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People We Love: Jen Keane

As sustainability becomes more and more part of the conversation, it also becomes harder to define...especially in the design and fashion realm. “What now needs to be done to nourish sustainability in the design space is improving transparency and industry-wide dialogue on what sustainability actually means and how to talk about it in a constructive way,” says designer and researcher Jen Keane. We virtually chatted with her about just that, plus how she’s redefining sustainable fashion with a new crop of naturally biodegradable and infinitely renewable bio-composite materials.

Can you tell us about what you do, in a nutshell?

I’m a bio-designer and material explorer, having spent the last 10 years working in materials and innovation for the fashion and sportswear space. But most recently I’m the co-founder and CEO of Modern Synthesis, a London based biomaterial start-up looking to help evolve the way we make fashion materials, with biology

Can you speak to what you’d consider flaws in the design and making industry right now, especially in terms of sustainability? It’s seldom spoken about.

On the contrary, I feel like everyone is talking about sustainability, which is a great first step. Where further work needs to be done is improving transparency and industry wide discourse on what sustainability actually means and how to talk about it with consumers in a constructive way. Unfortunately achieving true ‘sustainability’ in fashion is actually quite complex and involves a holistic look at not just materials used but also total carbon footprint, end of life assessment, ecological and societal impact as well as long term economic viability

What kind of digital and biological tools may help achieve a more robust sustainability framework in the design and making space?

There are so many ways technology can aid in sustainability, especially in regards to traceability and in improving our material and manufacturing systems. In our case, we are looking to biology as inspiration for new types of materials and ways to produce them because after all, life itself is already the ultimate circular economy.

The more we learn about nature’s code, the more we are able to design with it. For example, last year we did a collaboration with the Tom Ellis lab at Imperial College to genetically engineer the bacteria we use to be self-dying with a natural black pigment called melanin. Self-dying materials could help reduce dye waste but also offer new aesthetics completely different than the materials we have today.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the design/making industry?

If anything, I believe the pandemic has us all reconsider our priorities and perhaps realize that we can get by with a little less. People are buying less clothes which is definitely positive but unfortunately in many cases it is actually the smaller retailers and designers without huge online presence or advertising budget that took the hit. I hope people continue to be more considerate about their purchases but would encourage everyone to put the effort into buying locally and ethically rather than what seems most convenient or the best bargain.

Do you think more sustainable—albeit still affordable—fashion is on the horizon? If so, how far away are we thinking?

Fashion is already getting more sustainable; most major brands have teams working on reducing their carbon footprint. That being said, there is still a long way to go and this may be provocative to say, but I think we should also reconsider what ‘affordable’ actually means because many fashion items sold today are in truth artificially cheap, which distorts our value systems around what things should cost. In regards to the new wave of biomaterials, I would say 5 years before we start seeing these more available on a significant scale.

What does the future of fashion look like, in your opinion?

There is not one but many futures for fashion. I think fashion will become more and more ‘glocal’, i.e., produced locally to support local economies but designed from all over, employing new technologies to reduce ecological footprint and empower individual creativity but at the same time embracing traditional and cultural heritages worldwide.

Are you working on any specific projects now you can tell us about?

As a society, we are utterly dependent on petrochemical based materials (like plastics), and the fashion and textiles industry is no exception. Polyester, nylon, lycra and PU leather (AKA most vegan leathers) are all examples of synthetic materials that, like plastics, are derived from the oil industry, which has an astronomical carbon footprint. Some are biobased now, like cactus leather for example, which is a step in the right direction, but at the end of the day they are still plastics and may or may not be recyclable or degrade well into the environment. At Modern Synthesis, we work with living organisms, specifically bacteria, to grow new types of materials made of cellulose, the natural building block of common materials like cotton and paper, through a process we call microbial weaving. This is a ‘bio-fabrication’ process which means the material itself is actually grown, rather than woven or knitted. We see this as the next generation of biomaterials, helping to displace petro-chemical based synthetic leathers and films with completely new types of bio-composite materials that are naturally biodegradable, infinitely renewable, and yes, inherently vegan.

What kind of changes have you made in your personal life in an effort to be more sustainable and what are some easy tweaks people can make, especially in terms of their wardrobes?

Buy less, re-wear, and re-purpose. And if you do buy something new, buy consciously, do your research, and invest in items that will last or have been produced in an ethical and ecologically responsible manner. It’s nearly impossible to avoid all synthetics (for example, almost all yoga tights are made of a mix of polyester / polyamide (nylon) and elastane (lycra)) but you can look for brands that use recycled versions of these materials.

At The Laundress, we talk a lot about possession preservation and give our customers the tools they need via solutions and education to do that. What kind of upcycling or preservation tactics do you personally employ or encourage?

I live in London so I do enjoy charity / thrift shopping and often donate to these shops as well. There are also a lot of fashion brands these days that do a great job of upcycling materials in their ranges like Christopher Raeburn, or up-and-coming community minded brands like Joao Maraschin and Trashion Factory.