Vollebak's new t-shirt is painted black with algae instead of petroleum, and locks in carbon for 100 years

A new t-shirt by Vollebak owes its color to algae. As much an education as a piece of clothing, the Black Algae T-Shirt aims to replace common black dyes. Turns out that almost every black item we own — from pens and jeans to backpacks and tires — contains carbon black, made by partially combusting petroleum or other fossil fuels at high temperatures. From extracting oil and tar to blasting furnaces to burn them, carbon black is carbon heavy.

Reason enough for London-based Vollebak, which "uses science and technology to make the future of clothing happen faster," to look for alternatives. The brand's new t-shirt uses black algae, which live in ponds and grow by soaking up sunlight and carbon dioxide. An algae cell is about the same size as a pigment of carbon black, and can be turned into the same color. Living Ink, which creates the pigment used by Vollebak, harvests spirulina algae by-product — left over from producing natural food colorings — and heats it to produce a black powder. Mixed with water, that becomes black algae ink. The ink can't (yet) be used to dye fibers, so Vollebak prints their t-shirt fabric with color.

The result is a black(ish) shirt that can biodegrade within 12 weeks if buried in soil. And the carbon dioxide that was soaked up by those algae? It's locked into the ink. After the fabric has disappeared, the ink remains in a non-toxic state and continues storing carbon for over 100 years. On sale later this month, the shirt will retail for USD 110.

Trend Bite

Fashion has a sustainability problem. And while most major brands are slowly moving towards a less harmful way of doing business, Vollebak's new t-shirt demonstrates how much progress has yet to be made. It's now educating consumers about the environmental impacts of black dyes. What about the provenance of all the other colors and materials people wear and use? And yes — Vollebak's pricing leaves it out of reach for most buyers. But people will hear about their innovations, and start holding other brands to the same standards. As niche, forward-thinking concepts seep into the mainstream, how will your brand adapt to meet the expectations they set over the coming months and years?

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