemployment and environmental clean-up (i.e. landfill costs). This dynamic creates what David Korten calls ‘a real wealth economy,’44 and illustrates nature as mentor at its best. The synthesis of business with social and environmental good is perhaps best evidenced by Goodwill’s measurements of success. In addition to the line items indicated on balance sheets and profit and loss statements, they track and measure the number of people served, the number of people placed in gainful employment, the average wage received, and the tons of goods diverted from landfill.45