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The following is an excerpt from Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change (2012, Laurence King) by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose.

Biomimicry is the practice of emulating nature’s patterns and strategies to direct product design, processes, and policies, and as such draws its inspiration from the living world. Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, contrasts the rich and diverse natural world with the systematic taming and simplification of nature through human activity and the subsequent destruction of species. “We understand that the only way to keep learning from nature—and its wellspring of ideas—is to safeguard its naturalness,” she says. That the study of biomimicry can trigger this level of understanding in designers is in itself of great value. It draws us far beyond the limits of the narrow and intellectual habitat of industrialized design and reminds us of the dual nature of our present circumstances as designers: how small a part we play in, and yet what enormous responsibility we have, to the “whole.”

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Donna Sgro’s “Morphotex” fabric apes the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings, which appear cobalt blue despite lacking any intrinsic color.

PRACTICAL MAGIC

That nature’s processes are irrational and spontaneous and may take millennia to evolve can be a challenging concept for designers to grasp since we work to such short deadlines and “lock in” our designs before production. But an effective visual metaphor is provided by Donella Meadows’s reference to fractal geometry.

The Koch snowflake illustrates that biomimicry is not simply a tool for copying.

Using the example of an equilateral triangle, Meadows explains that when another such triangle is added at the center of each side and the pattern repeated, an elaborate shape results—called a “Koch snowflake”. Meadows notes that out of a few simple rules of self-organization, enormous diversifying crystals of technology, physical structures, organizations, and cultures can grow—including our own.

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The Koch snowflake helps us understand why mimicking the complexities of evolved nature is difficult. But it also illustrates that biomimicry is not simply a tool for copying. Rather, it is understanding and applying nature’s principles—surprisingly simple at their core—that is more the point. This distinction of purpose is critical, for in our culture where the market, high speed, and low cost direct design “innovation,” it is all too easy for designers to fall into using biomimicry to serve the status quo of manufacturing and selling novelty, and degrading the environment in the process.

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Katie Ledger’s “Shed Me” garments feature layers that slough off without the need for laundering.

ECOLOGICAL GAINS

Benyus’s basic guidelines can provide designers with a tool to assess and evalute their own ideas and actions, and maintain focus on ecological gains—to inspire not just the quality of things but rather to inform the “fitness” of those ideas for the context in which they are placed and to direct the nature of whole systems.

Designers must focus on the fitness of their ideas for the context in which they are placed.

Nature as a model: where nature is imitated or used as a source of inspiration for designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g. a solar cell inspired by a leaf.

Nature as measure: where nature is used as an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovation, e.g., considering how much energy (and what type) does the solar panel use in its production and whether the energyit saves during use justifies this investment.

Nature as mentor: where nature is viewed and valued in a new way. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it, e.g., developing solar technology that can be installed close to the point of use, rather than developing desert wilderness areas into solar-panel farms.

It is not only through nature as model but through nature as measure and nature as mentor that the truly transformative potential of biomimicry can be fully realized.

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Páramo’s waterproof jackets feature Nikwax teatment and fabric technology inspired by the transpiration activity of trees.

BIOMIMICRY IN TEXTILES

Biomimicry-inspired ideas for sustainability in fashion typically starts as most initiatives do— centered on physical materiality: the enhancement of fabrics or engineered fibers, surfaces, and finishes. But since these developments often require highly technical, physical, or molecular engineering, innovations are frequently housed within the labs of technical universities or performance-fabric suppliers.

Designers may be frustrated at the lack of access and means for implementing biomimicry innovations.

Fashion designers may therefore be quite frustrated at the lack of access and means they have for implementing and actualizing biomimicry innovations. These frustrations are indicators of old work habits where designers are ensconced in studios, fulfilling industry expectations as stylists and purveyors of novelty.

In this pattern of practice, designers rarely, if ever, interact with scientists and technologists; the unfamiliar and rich territories between disciplines remain unexplored, and the synergies of interdisciplinary collaborations remain unignited.

Designers, too, are complex living organisms that function best in a dynamic and diverse environment.

Interrupting these old working pattens is cumbersome and awkward. We have become so fragmented as an industry and so isolated in our specialities that pathways between each other are nonexistent. Yet biomimicry is as much about opening up these routes as it is about innovating products. For designers, too, as Paul Hawken writes in Natural Capitalism are “complex living organisms that evolved in and function best in a dynamic and diverse environment.”

Fabric and product development, ecology, business motivations, and consumer behavior must co-evolve to achieve optimum sustainability benefits. The true power and potential of biomimicry may be diminished if the design ideas it inspires (nature as model) are developed in a cultural vacuum where nature as measure and nature as mentor are ignored.