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Courtesy of SaltyCo

November, 16th 2020

Have you ever wondered how much freshwater it takes to make your clothes? Most companies use huge volumes of water in the production of natural and synthetic fabrics. But not SaltyCo, the first ever company to grow salt-tolerant plants for producing its textile fibers.

Words By Daria Müller Velasquez

Courtesy of SaltyCo

Courtesy of SaltyCo

SaltyCo was conceived in the autumn of 2019, during a Master’s of Innovation Design Engineering, across two distinguished institutions – the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. This programme drove the formation of a team that understands the importance of taking responsibility for a more sustainable, less wasteful world. SaltyCo prides itself on being interdisciplinary and diverse, effectively applying a broad spectrum of skills from engineering and chemistry through to business and design. 

“We came across the problem of freshwater scarcity which led us to the huge issue it presents in the textile industry, and the damage it’s having on our planet,” says Julian Ellis-Brown, CEO of SaltyCo. He explains that textiles are currently created from highly unsustainable methods using either petroleum to create synthetic materials, or using cotton which consumes a huge amount of resources, especially fresh water which is becoming increasingly scarce. “So, we asked the question: what is the most sustainable way we can create textiles as an alternative?” Julian continues. “And that is when we stumbled across these amazing environments, these salt marshes that are able to sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide. They can naturally remediate and heal the land on which they are grown and offer resistance against floods. So we thought: if we can create textiles using these, then not only will we be able to fulfill a demand moving forwards, but we’ll also be able to actively heal the planet. So that’s kind of how we got to where we are now.”

Courtesy of SaltyCo

Of course, their path was not so straightforward. SaltyCo, like other sustainable startups, initially faced some significant challenges. “I think the biggest challenge was the technical implementation of our project,” shares Julian. “Our salt-tolerant plants are grown freshwater-free to ensure optimum sustainability. The real issue, then, was in trying to extract the fibers from them through our innovative process, whilst still ensuring that we had the performance and quality that our customers and clients want. What we work on is the continuation and development of non-woven and woven fabrics. Our first product is a fibre filling which is characteristically comparable to down and polyester, but with obviously huge environmental benefits and sustainability credentials.”

“With everything we do at SaltyCo, we really see nature and the planet as one of our biggest stakeholders.” – Neloufar Taheri, COO of SaltyCo

Reflecting on the issue of sustainability, the SaltyCo team agrees that the most important step at this point is to live in a way that does not continue to damage the planet. “Modern society has created such an imbalance in how much it takes compared to how much it gives back to nature. Plans for sustainability have to be about building business models and products that give more back so that we can start bringing that equilibrium back to parity,” explains Julian. His point of view reflects that of SaltyCo’s COO, Neloufar Taheri: “I totally agree with Julian, and I would also add that a lot of systems claim to be sustainable and coexist with nature, but actually they don’t work with nature in mind. With everything we do at SaltyCo, we really see nature and the planet as one of our biggest stakeholders. Every system we create not only helps solve the problems we have, but also thinks about how, in the long-term, this will help increase the resilience of both the global green economy and the entire planet.”

Antonia Jara Contreras, CPO of SaltyCo, brings the conversation back to textiles, discussing their hopes for the industry: “We are currently looking for a new [textile] alternative. We are mainly thinking about shifting the entire industry towards more efficient practices, and perhaps if we find a way to integrate all of these types of plans, the whole industry can move towards using the same resources. It could really help the planet and the future that we must create for ourselves.”

Courtesy of SaltyCo

When asked how they would like their company to evolve in the future, the SaltyCo team members proudly state that one of the things that they have thought a lot about recently is in choosing who they want to collaborate with from an agricultural perspective, and how they could help those in the sector. “This is not just about taking a space and using it to grow our plants and create textiles, it’s about working with local communities and farmers, and exploring how we can help them in return,” says Nelufar. “This way of collaborating can really help different societies around the world. So I believe this is definitely something we would like to focus on in the future,” he continues. Julian steps in, saying, “When we grow plants, we use sewage or seawater, and we do it on land that is not currently used for food or anything like that. Lately, we have seen huge tracts of land being increasingly exposed to salt due to climate change and rising sea levels which reduces soil fertility, so what we do is reach out to farmers whose yields are declining year after year.”

SaltyCo places transparency and stewardship at the heart of their mission, making their products better for people and better for the planet. With their products expanding and reaching a wider audience, the company is becoming increasingly impactful in its mission to be more planet-positive. “At the moment, we are starting to cooperate with the fashion industry, but there are so many other industries interested in different types of textiles, such as the automation and household goods industries. So hopefully, in a few years, we will also be entering this market,” says Antonia, radiating ambition and determination for the whole SaltyCo team.