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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
3 Material Innovators Using Algae to Paint Greener Picture for Fashion

Living Ink, Algaeing and Mounid are changing the game with carbon-negative, fast-to-produce alternatives to carcinogenic, petroleum-based inks, dyes and textiles.

More and more, people are turning to labels to check whether they are purchasing sustainably made products; but fewer have stopped to consider the ink used to print the hang tag. Unfortunately, most labels with black ink (as well as most black objects you can name) are colored with petroleum-based pigments — namely, carbon black.

Carbon black is a powdery by-product of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels that is used as a cheap and effective ink. A recent carbon black market report suggests that 14 million tons of the substance are currently produced for use in multiple industries worldwide to produce a variety of goods ranging from rubbers, plastics, inks and more.

According to another study, the global carbon black market was worth approximately $12.45 billion in 2021 and is estimated to increase to about $21.85 billion by 2030, with a projected compound annual growth rate of 5.5 percent between those years.

As a by-product of fossil fuel combustion, carbon black poses a threat to natural ecosystems. In 2021, it was listed in the US Plastic Pact as one of the 11 “problematic and unnecessary” materials to be eliminated by 2025.

Luckily, a new kind of black made from algae is catching public attention as it promises to replace conventional carbon-based tints, promoting a positive impact on the environment. We spoke with the founders of three startups producing algae pigments and fabrics to find out how this aquatic plant will change the fashion industry and beyond.

Living Ink

Image credit: Vollebak

The first black ink made from algae was commercialized in 2013, when two molecular biology PhD students at Colorado State UniversityScott Fulbright and Stevan Albers — came together to found biomaterials company Living Ink in Denver, Colorado.

Fulbright told Sustainable Brands® he was staring at a gift card aisle when he found himself wondering what makes ink. That was when he discovered carbon black — and conveniently, that it could easily be replaced by the algae he had been researching. The company now produces its own pigment, patented Algae Black.

“We see ourselves as the next generation,” Fulbright says.

Living Ink makes use of a waste product from existing algae farms working within the nutraceutical industry. “It comes out of a pipe. We put it through our process to make it black — which allows it to be carbon negative and renewable, innovative and safe,” Fulbright says.

And fast-growing algae can be harvested daily: “Compared to a traditional crop like corn — where you harvest it twice a year, at most — algae is very productive,” he explains. “We can produce millions of kilograms of ink with just this one supplier[’s 100-acre algae farm].”

Spatial benefits aside, a lifecycle assessment found that algae-based ink can deliver a 200 percent reduction in carbon emissions when compared to inks derived from petroleum. Living Ink also received a Level 2 credential from OEKO-TEX — an independent certification system evaluating companies’ sustainability efforts.

Fulbright says at first it was not easy convincing businesses to switch to their alternative ink; but the project was strong enough to secure a $1.4M seed round of funding in 2021.

Since then, Algae Black has been featured on Patagonia’s hang tags, and an apparel collaboration between American Eagle and the Surfriders Foundation. More recently, it was used to print graphics on a sustainable apparel collection by Nike; and in the first garment fully dyed with algae pigment, by futuristic clothing brand Vollebak. Beyond the world of fashion, Living Ink has also been used to print the COP26 newspaper and Cove’s biodegradable PHA water bottles.

Algaeing

Image credit: Algaeing

Meanwhile, in 2016, textiles expert Renana Krebs decided to give up a career in fashion to follow an alternative path by founding what was then AlgaLife. The biotech company, now called Algaeing, provides raw materials for the textile industry — mainly its own algae-based dye; but it is also developing an algae-derived yarn.

Krebs explains that the change in the company name represents the “responsibility to take action” as well as an invitation for others “to be part of the movement towards a future with fewer toxins that prioritizes the wellbeing of people and the planet.” Rather than just selling a product, it’s a platform to “inspire thinking about the entire supply chain.”

Accenture estimated that Algaeing solutions can potentially save 2,700m liters of polluted water in 2030 compared to conventional textile production, Krebs tells SB. She also affirms that one of the factors that make the company groundbreaking is its potential for scalability, “our patented innovations can be implemented with existing production machinery and don’t require special equipment.” She terms this process of transition as “fast-tracking mainstream adoption.”

Just two years in, the company received the 2018 H&M Foundation Global Change Award for its potential in developing an alternative source for future textile fibers. On the dye side of things, Algaeing began a partnership with Avgol — a company manufacturing nonwoven materials for the hygiene and medical sectors — in 2020. The sustainable fabrics were displayed in the FILTECH exhibition in Germany last month.

Krebs sees the company as having the potential to transform the way we consume across various industries including fashion, food, bioenergy, agriculture and more: “Algaeing is a way of life that benefits the consumer, the planet, and everyone who comes into contact with it along the way.”

Mounid

Image credit: Mounid

More recently, Mounid — a Swedish startup founded by textile designer Ida Näslund — has begun making its mark in the fashion world. The company is part of Vinnova — a wider innovation project that connects businesses seeking to implement commercial processes that promise realistic solutions to climate change.

Like Living Ink and Algaeing, Näslund says Mounid aims to “detox fashion” by replacing conventional, petroleum-based dyes. “Today, 90 percent of our clothes are dyed synthetically, and 20 percent of the global water pollution stems from the textile dyeing process,” she says. The hazardous chemicals cause unsafe working conditions and pose a threat to consumers, since “10 percent of chemicals remain in the textiles and can cause skin irritations, allergies or be hormone disruptive.” Carbon black, for example, has been called out in legislation that requires businesses to provide warnings about potential exposure to dangerous chemicals, such as California’s Prop 65. In 2007, it was also classed as a 2b carcinogen by the International Agency Research on Cancer.

Although Mounid’s ink aims to be compatible with existing machinery, Näslund says the enterprise is even more determined to focus on new technologies and work closely with emerging dyeing techniques that reduce energy and water consumption by 90 percent to achieve a resource-efficient textile dyeing process. She says the non-toxic algae ink should further facilitate a move away from the existing, linear way of producing textiles and fashion today in favor of circular solutions.

Mounid’s algae ink is yet to achieve large-scale production; but the company is committed to optimizing its product for the fashion industry and the brands involved in the Vinnova project.

The growing shift to use microalgae as a key component of food, beauty, fashion and carbon-capture solutions, to name a few, is a promising move toward a more sustainable future.

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