Together for tomorrow


The best design mentor in the world is not human

by | Mar 9, 2020

There is only one designer that has mastered the art of sustainability and does so without creating waste. That designer is nature. And, now after making a mess of nature, we are looking to it to help us figure out how to clean up our mess. 

Leading the discussion on biomimicry in South Africa is certified biomimic and founding director of BiomimicrySA, Claire Janisch. The discipline of biomimicry “is a way of thinking. It is the process of learning from nature in order to emulate it so that we can design products, processes and systems that are not only more sustainable but that are also more resilient and well-adapted to life on earth,” says Claire. 

She explains that if your ‘what’ is to create the colour blue, instead of searching for the colour blue in nature and copying the recipe, Claire suggests asking the ‘how’ question. How does nature create blue? For instance, nature creates blue with structures designed to reflect light. A bird creates blue using the structures on the surface of its feathers to reflect the light providing a blue hue. This design process can be mimicked in textile and fashion design processes.

There are unsustainable ways to biomimic like copying a structure or form from nature without copying the process or workings of nature. The Japanese Shinkansen (bullet train) copied the Kingfisher’s beak to address the booming sound the train made when it exited a tunnel; and there are sustainable ways to mimic nature’s regenerative, low-energy processes and systems.

WWF South Africa’s Pavitray Pillay says, “No matter how forward thinking a technology seems (biomimicry or not), one must consider the unintended consequences.  If it turns out that the damage to the environment is dire and long-term – then it is definitely not sustainable or regenerative.”

The following are examples of sustainable biomimicry: 

Across the pond young textile designer, Alayna Rasile Digrindakis, based in Montana, USA, hand makes and hand-dyes most of her clothing to produce one-of-a-kind pieces. She wants the garments to return to the soil in a safe and timely manner: she combines textile design with habitat restoration. Her design model and process is experimental and uses only natural dyes from plants, flowers, avocado skins, and fibres that she reclaims from various waste streams like estate sales, mills, deadstock piles, and vintage markets. Alayna’s motivation is to create healthy and balanced multi-species relationships on our planet.

Her project, May West is a four-year long research and design project to find a viable textile application for the lightweight, silky floss that grows inside the seedpod of the milkweed plant.  Alayna say that this material has superpowers: “It has a high thermal value, it’s hypoallergenic, hydrophobic and buoyant”.   

Alayna has been on a journey for the past few years to create a winter coat out of entirely plant-based materials. “My most recent prototypes use a waxed cotton canvas, milkweed insulation, a cupra cotton liner and corozo nut buttons.”

The milkweed plant is very important for the Monarch butterfly, which has faced a serious population decline due to habitat loss.  Alayna’s goal “is to prove a market demand for milkweed floss as a material so that people who manage land will be encouraged to grow it (or at least encouraged to not eradicate it) thereby opening up an economic opportunity for rural farmers and ranchers as well as providing habitat for the Monarch butterfly.” 

Zimbabwean-born textile designer, Natsai Audrey Chieza (below) uses a bacteria called Streptomyces coelicolor as a textile dyeing alternative (example in the image below the portrait). The bacteria reduces the amount of water and chemicals used in conventional dyeing processes and colours fabrics with brilliant red and purple pigments.


At The Harvard Wyss Institute in Boston, USA, an ingenious project led by postdoctoral fellow, Havier Fernandez uses shrimp chiton (found in the shell) together with a silk protein to develop an alternative to plastic packaging called ‘Shrilk Bioplastic’. The material can be used to make anything from plastic cups to egg cartons using shrimp shells that come from waste processing factories.

This is a perfect example of what it means to biomimic. The shrilk bioplastic project focuses on sustainability as well as developing processes and systems that are regenerative. 

Not only does this level of innovation create a 100% biodegradable packaging product but chiton is so nutrient rich that the Wyss institute found that they could grow a Blackeye pea plant in soil enriched with its chitosan bioplastic in three weeks. 

Claire says,“I want us to get to a point where every time we make a choice, it will always be regenerative with a low-energy focus because nature appreciates energy as the most valuable resource.” Claire also wants to encourage designers to make decisions that eliminate pollution.

“These are the kinds of decisions we want designers to make,” says Claire. 

  • BiomimicrySA has just launched  three comprehensive biomimicry courses online. To find out more click here.
  • Images: Supplied (the ones of Alayna are by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)
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