Most black ink is made of carbon that’s terrible for the planet. Vollebak’s black algae ink is the opposite.
Black is perhaps the most popular color in fashion, appearing in everything from little black dresses to classic black tees. But when we dress ourselves in chic black outfits, we rarely stop to ask what it took to dye garments that color.
The truth is, most black pigment comes from a material called carbon black, which is made by incompletely burning heavy petroleum. This produces fine black particles, which are then used to do things like create printing inks, dye clothes, and reinforce tires. But manufacturing carbon black is bad for the planet. Excavating fossil fuels and burning them contributes to global warming. Moreover, experts believe that carbon black is likely carcinogenic to humans.
Vollebak, a futuristic clothing label based in the U.K., has been working to develop a more eco-friendly approach to black clothing. It’s partnered with a U.S. biomaterials company called Living Ink to create a pigment from algae used to produce the $110 Algae Black Shirt, which launches this week. In contrast to carbon black, algae is actually good for the environment because it absorbs carbon dioxide through photosynthesis while producing oxygen.
The hope is that the fashion industry can replace carbon black with black algae at scale, thus reducing the sector’s enormous carbon footprint. “Algae is a fascinating material for many reasons, including that it stores carbon,” says Steve Tidball, Vollebak’s cofounder and CEO. “You would have to use it at a mass scale to store a lot of carbon, so for this project what we are most interested in is proof of concept.”
This isn’t the first time that black algae has been used as a pigment. It’s used to make natural food colorings and ink for screen printing. But until now, no fashion label has used it to produce an entirely black garment. To make the shirt, Vollebak created a material out of eucalyptus, beech, and spruce from sustainably managed forests, then worked with Living Ink to print the entire fabric with the black algae ink. This ink was engineered to be UV resistant, so it won’t fade. In a final step, the T-shirt is washed with a softener made from mangoes, so it feels comfortable from the moment you put it on. And since the entire shirt is made from organic materials, it will biodegrade in 12 weeks if you put it in soil.
Algae is plentiful and easy to grow. Living Ink partnered with an algae farm in California that grows the organism as feedstock for animals. When the feed is removed from the water, a black waste product remains, which is then dried and ground up to create the base for the algae ink. “We believe this is the future of sustainable dye because you don’t need any chemicals or complex process to grow the algae,” Tidball says. “The algae grows exponentially in days with just water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide.”
Like many of Vollebak’s other products—including its virus-killing copper jacket and pomegranate peel hoodie—the company created a limited run of a few thousand garments. But Tidball says the reason he cofounded the business with his twin brother was to come up with radical new ideas for the fashion industry that he hopes others will quickly pick up on. “I get that creating a few thousand pieces of clothing will not change the world,” he says. “But the story we’re trying to tell might. Maybe brands and consumers will start looking into where their black dye is actually coming from.”
Vollebak’s business strategy is unconventional: Most brands spend a lot of money protecting their intellectual property and don’t want others to copy their ideas. But Tidball is more interested in creating a long-term legacy. “I would be really bored if we found one innovation, patented it, and built our careers around it,” Tidball says. “We think of ourselves as a little R&D lab for the world. Our customers aren’t just interested in our products, they’re interested in funding our work; they believe they’re investing in the future.”