Biofabricated Materials // Grading Health

toxic cycles // healthy materials

We are running out of materials to make into crop tops; this isn’t news. In order to supply our ravenous style demands, scientists, designers, and craftspeople have been searching for, and using, alternative textile materials for decades (for mass production). The problems with current textile manufacturing resources are well known: pollution, toxic and dangerous resource extraction, abusive labor conditions, and the demand for chemically constructed synthetic garments only grows.

But how do we measure, and thus determine, the relative good and bad of textiles and their replacers? The Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons is currently trying to do just this. Within their library of material collections, they have started sorting and grading emerging technologies focused on harnessing the design capabilities of biological organisms. “Consumer products can be designed and grown harnessing biological organisms. This emerging design paradigm is centered on cultivating materials with living cells. Organisms such as yeast, bacteria, fungi, algae and mammalian cells are fermented, cultured and engineered to synthesize natures materials but with new functional and aesthetic properties.” This is the idea behind the Biofabricated Materials project currently surveying the field of resources based in biologically ‘organic’ resources.

AlgiKnit compostable yarn made from kelp.

Data Set as grading rubric // methodology

Currently, their collection is quite small with only five ‘biofabricated materials’ listed as part of their Donghia Healthier Materials Library. However, they are continuously adding to their collection, with two new additions in the past month alone. Their survey includes materials being used for knitting, masonry, homeware, and leather goods. BioMASON grows bricks from aqueous solutions. Mycoboard makes thermal and sound insulation from mushrooms. A biomaterials research company that turns kelp into readily usable fibers for clothing and shoes, AlgiKnit, is featured in the collection along with pictures, links to their website, and a downloadable PDF data sheet. The data sheets generated by the lab serve as a vague grading rubric for the products featured in their material collection. Essential information like the material composition, the manufacturer, the country of manufacture, and a brief description of the product make up the meat of the data sheets. In addition to these considerations, available colors are also included in their data sheets, as well as checked or unchecked boxes next to various “certifications and disclosures” that might or might not apply to the manufacturing process. As primary concerns featured on the materials’ main page, color and country of manufacture inform us of the project’s central audience: designers and students hoping to find healthier materials for their garment, building, and production needs.

F.D.A certification, Health Product Declaration, Declare Label, Environmental Product Declaration, and Safety Data Sheet make up the entire list of certifications⎯⎯established grading rubrics and guidelines that can tell us how well the company scores on various environmental tests, or perhaps it only tells us how new, small scale, low budget, or unacknowledged their projects may be. Certainly, the short list of certifications and disclosures tell us about considerations the Healthy Materials Lab are making, including government certifications, traditional sustainability measurements, and life cycle assessment. These considerations help to illustrate the lab’s methodology for prescribing “healthy” materials, most notably that they include the beginning and end of the product’s life (HPDs) and long term considerations for sustainability measures (lifecycle assessment by EPD).

weaknesses and other considerations

The Healthy Materials Lab goes a long way in making obscure or underdeveloped technologies accessible to designers, students, and anyone else interested in alternative materials for a variety of design projects. However, the scope of their research and library are somewhat small. Whether this is due to the relative newness of their Biofabricated Materials project or not, their digital and physical collection could benefit considerably from adding various measurements of scalability, longevity, cost, and accessibility to their data sets. How easily can kelp be grown and processed for large scale manufacturing? How fast is this process? What resources are needed to grow and extract this resource? How replicable is this process?

Zoa leather by Modern Meadow

Another product profiled, Loliware, makes biodegradable ‘plastic’ cups from seaweed (again). This product is available for retail online, however the data sets do not feature the retail price or anything on where this product is being used, or whether it is for individual consumption or commercial use (in the restaurant industry).

Due to these missing considerations, the collection can serve as more of a product endorsement than a resource for education and research. However, as the project grows and more products are added to the list, there is the potential for the grading rubric function of the data sets to inform and guide instead of endorse entrepreneurial pursuits. Regardless of shortcomings, the Healthy Materials Lab is actively working to contribute to the body of resources available to conscious and concerned designers, bringing us all closer and closer to resources we need to improve our designed environments and lives.


“Our world goes to pieces; we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyze and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strength rather than our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ the absolute of our inner voice⎯ we still know beauty, freedom, happiness…unexplained and unquestioned.” ⎯ Anni Albers


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