Next Gen: What Can Fashion Learn From Nature – A Journey Through the Nutrient Cycle

In a world driven by fast-paced trends and disposable cultures, the fashion industry is at a critical juncture. In the quest for pathways towards sustainability, we often rely on tools that primarily focus on technological innovation. Even if technology is important, solutions are frequently segmented and built on top of a system that inherently understands our ecosystems as mere resources – not as the wise teachers that they are. How can technology save us if the very root of how we got here remains unchanged?

We sometimes forget that the answers we are searching for are already here and have been for millions of years – under the authorship of the most underestimated intelligence: Mother Nature.

If we look at natural ecosystems, there is so much that the fashion industry can learn from. For example, what can fashion learn from understanding the closed-loop system in nutrient cycles? The nutrient cycle, also known as the biogeochemical cycle, describes the movement and exchange of nutrients in the environment, which are essential for the growth and survival of organisms. What can fashion learn from the four main stages involved in this process?

Absorption and Assimilation

Trees absorb nutrients from the soil and atmosphere through their intricate root systems. In this dance of symbiosis, assimilation happens. Plants absorb ammonium and nitrate, which are then converted into nitrogen-containing organic molecules. Organisms like fungi and certain bacteria help create these organic compounds from inorganic nitrogen compounds already present in the environment. In this exchange, raw materials are repurposed organically, with no waste.

What if the fashion system is understood raw materials through this lens? How can the process of reforming a natural resource to become a fabric fiber be completely circular, with no waste? What if waste materials from one stage of production are used as input for another? By recognizing the importance of circular loops, certain fabrics would no longer be central to the fashion system.

Internal Circulation

For optimal growth and function of a natural ecosystem, the absorbed and assimilated nutrients are continuously regenerated and stored in forms available to the plants. The nutrients circulate through the vascular system of trees and are evenly distributed to diverse parts such as leaves, branches, stems, and roots. This is an excellent example of the interdependence of the nutrient cycle. The process of the input and output of nutrients is not linear, but rather in constant circulation.

Reimagine a fashion value chain that embodies a balanced distribution of resources, meaning that all stakeholders — from garment workers to consumers — have an equal voice at the table.

Rather than a hierarchy of power and wealth, every step of the value chain has access to fair wages, safe working conditions, and decision-making authority to contribute to the long-term viability, sustainability, and success of the fashion system. For example, decisions for certain materials and designs are not simply determined by a designer and a marketing department but rather depend on each part of the fashion system. How is the harvest for raw materials? What stock already exists in the factories? What fabrics can be reused from waste piles? In this way, the nutrient flow ensures that all parts of the cycle – the leaves, the roots, the tissue – are continuously fed, rather than deprioritized for other organisms.


In the nutrient cycle, a delicate balance of substances is important for maintaining life. Consumption is essential, however, if you take too much and deplete resources, the scale is tipped. Excess within nature cannot be sustained. Take the production of nitrogen for example. Without it, plants cannot produce amino acids, which they need to grow muscles, tissue, plant cells, etc. However, with too much nitrogen, plants produce excess biomass, such as stalks or leaves, and not enough root structures. When excess nitrogen builds up, it can also drain from the soil into underground water sources, leading to a process called eutrophication. This occurs when too much nitrogen enriches the water, causing excessive growth of algae. This causes phytoplankton blooms, turning rivers bright green, leading to ‘dead zones’ that do not have enough oxygen to support most life forms in a river.

The fashion systems output has become an algae bloom. The push for more and more, the constant need for new, without enough time and resources placed to use and reuse what has already been made, has brought us to a ‘dead zone.’

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubledand consumers began buying 60 percent more clothes and wearing them half as long as they once did. Three-fifths of all clothing is estimated to end up in landfills or incinerators within a year of production. The fashion system is literally choking our natural ecosystems, and afterward people. To mimic a closed-loop nutrient cycle, the fashion system must regain a balance between producing and consuming.


During decomposition, organic matter is broken down and nutrients are released back into the environment in a form that can be readily absorbed by plants and other organisms. Decomposition is carried out by bacteria, fungi, and other decomposers, which break down organic matter into simpler compounds. In this way, nutrients are released back into the soil in a form that can be readily absorbed by the trees’ roots. This completes a vital loop, as the tree’s own organic matter becomes a source of nutrients for future growth.

More investment and attention is needed in the fashion system to find ways to mimic the role of decomposers.

Instead of clothing sitting in a landfill, how can we begin to imagine new ways to reuse these materials, to completely break them down and return them into our ecosystem? Critical to this question is understanding that the nutrient cycle is not linear but cyclical and regenerative.

To better understand decomposition, designers must design with end-of-life in mind. How can clothing become a source of nutrients for future growth? Biodegradable materials, circular designs, and regenerative agriculture practices could give us some hints.


Nature is our greatest teacher. If there is one lesson from the nutrient cycle that fashion can learn from, it is this delicate dance of balance. Symbiosis with our environment can only occur if we understand nature, not as an infinite well of resources, but as a process of give and take.

Monoculture farming, excessive irrigation, heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and an overwhelming production and disposal of textile waste lead to nutrient depletion in ecosystems, affecting the growth and productivity of our soils. On the other hand, a closed-loop fashion system functions as a regenerative ecosystem, not simply focused on creating less, but creating practices that nourish our ecosystems. Soils represent the nest where our garments are born. By mirroring how this closed-loop system works we understand that it is only through regeneration and circularity that we can begin to weave a tapestry of renewal. It is only by partnering with nature, we can begin to transcend the current vague and fragmented concept of sustainability.