Young-A Lee makes clothes from tea. Or rather, she cultures the "mother" from kombucha—a fermented tea—to grow a cellulose gel that can be turned into a vegetable leather. If that sounds a little convoluted, compare it to the process for making regular cowhide leather.
Lee, an associate professor at Iowa State University, created the tea leather as a sustainable alternative to real leather. But it’s not so much leather’s animal origins that led her to find a better option. It’s the waste.
"Fashion companies keep producing new materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfill consumers’ desire and needs," Lee said at Iowa State. "Think about where these items eventually go. They will take tremendous underground spaces of the Earth like other trash."
Lee’s tea-derived fibers are completely biodegradable, so they can become as ephemeral as the fashion cycle that they serve. The cellulose fibers are brewed in a vat and fed with vinegar and sugar. Lee and her team have received a research grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to spin these fibers into clothing. The biggest advantage, apart from not being made out of cow peelings, is that it has an extremely low environmental impact. There are no harmful chemicals to leach into the ground, for instance, and the materials are about as renewable as it’s possible to be.
There are many practical problems with Lee’s tea leather, though. It’s susceptible to moisture, which softens it, and cold, which hardens it to the point of brittleness. It also takes up to four weeks to grow and prepare a batch, although compared to growing and feeding a cow, this is almost instant. The process only seems slow when compared to other artificial fibers.
But perhaps the biggest challenge in making fashion more sustainable is educating those in the industry to take the problem seriously.
"Socially conscious awareness from the consumer end plays a lot," says Lee "[But] employees who work in the fashion industry need to be fully educated on this movement. The key is changing their values to consider the betterment of people and the planet in a long run, instead of focusing on a consumer's short-coming interest."
And clothing doesn’t need to be fashioned from tea leather to do that. More effective ways to recycle the mountain of discarded clothing that is collected by retailers like H&M is one option. Big-name designers collaborating with ethical manufacturers is another. And of course, we can all help by buying fewer clothes, but of higher quality, so they last longer. But longer-lasting clothing runs counter to the churn of high-street fashion, so low-impact materials like Lee’s tea leather are essential. After all, if you can’t stop people throwing things away, at least have them throw away stuff that doesn’t cause too much damage.
Photos: Christopher Gannon