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Five weird and wonderful ways nature is being harnessed to build a sustainable fashion industry

Enzymatic textile dyes. Author provided

One of the greatest challenges faced by the textiles and fashion industry is to make itself more sustainable, not just in terms of economic and labour force issues but in the face of ecological necessity. The production of textiles involves a long chain of complex processes to convert raw materials such as fibres or petroleum into finished fabrics or fashion products.

These processes are typically resource intensive, requiring high concentrations of chemicals, large amounts of water and involving high temperatures and long processing times. This commonly results in high energy consumption and waste.

A transition towards a more sustainable textiles and fashion sector requires approaches that can minimise its environmental and social impacts, therefore opting for cleaner manufacturing processes which can dramatically reduce carbon emissions and water use and eliminate the use of harmful chemicals.

Here are five ways nature is being explored by individuals, research teams and industry to help make fashion more sustainable. Scientists are uncovering and exploiting underlying mechanisms and models found in nature to design new materials, processes and products as well as systems of production for the future.

These range from traditional to contemporary processes that use low or high-tech methods, practised by artists in their studios to scientists in labs or artists and scientists working together collaboratively.

Enzymes as new design tools

Enzymes are highly specific biocatalysts found within the cells of all living organisms. They offer the possibility of manufacturing textiles using simpler and less severe processing conditions which can reduce the consumption of chemicals, energy and water and the generation of waste. As a result, enzymes have successfully replaced a range of industrial textile processes, since they started being used in the early part of the 20th century.

Cellulases and another group of enzymes called laccases are used in the production of stonewashed denim fabrics and garments. Stonewashed effects on indigo dyed cotton denim used to be created by pumice stones – but the use of pumice stones caused damage to both fibres and machines.

Working with colleagues from De Montfort University, I have been investigating the possibilities of using laccase and protease as creative design tools to make industrial textile processes more sustainable.

In our research we used enzymes to synthesise textile dyes and pattern fabrics using ambient processing conditions, such as temperatures as low as 50°C at atmospheric pressure. We now have ways to create many different colours with just a slight alteration of processing conditions, reacting enzymes and compounds together in various different conditions in a technique that eliminates the need to use pre-manufactured dyes.

Examples of one-step laccase-catalysed coloration of textiles. Author

New ways to make leather

From collagen: The area of synthetic biology is growing at a rapid rate, and as a result many companies such as New York-based Modern Meadow are exploring the possibilities this area of modern science offers. The company has successfully bio-fabricated a leather alternative called Zoa.

The advanced material is constructed from collagen (a protein) – the main component of natural leather – but Zoa is designed and grown in a lab from animal-free collagen derived from yeast.

The material is capable of replicating the qualities of leather and offers new design aesthetics and performance properties not previously possible – while also eliminating the high environmental impact of raising cows and tanning their hides (which is often a toxic process).

From fungi: Similarly, San Francisco-based MycoWorks – among others – has been exploring the possibilities of creating sustainable materials using fungi. Mycelium, (a mushroom root material) which is grown from fungi and agricultural byproducts is custom engineered in a lab using a carbon negative process.

Mushroom leather made using mycelium. MycoWorks

It is easy to cultivate, fast growing and can be easily manipulated to adopt the properties similar to leather and many other mainstream materials such as wood and polystyrene.

Field work

Grass roots: An interesting project by the artist Diana Scherer called Interwoven explores the fabrication of materials using living plant networks which could be used to construct garments of the future. She has developed a process which manipulates oat and wheat plant roots to grow intricate lace-like textile materials.

She buries templates in the soil that act as moulds, which manipulates and channels the plants root systems to reveal woven structures constructed from geometrics and delicate motifs once the fabric is excavated.

Cow manure: In a circular economy model, nothing is considered waste. In the Netherlands, a company called Inspidere has developed a method it has called Mestic that uses cow manure to produce new textiles. The processing method enables cellulose to be extracted from manure to produce two materials, viscose and cellulose acetate.

The manure is separated and processed in a lab to extract pure cellulose, which is further processed to create viscose (regenerated cellulose) and cellulose acetate (bio-plastic), both of which can be turned into textiles. The group have achieved lab-scale success, the challenge remains to scale this process up commercially.

These are just a few of the ways in which nature is being harnessed to provide the textile and fashion industry with realistic and viable options to move towards sustainability.

The Conversation

Chetna Prajapati has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for the LEBIOTEX Project (AH/J002666/1), a collaborative project between Loughborough University and De Montfort University.

Fitness trackers and eating disorders – is there a link?


Fitness and health tracking devices are becoming increasingly popular and a huge variety of wearable tech and apps now exist. Indeed, many smartphones and smart watches now come primed and ready to track our activity, sleep and nutrition.

Research has for a long time highlighted how monitoring behaviours can help to lead to positive changes in our lifestyles. It can be an effective way to help increase physical activity, and to achieve weight loss.

But monitoring physical activity and food intake may not be useful for everyone. Indeed, people with eating disorders often have unhealthy relationships with food and exercise. Obsessive behaviours such as calorie counting, rigid, driven exercise and unhealthy perfectionism are common among those with eating issues.

Read more: Anorexia is an illness – not something we can simply blame on the media

A small body of research has started to explore how fitness trackers and calorie counting apps might be linked to disordered eating and exercise. Higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating have been identified among those who use tracking tools, compared to those who do not. And many patients with eating disorders report using calorie counting tools such as MyFitnessPal. And these tools have been identified as having a negative impact on their eating disorder symptoms.

App creators say “they promote healthy lifestyles, and safeguards [are] in place to deter those wishing to pursue harmful habits.” MyFitnessPal, for example, includes resources on eating disorders on their website and has previously published blog posts claiming the app can help people to recover from eating disorders. But out research seems to indicate otherwise.

The rise of wearables

In a recent study, we explored the broader mental health and well-being of users of fitness and food intake monitoring tools. We also tried to understand why people used such devices.

In our sample of young people, 65% of them reported currently using a fitness or food intake tracking device. Those using devices reported higher levels of both disordered eating and compulsive exercise than non-users. Those who tracked their activity or food intake primarily to manage their weight or shape (as opposed to health or fitness related reasons) and who used the devices frequently showed the highest levels of disordered eating and exercise.

Calorie counting apps have been accused of exacerbating unhealthy food behaviours. Shutterstock/Dragon Images

Eating disorders are incredibly complex and are caused by many different interacting factors. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that tracking of eating and exercise behaviours could cause an eating disorder.

But monitoring activity and food intake could inadvertently validate disordered eating and exercise attitudes and behaviours among vulnerable people. And the pressure from devices to be constantly active, and to meet revised, increasing step targets could exacerbate obsessive and self-critical tendencies.

Quit the counting

It’s likely though that many people’s feelings towards, and use of, tracking devices changes over time. Recent evidence, for example, has indicated that just 10% of people will continue to use their fitness tracker beyond 12 months, even when there is an incentive to do so. While the reasons behind this drop off are unclear, it’s possible that the devices induce feelings of guilt or shame when one fails to reach goals or make progress. A shift in attitudes from “wanting” to exercise to “having” to exercise may be a sign that the relationship with the tracker has gone sour, and potentially indicate an increased vulnerability to disordered eating.

It’s clear then that further research is needed to clearly identify whether tracking devices may be helpful or harmful for certain individuals. Indeed, it may be pertinent for companies developing such technologies to work alongside eating disorder professionals to develop and provide appropriate signposting and support via their devices.

In the meantime, it’s important to think about how often we’re using tracking tools – and our reasons for doing so. Indeed, it’s important to be able to enjoy a walk, run, swim or cycle without worrying about the pace, distance or calories burned.

So next time you’re taking part in some exercise, instead of worrying about how many miles you’ve done, maybe just try to take the time to enjoy your activity and your surroundings – as research shows being outdoors can, in and of itself, have a positive impact on your long-term health and well-being.

If you’re worried about your relationship with food or activity, then you can contact your GP or the UK Eating Disorders Charity for further advice and support.

The Conversation

Carolyn Plateau does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Migrants on hunger strike follow long tradition of people using their bodies to protest against cruelty

Migrants in immigration detention are turning to hunger strikes as a weapon of last resort. Igor Kisselev/Shutterstock

Those Western states pursuing more aggressive border control policies in recent years have increased the use of immigration detention centres. These are often squalid, degrading places where detainees are deprived of their most basic human rights and due process.

A recent report for the US Department of Homeland Security concluded that there was “dangerous overcrowding” at detention facilties in Texas, with adults and children crammed together for prolonged periods.

Those caught in the legal black hole of detention lack political rights of free speech and participation, but this has not prevented them from fighting back using one of the few weapons left at their disposal – sovereignty over their own bodies.

More than 100 detainees recently went on hunger strike in Louisiana to protest the arbitrary denial of their parole and release. In El Paso, four Indian asylum seekers who have been locked up for over a year have been on hunger strike since the beginning of July.

Migrants and asylum seekers have also engaged in political self-starvation in France, Spain, the UK, Italy, Mexico, Indonesia, New Zealand, Greece, and many other states across the world. In the UK, there have been more than 3,000 hunger strikes in immigration removal centres since 2015, according to figures recently released by the Home Office.

In Australia’s offshore detention centres of Manus and Nauru, there have been numerous hunger strikes, sometimes accompanied by lip-sewing and even acts of self-immolation. While some protests focus on individual asylum cases, others take aim at wider policy.

A hunger strike by 100 women at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in the UK in 2018 demanded an end to the state’s practice – unique in the EU – of detaining people without legal time limits.

Authorities have frequently resorted to threats and intimidation in an attempt to disrupt these protests. The Yarl’s Wood protesters received a letter from the Home Office warning them that their actions could result in their “removal from the UK taking place sooner”.

Read more: I befriend women detained at Yarl's Wood: their life in immigration limbo is excruciating

In El Paso, hunger strikers were force fed earlier this year, and a judge recently authorised the force-feeding of three of the Indian detainees, despite unequivocal condemnation of the practice by the World Medical Association, the American Medical Association and other leading organisations. These reports bring to mind the chilling accounts of force-feeding of prisoners through nasal tubes in Guantanamo Bay, which provoked international condemnation.

A powerful tool

The hunger strike has long been understood as a weapon of last resort by the powerless and disenfranchised. It can involve either a time-limited symbolic refusal of food, or – in more extreme cases – a prolonged fast that eventually leads to loss of cognition, organ damage and even death.

In medieval Ireland, people would fast on the doorstep of those they believed had wronged them; if they died, the accused inherited their debts. Ancient India had a similar practice.

In the early 20th century, British suffragettes first used hunger strikes as a tactic to demand recognition as political prisoners. The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst wrote of the “sickening sensation” of force-feeding, though she noted that the “sense of degradation” was even worse than the pain.

The tactic was then borrowed by Irish republican prisoners, ten thousand of whom went on hunger strike in British prisons between 1916 and 1923. The brilliant and harrowing film, Hunger, by Steve McQueen, portrays the most famous republican hunger strike in the Maze prison, Belfast, when Bobby Sands starved to death in 1981 with nine other prisoners.

Bobby Sands, who was elected MP during his time in prison, died after a hunger strike in 1981. Evan McCaffrey/Shutterstock

Mahatma Gandhi used political fasting to great effect against the British in India and to pressure Hindus and Muslims to halt sectarian violence. He came to regard the hunger strike as one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of non-violent resistance.

South African anti-apartheid activists, Turkish Marxists, Palestinian militants and Tibetan monks have likewise used hunger strikes with varying degrees of success, along with thousands of ordinary prisoners protesting solitary confinement and other abuses.

Self-destructive resistance

At first glance, such acts of self-destruction might seem oddly irrational or self-defeating. Many forms of resistance – such as a classic workers’ strike – aim to place economic and other costs on opponents. Yet with the hunger strike, the most severe costs are suffered by protesters, who risk pain, bodily damage and even death.

Nonetheless, detainees know that the refusal of food can shame the authorities who bear ultimate responsibility for the lives of those in their custody. In this way, it can be understood as a form of “moral jiu jitsu” that uses the overwhelming power of the modern state against it.

By striking, hunger strikers also exert some measure of control against a system that micromanages their lives and strips them of agency. They demonstrate that they are sovereign over their own bodies and that the most serious decision of all – over life and death – is still in their hands.

As Guantanamo detainee Lakhdar Boumediene put it:

They could lock me up for no reason and with no chance to argue my innocence. They could torture me, deprive me of sleep, put me in an isolation cell, control every single aspect of my life. But they couldn’t make me swallow their food.

For detained migrants and refugees, the choice of such an extreme technique is powerful evidence of the cruelty they are subject to in detention, and their moral determination to resist. Caged and herded like animals, they exhibit the characteristically human capacity of mastering their natural appetites in pursuit of a higher ideal.

While authorities in the US and elsewhere frequently attempt to dismiss hunger strikers as pathological and mentally ill, the strike is in reality a careful and deliberate form of political action. As such, hunger striking should be respected as an expression of the fundamental human right to protest, as set out in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This means that immigration authorities around the world must refrain from force-feeding, and all other forms of intimidation and listen to the just claims of detainees regarding their treatment.

The Conversation

Guy Aitchison does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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