Innovation That Matters

9 questions with SaltyCo, the student startup developing sustainable fabrics from seawater plants

Wise Words

We spoke with the interdisciplinary group of students from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art aiming to relieve the freshwater-intensive fashion and textile industries.

Springwise’s Katrina Lane interviews mechanical engineer Julian Ellis-Brown, chemist Finlay Duncan, integrated designer Antonia Jara and business/design strategist Neloufar Taher.

Water-thirsty cotton can require 20,000 litres of freshwater to produce just a kilogram of the material — meaning that the water that goes into the creation of a single cotton sock could provide someone with three years worth of drinking water. In contrast, a team from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art developed fabrics made from a salt-tolerant plant that thrives in seawater.

After a successful period of trialling, the team is planning to launch three different textile products under the startup name SaltyCo: a woven fabric, a non-woven fabric and a technical stuffing. SaltyCo’s fabrics have the potential to provide a sustainable alternative to insulating jacket liners, faux leather and other clothing. 

1. What change does Saltyco want to facilitate and why is it important that other retailers follow?

Nelly: SaltyCo’s mission is to design a textile and fashion industry that works with and for nature, rather than against it. This change will become crucial for retailers to follow, as demand for supply chain, life cycle, and material transparency increases. Customers want to know where their products are coming from and what impact they have on the environment. SaltyCo enables retailers to place themselves at the forefront of this impactful shift in the textile industry and effectively introduce change to a thirsty industry. 

2. Where did the idea for SaltyCo come from and what inspired you to materialize it? 

Fin: We all met on a two-year masters course at the Royal College of Art/ Imperial College London. As a group, we were interested in the growing issue of water scarcity and began looking at the unsustainable use of this resource by the textiles industry. Freshwater is used extensively in the production of both natural and synthetic fabrics. We saw a need to innovate new methods of reducing the freshwater footprint of these materials, which led to SaltyCo’s birth. 

Seawater represents 97 per cent of the water on our planet, so it made a lot of sense to use this abundant resource instead. Salt-tolerant plants offered a route to doing this. We have now developed a number of material products from these plants and the results are very promising. With a growing consumer demand for sustainable clothing (ourselves included) we felt inspired to push the concept forward. 

3. How have your different backgrounds come together to shape your work for SaltyCo?

Antonia: It all started with Fin looking at salt-tolerant plants, and together with Julian, they were able to identify their properties. Which then had to be transformed into long-lasting, more sustainable mechanical methods that could achieve the same goal.

In the meantime, Nelly and I exploited the textile manufacturing processes and product application. Simultaneously, with the sum of our skills, we were able to devise the business strategy and the system that requires to bring an idea to the market.

4. What is required for a T-shirt to be freshwater free?

Antonia: Most of the freshwater that goes into the production of a T-shirt goes is spent irrigating the plants and dyeing products. Removing the totality of freshwater in the creation of a garment is quite a challenge. SaltyCo proposes using the most abundant water supply on the planet – seawater. 

At the same time, a lot of seawater dying initiatives are coming to life. If people achieve them successfully, we could soon be looking at an entirely freshwater free T-shirt that is also carbon-neutral, vegan and fully biodegradable.

5. While the retail movement to a carbon-neutral model is applaudable, is it enough? Or should the retail industry be taking further action and starting to look at ways in which operations can become climate positive?

Julian: Carbon positivity is a core element of the SaltyCo vision. With materials such as hempcrete and other carbon-sequestering sources, it is possible to create natural materials that benefit the environment the more we make them.

Reducing our carbon emissions is a critical goal in preventing the onset of runaway global warming, but there are also many other resources that we must begin to use responsibly. By using saltwater, the resource that makes up 97 per cent of our planet’s water supplies rather than the fresh 3 per cent, we create the opportunity to scale our venture without abusing the planet’s precious supplies.

6. Thinking about the environmental footprint of retail, we are becoming aware that it’s not just about the processes and inputs of the clothing, but also what happens later on in the life cycle, too. If you buy a SaltyCo shirt and you wear it until the end of its life, could you throw it in the ground and would it compost? Or, can you tell us what we could do with it to ensure it has as small of a footprint as possible? 

Fin: As all SaltyCo materials come from natural sources they are completely biodegradable at the end of their life. With materials such as our stuffing, however, it is likely that they will be included in garments containing other non-biodegradable materials.

This is why we push for clothing containing our products to be labelled as such. By creating a recognisable brand, we make it easy for customers to make sustainable choices and ensure that, during the recycling process, our biodegradable components can be directed to the right processing stream. 

7. When it comes to being a business, do you think the planet and profits can co-exist?

Julian: Absolutely, but it’s a fine balance. We have to be able to find ways to work with the environment rather than against it. By building products and systems that counteract the abuse and neglect we’ve committed against the planet, we can create new models of textile production where the more we make, the better. 

We grow our salt-tolerant plants on unused arid land, which are generally regarded as worthless. This creates an artificial saltmarsh that hosts habitats, sequestering carbon and resisting erosion from the sea. By extracting value from these plants we arrive at a solution that can balance both profits and the planet. 

8. What’s next? 

Nelly: SaltyCo is currently working on finalizing details for the pilot plan launch. In the next coming months, SaltyCo will be focusing on scaling the system from farming to material extraction and textile manufacturing. Alongside small-scale research and development collaborations, we’re also in conversation with interested beachhead clients to best cater our material to their needs. SaltyCo aims to have a soft launch and entry to the market in Spring 2021.

9. Wise words for entrepreneurs? 

Nelly: We’re facing a time in which our planet is demanding design and technology interventions across all industries that not only co-exist with nature but work for and with nature.

Antonia: An idea is never born great, you have to do plenty of work and strategic thinking to take it to a commercial level.

Julian: Find mentors everywhere and absorb as much information as you can. Look for all different types of businesses; old, new, big, small. Each will teach you something new that will allow you to shape and grow your own venture. You are not the first to do this and it is not out-of-reach, so learn from those who have done it before and use that knowledge to improve.

Fin: Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, many have predicted a surge in demand for ethical and sustainable options across all sectors. This presents a hugely exciting opportunity to rethink the way we do things and create innovative alternatives. For materials, this means breaking away from petroleum-based products and aspiring to options that are organic, vegan and carbon negative.