Published 11 months ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Vollebak recently unveiled the first garment dyed entirely with algae ink. | Vollebak
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,
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
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
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”
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.
Image credit: Vollebak
The first black ink made from algae was commercialized in 2013, when two
molecular biology PhD students at Colorado State University — Scott
Fulbright and Stevan
Albers — came together to
found biomaterials company Living Ink in Denver,
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
“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
of funding in 2021.
Since then, Algae Black has been featured on Patagonia’s hang tags, and an
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
Beyond the world of fashion, Living Ink has also been used to print the COP26
and Cove’s biodegradable PHA water
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
Just two years in, the company received the 2018 H&M Foundation Global Change
for its potential in developing an alternative source for future textile fibers.
On the dye side of things, Algaeing began a
with Avgol — a company manufacturing nonwoven materials for the hygiene and
medical sectors — in 2020. The sustainable fabrics were displayed in the
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.”
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
to name a few, is a promising move toward a more sustainable future.
Published Mar 10, 2023 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Nina Purton is the founder of Eco Writing — a startup providing blog marketing for projects and businesses with sustainability goals. With a background in English literature and a lifelong passion for eco-friendly practices, Nina started her journey with small initiatives which resulted in collaborations with larger projects and businesses. Nina now blends her knack for creativity, research skills, and knowledge to inspire innovative and healthier interactions with the natural environment.