For the fashion industry, April’s Earth Day presents paradoxical opportunities. The first, the chance to review and discuss climate change and anti-pollution efforts; the second, an opportunity to promote the “greenest and cleanest” of fashion products to drive sales. Since no product is impact-free, it’s a tricky time to navigate the critical companies, products and innovations that could nurture our planet back to health, whilst serving our ever-increasing fashion appetite for newness.
Scientific problem-solving and fashion storytelling
An ideal starting point seems to be a company that is extracting pollution from our atmosphere and turning it into textile inks and other chemical formulations that replace existing ones, to the net benefit of global air quality. Graviky Labs, the pollution upcycling company, has established a commercial partnership with materials science and apparel company PANGAIA (which I have reported on previously) to insert their AIR-INK® into the fashion zeitgeist. Herein lies the opportunity for symbiosis between sustainable material innovations and fashion—the unification of scientific problem-solving with powerful commercial storytelling. But what does this Graviky Labs and PANGAIA partnership mean for the fashion industry, and could this AIR-INK® printing solution significantly reduce global air pollution? And how do cleantech startups work with fashion brands? During an interview with Graviky Labs founders Anirudh Sharma and Nikhil Kaushik and PANGAIA’s Chief Innovation Officer, Dr Amanda Parkes, we discussed the opportunity and challenges of innovations like AIR-INK®, and the path to upcycling air pollution globally and channelling it into cool, and clean, products.
Graviky Labs’ operations are based in India, the country reported to have the third-worst air pollution in the world (after Bangladesh, the most polluted, then Pakistan). The crux of their business is to “mine unnatural resources” that should not be in the environment and turn them into useful products, according to Sharma. Their open-air industrial devices capture PM2.5 (pollution particles more than thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair and able to pass through human lungs and into the bloodstream, posing a serious health risk). PM2.5 is made up of vehicle exhaust fumes, emissions from domestic and industrial burning of fossil fuels, volcanic dust and other naturally occurring matter. AIR-INK® is created by extracting the carbon from this PM2.5 and turning it into various formulations for printing on packaging and textiles. In addition to this ink, the Graviky team are working on dyes and other textile solutions, which PANGAIA’s Dr Parkes says is sparking ongoing conversations about a longer-term partnership between the two companies.
AIR-INK® Capsule Collection
The current partnership centres on a capsule collection co-designed by PANGAIA and creative director Jenke Ahmed Tailly using the AIR-INK® formulation for printing black lettering and graphics on recycled cotton hoodies, t-shirts and track pants. The collection is being promoted through partnerships with Naomi Campbell and Keziah Jones, portrayed in a film by Ahmed Tailly, shot in Lagos, Nigeria.
Dr Parkes explained that this new pollution-extracted ink has replaced the traditional black ink in their existing printing infrastructure at the production facility in Portugal, following an initial small batch test “to prove that the formulation would not damage the expensive printing machines”. The intention is now to import larger quantities and use AIR-INK® for all the black printing across the PANGAIA product range, according to Dr Parkes. This integration and expansion sound straightforward enough, but the rigorous process of EU approval of this new ink formulation imported from India was facilitated by PANGAIA, who have extensive experience in this area, following previous approvals of segment-defining materials, including their proprietary FLWRDWN. The next phase of integration of AIR-INK® will require additional approval processes for larger import quantities.
What’s wrong with existing black inks, I wonder, and what is the relative environmental benefit of this new alternative? Simply put, traditional black inks are created by burning fossil fuels. Since we are already doing that at a rate that is seeing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere double every 20 years, according to Kaushik, it makes sense to sequester this carbon from the atmosphere instead. Given that 7 million people die every year as a result of air pollution, disproportionately impacting people in developing nations, this highlights the critical importance of such an innovation. But could it mitigate air pollution on a global scale? What is the route to expanding the innovation to neighbouring countries and beyond?
Scaling clean air globally
Sharma explained that they are targeting businesses, who they hope will pay for the extraction devices that can counter the emissions those businesses cause. On the subject of government involvement, it is clear that to scale Graviky Labs as a commercial business, it needs private sector buy-in. With key garment industry players in neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan, it makes sense that factories already adopting LEED certification and other environmental initiatives might adopt such a solution to reduce air pollution, particularly whilst fossil fuels remain their primary source of power.
It’s difficult to quantify the exact impact that Graviky Labs innovations could have on global air pollution as this innovation is yet to scale. In terms of CO2 footprint reduction through carbon black replacement, Graviky Labs claims that each kg of AIR-INK® screenprint ink mitigates 800g of CO2 footprint. 1 kg of carbon black made traditionally (by burning fossil fuels) creates a 2.4Kg CO2 footprint. Each litre of AIR-INK® replaces about 30-40% of the same carbon black pigment. Also, there is the health benefit of sequestering PM2.5 instead of letting it float in the ambient environment, and “locking” the carbon onto a printed product.
Next on Graviky Labs’ innovation list is a device that uses solar power to extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere, which Sharma hopes they can use to make a polymer. “Can we brew CO2 from the atmosphere?” he asks, giving a nod to the process of brewing beer. Whatever the innovation, Graviky Labs are clear that they are “only interested in creating (products) from things that shouldn’t be out there (in the atmosphere).” To achieve commercial success, though, Kaushik admits they need partnerships with forward-thinking companies like PANGAIA which offers a “natural” way into the fashion ecosystem that is “not just a marketing ploy”. PANGAIA’s product range continues to expand, and with it their use of naturally regenerative materials, like the new silky seaweed material, which is currently making its first retail appearance at the brand’s Selfridges pop-up in London. As Earth Month stories go, one that combines air pollution sequestration with the global fashion zeitgeist addresses not just our fashion desires in the West, but our obligation to recognise and tackle air pollution in fashion’s biggest manufacturing countries.