Ideas to change the world: Post Carbon Lab

Could the clothes you wear be a solution to climate change? Post Carbon Lab thinks so, this biohacking research laboratory is creating T-shirts that capture carbon

The mantra ‘do one thing well’ has been around for as long as the idea of entrepreneurship itself. It’s a commonly held belief that the world’s most successful people gain ground by focusing in and sticking to their guns. As always, though, there’s an exception that proves the rule. Post Carbon Lab founders, Dian-Jen ‘DJ’ Lin and Hannes Hulstaert make a point of doing the opposite. The pair describe their business as a “transdisciplinary research studio”, which mixes their expertise in scientific research and applied design to create new sustainable technologies.

Over the past three years, their work has taken them from presenting photobioreactors (which use light to cultivate photosynthesising micro-organisms) at London Design Festival to creating digital solutions for refugees looking for freelance work in Jordan, and as residents at biolab startup OpenCell in London, they’ve experimented with bacterial pigment dyeing. Now, they’re biohacking textiles to create clothes that absorb carbon. “We’ve been through quite a journey to get here,” Lin laughs, explaining that the unique service they provide now – which has generated an international waiting list of clients – started as a mere side project.

Early in their careers, both Lin and Hulstaert spent years training in costume and fashion, and architecture and film respectively. “In our original professional settings, we both felt like we weren’t given the space to translate our values into tangible outcomes, which is why we started Post Carbon Lab on the side,” says Lin. “Nobody knew what sustainability was back then, or how to talk about it.” She visited clothing factories in Vietnam and Indonesia, and was appalled by the conditions she saw. “Fashion promised so much – glamour, beauty, joy – but didn’t deliver on that for me. I was working in a part of the industry that is horrific for people and the planet.” Soon, she realised that: “the things that don’t make sense to me, don’t make sense to the general public, either.”

Skip forward to 2017 and Lin was working closely with Dr Anne Jungblut, principal researcher at the Natural History Museum, to develop her research into algae and cyanobacteria. Between them, they’d had the bright idea to create wearable materials that are ‘post-carbon’ (i.e. absorb carbon from the atmosphere using algae cultures on fabric fibres). Usually, dyeing textiles requires huge amounts of water, and generates huge amounts of waste – but by ‘growing’ the dye in giant, custom-made petri dishes, Post Carbon Lab saves on both. “When we won the Kering award for sustainable fashion [a prestigious award that is given annually to promising innovators by Kering Group], we realised how much potential our side project really had,” says Lin. “We proved it was possible to take fashion beyond aesthetics and functionality.”

The next obvious step would be to create a fashion line that utilised their microbial, carbon-sequestering dye and sell it to the masses, right? Wrong. “The UK is one of the largest textile waste producers in Europe,” says Lin. “Why would we create more when we can simply treat existing textiles instead? It would defeat the entire point.” While success is most often measured in profit margins, Post Carbon Lab is determined that this isn’t the only way. “Ultimately, it comes down to priorities. Ours is not to make a ton of money and buy a yacht – it’s to reduce our carbon footprint, water usage and waste levels. Every decision from how we commute to where we source our lab equipment is made with those in mind, and it has to be planet first, business second. If we don’t try our best, how can the means justify the end?”

Over the last two years, the pair have set about making their business model as sustainable as their product, by diversifying their service and refining their grassroots approach. Other companies are working on biohacking and technical dyes, but they are doing it all behind closed doors, whereas Post Carbon Lab’s service is accessible to small brands and young designers alike. “We frame the lab as a social enterprise. We allow increased access to sustainable innovations, and we offer them at a cost price so people can experiment with us.”

When COVID-19 hit, many of Post Carbon Lab’s projects were put on hold. “It gave us time to do some care and maintenance with clients and get proper feedback from them. Some said their garments treated with photosynthetic coating had developed a scent that reminded them of sea and soil; others said that by taking care of their treated T-shirt – kind of like a houseplant [PCL-treated clothing requires light and moisture] – they had developed a healthier relationship with their other clothes, too.” Like many businesses, the pandemic allowed the Lab space to fine-tune its USP and – through trial and error – improve its funding applications. “We also had time to work on some of our product’s weak spots, such as performance limitations and the colour, which is currently limited to green, such is the nature of chlorophyll.”

Mainstream strategies for tackling the fashion industry’s carbon footprint tend to focus on buying less and buying better, but don’t necessarily address the clothes we already own. When one T-shirt treated with Post Carbon Lab’s microbial dye can absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as a young tree, it’s evident they’ve filled a gap in the market that few others have identified. The project was met with skepticism at first, but Lin and Hulstaert’s experimental approach has attracted attention from designers that want to work on collaborations in fashion, interiors, automobiles and architecture. “I think it was Henry Ford that said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’ and that’s key,” says Lin. “The market doesn’t know what the market wants, the market wants what you tell the market it wants.”

In an industry that is thought to contribute roughly 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, this small laboratory in East London is biohacking the system. By cultivating clothing that not only absorbs carbon but releases oxygen, providing an accessible and transparent service and addressing the consumer knowledge gap, Post Carbon Lab subverts everything we thought we knew about fashion, science, business – and success.

Anna Prendergast is a London-based journalist who writes on travel and sustainability. Her work has appeared in FT How To Spend It, Condé Nast Traveller and Luxury London