Creative and the Chemist

...a breath of fresh air

by Jemma Gray
On average, every person in the UK has their life expectancy reduced by 7-8 months as a result of air pollution. Despite rising concerns such as this, there remains a reluctance in people to commit to dramatic lifestyle changes for the benefit of the environment. Therefore, realistic environmentalists need to search for solutions that cause minimal disruption to people’s daily routine. Helen Storey is a designer and Professor at London College of Fashion, who in recent years has teamed up with Tony Ryan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Science at the University of Sheffield, in some innovative projects designed to combine ethical science and fashion. Their latest collaboration, Catalytic Clothing, amalgamates the fields of Nanotechnology and our everyday clothes, with the goal of purifying the air we breathe. For those not so scientifically minded, Nanotechnology involves the control and manipulation of matter on a molecular scale. At this level Catalytic Clothing breaks down pollutants using the power of photocatalysts, activated by light. Photocatlysts are bound to clothing in a standard wash cycle using an additive to a product such as fabric conditioner. They become reactive through exposure to light and when this occurs, a series of reactions take place that ultimately lead to the breakdown of the airborne pollutants into non-harmful chemicals. A large number of people treating their clothes in this manner can lead to measurable environmental benefits. In this way, the clothes and the wearer become catalysts for change. Here, Helen Storey answers some questions relating to this exciting project.

Your ‘Wonderland’ project, also in collaboration with Tony, was an exploration into biodegradable fashion and a comment on the crisis of fast disposable fashion – Was Catalytic Clothing a natural progression on from this?

It was a natural progression in the sense that it was clear that Tony and I had a kind of equality in our relationship where we were both willing to risk things in our professions in order to improve the world in some way through what we do. The idea came up over a slow process of conversations and was brought together actually, by a young 14 year old girl who was at a Wonderland workshop where we were talking about working in this way. The realisation of this idea happened in this workshop where this 14 year old reiterated something that I had been talking to Tony about, which was surface areas and energy that doesn’t get used. That’s basically us, so we never think about human energy as a force in itself and how we can use that. We haven’t tended to use the surface area of our clothing for anything other than to keep us warm or to say a little bit about what we look like and who we attract and so on. But this 14 yr old girl said what about using energy that already exists such as our footsteps for example, so she was kind of going back to the same territory. Tony had to leave that meeting and go to another, and in it, he kind of had a ‘eureka’ moment where he calculated the mathematics of what the surface area of our clothes was, just to see what it would be like compared to the scale that he designs at – he’s a ‘designer’ too, only it’s at Nano scale. It turned out to be the surface of a tennis court, so we are each wearing the surface of a tennis court, so then we thought, how could we use that surface area? And the idea of using it to purify air came up. So that was a long winded way of saying (laughs) Catalytic Clothing, by the nature of the idea, wasn’t automatic, but more the enactment of our wanting to continue to work together .

Technology and fashion have usually come together in the past to produce something that is decorative (such as LED dresses) rather than life extending – Will the industry follow you and produce more of the latter in the future?

It’s a bigger question about how difficult it is for the arts and the sciences to talk to each other. I think that lots of people would like to be able to work on projects in this way but very often in the worlds of art and fashion you have people who at some stage have turned away from the world of science for whatever reason and the road back to it is quite difficult. It’s meant that a lot of designers that have worked in the area of technology have been dealing with ‘effect’ as opposed to dealing with ‘process’ and what’s invisible – and I mean invisible, as in nanotechnology. But I think that the gap is narrowing and I would hope that the kind of conversations that Tony and I have very publically now, will encourage people to seek out their own science partners and think a bit less about battery powered fashion and more about getting into the process of something before it even exists and the kind of creativity that can be involved in that, so it’s less about effect and more about tangible end benefit.

Was fashion utilised to harness this technology in this instance so that the idea is visually appealing to the masses?

Yes, definitely.

Can the technology used in Catalytic Clothing be applied only through fabric conditioner at the moment or could it be through detergent or other laundry products?

Well, we’re looking at three, or four different routes, because a single person wearing Catalytic Clothing makes almost no difference whatsoever, it requires collective action. So we’ve had to look at human behaviour and the things humans do in any case. Success won’t come by making purifying air the property of one clothing brand for example, we all wash our clothes and we all walk in the problem daily, so it’s us that are the preambulating catalysts, it’s why we think washing, and not buying more clothes is the route to go. So whether it ends up being in a washing powder, or in a fabric conditioner, or in an additive tablet we’re not sure yet, but each of those has ramifications for the life cycle of the whole thing, including considering what it does to the water supply and to the human skin. This is the stage that we are at now; we are looking for the best delivery mechanism vs. the highest efficacy-so how much do you need in a wash? Do you in fact only need to apply it once? Or is it a bit more like a 2-in-1 shampoo and there for every wash?

If I’m right, the wearer will have a protective barrier that shields them from the pollutants from coming in contact with the skin like the protective barrier you’ve got in sunscreen.

Yes, you don’t become a ‘dirt magnet’. You, or your clothes, are not sucking in any more pollution than we do anyway without realising it - It’s not attracting dirt as such, the reaction happens just off the surface of the clothes, the skin will be protected.

You view your contribution to fashion these days more as ‘Art with a purpose’. In this climate should it be the duty of creative’s to generate greater awareness for sustainability?

Personally I think yes, but I get quite a lot of flak for that point of view. I sort of fell out of love with ‘art for art’s sake’ quite a few years ago but I think it was a very personal moment. I was looking for greater meaning in my life and I found it by making sure what I spent most of my time on was less about ‘effect’ and more about fundamentally changing something for the better. So, it’s a bit like when Katherine Hamnett was banging on about organic cotton, I guess in some ways this is my version of that in that I think that the world now finds itself in such a position where it feels like a luxury, or a self indulgence, to do things out of curiosity alone, of wanting to find something out without it actually leading to something that anybody might want to use, or something that’s going to help us advance in some way – I feel the same towards the sciences as I do towards the arts in that respect.

Are your projects for sustainable design more about creating awareness and opening up the debate, or in fact finding solutions?

Both, I hope, at the same time. Finding solutions is difficult because you can’t do them on your own, you have to have other people agree that it’s a good idea, and you have to have people that want the thing to exist and be produced - I don’t think that you can do one without the other. A debate informs people, so that their choices about the type of fashion they buy might change and shift.

What can be done to make sustainable fashion more than a strategy for marketing purposes?

If human behaviour stays as it is, as it has ever been, then the people that want to make sure that sustainability is sustainable are going to have to get cleverer because the average person doesn’t want to make any behaviour change whatsoever. I know we live in London, and there are the Guardian readers and all the rest of it, and you can sometimes think, or hope, that the world is full of people who are willing to make a certain amount of change, but you only have to look at the scale of the problem and the amount of people that don’t do anything, (and the years it has taken people to use recycle bins, it’s been 20 years since we’ve been trying to do this) versus the finite resources around us and the clock that’s ticking on the planet. All this means, is that people who come up with solutions have got to get smarter, to make the solution invisible, or close to effortless, in order for us to deliver ‘sustainable’ without waiting for people to change their minds or their habits. We have to go with ‘human behaviour’.

Has there been interest from any major manufacturers? What does the future hold for your connection with Ecover?

Since we did the press conference in July, we have had about eight approaches from different kinds of commercial ventures. From those that also produce products that help purify the air, in architectural circles and things like that, to a few major retailers, and quite a few financiers, who are interested in funding and bringing the product to market. Because we are at the crucial point of getting it to the stage where there is something finished to take to market, we can’t accept any of the offers at the moment. But my overriding wish is that this could be a bit like what fluoride in toothpaste has become – what we call a ‘threshold product’ – where everybody believes it would be good for it to be in every clothes washing product globally. I hope it starts with Ecover, but that it then spreads so that it’s part of the habit of washing the world over.

Just to talk about it, to make more people aware of it, so that this notion of being very experimental across these two domains (Science and Art) becomes more naturalised. That’s what I spend a lot of my time doing when I talk to the MA in Fashion and Environment students at LCF for example. Students generally come in with lots of ideas, and very often, sadly, what education does is tell you everything that you can’t do, and knocks them back out again. So using projects like Catalytic Clothing as a ‘live’ example of just what’s possible when you collide seemingly opposite kinds of knowledge can help keep their imaginations as open as possible as they go forwards to shape their own creative destinies.

Where do you see Catalytic Clothing being in 5 years time?

The dream is that it’s in all the washing detergents all around the world. We are actually saying 2 years development time, because all sorts can happen in that timescale. We are past the proof of concept stage – we know that it works – so we are saying two years, so that it is fit for market and making sure that it is absolutely safe. There’s politics in this, as with anything else that shapes or impacts our society, so the two year time-frame is for that too!