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These “green-tea based cellulose fiber mats” could soon be a viable alternative to materials derived from nonrenewable sources, Lee said. And because the fibers are 100 percent biodegradable, they also foster a cradle-to-cradle cycle of reuse and regeneration that leaves behind virtually zero waste. (Translation: emptier landfills.)

“Fashion, to most people, is an ephemeral expression of culture, art, and technology manifesting itself in form,” she said in a statement. “Fashion companies keep producing new materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfill consumers’ desire and need. Think about where these items eventually go. They will take tremendous underground spaces of the Earth like other trash.”

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Not that treading unfamiliar ground doesn’t have its challenges. According to tests conducted by Lee and her team, one of the biggest problems with SCOBY-based “leather” is that moisture—whether from the air or a person’s skin—can make it less stable. Equally non-ideal is the fact that low temperatures can turn it brittle.

Then there’s the fact that the material takes a long time to grow—about three to four weeks under lab-controlled conditions, Lee said.

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“It does not take that long to make certain synthetic materials, but for this new material we are proposing, it requires a certain amount of time to grow, dry, and treat the material within specific conditions,” Lee said. “If our experimental effort from this EPA project is successful, this cellulose-based renewable fabric can be an alternate future where we move to a cradle-to-cradle system, instead of relying on materials derived from unsustainable sources.”

But will the fashion industry, and more important, consumers, be on board?

“Socially conscious awareness from the consumer end plays a lot,” Lee said. “Employees who work in the fashion industry need to be fully educated on this movement. The industry cannot shift things at one time. It is all about people in this industry. 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.”

Wethinks the two Lees should get together.

+ Iowa State University