May 12 • 49M

Episode #62: Natalia Burakowska

Founder of food loss inspired clothing brand Terratela.

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Nicholas Gill
The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
Episode details

Natalia Burakowska is the founder of Terratela, which uses food loss and waste to create a line of sustainable clothing. She is using things like seaweed, corn husks, banana fibers and spoiled milk to create fibers that get transformed into clothing. She is trying to start a conversation within the fashion industry about transparency, in the entire line of production from product to packaging, about where the clothes you wear comes from. It’s funny, many of us that think about sustainability in food, completely ignore it in other aspects of our lives. I think I do that. Do you ever question where the materials you put on your body everyday come from? Honestly, before this interview I hadn’t given it much thought. Why does that industry get a pass? Why do we give ourselves a pass for the clothes we wear? This is a conversation that we should have been having for a long time. Natalia isn’t the only one thinking about clothing in this way, though she just so happens to have a food connection that make Terratela especially relevant for my listeners.  

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Partial Episode Transcript

On waste in the fashion industry

Nick: “It's funny to me that fashion seems to have escaped the whole sustainability conversation whatsoever. I imagine there's enormous waste and fashion. Not just old clothes and where they go, but the use of toxic chemicals, micro plastics that wind up in the ocean, aside of poorly paid labor. It seems like fashion just gets a pass at these things, for some reason. With food, at least we've been talking about it for a while, but I don't hear the conversation in the same way as food and I'm sure the scale of it has to be quite similar.”

Natalia: “It's interesting, because ever since we've launched Terratela, I've been asking people: What are you wearing? And people will tell me, I'm wearing this designer or this designer, and I'm like, no, what is it? Like? What is the fiber? People don't know that. I think that's kind of the disconnect. The consumer is not really looking for how these things are made. And brands are not really exposing how things are made so much. That's kind of why Terratela was born.

It was literally around two years ago. I had just come from a trade show, where I met all these amazing fiber makers and fabric makers, that were telling me about all these cool materials that they're making out of food waste. The show was in Italy, so we went to Osteria Francescana, and I was there chatting with some friends that were eating. They're all chefs are in the industry. And I was like, This is crazy that when we come here, the chef knows exactly to the tiniest thing where it came from. In my industry people don't know.”

Nick: “Not even like super high-end clothes. It's totally nontransparent. You're paying 1000s of dollars for a dress sometimes and you really have no clue where it's coming from.”

Natalia: “That's the crazy thing. Because you go to a restaurant, you pay them money, but you get really good quality. If you pay money for an expensive piece of clothing, you don't know where it came from. It's typically polyester because there are no real rules. It's not that it's expensive, and you're getting something natural. There's no rule in that sense. It's really more about the designer branding.

There's a company called Fashion Revolution that has kind of started to expose some of these statistics. In fashion, there are different tiers to the factories. So, if you use a tier one factory, you're talking about the people that sew your garments. They did a study of 250 brands, like the biggest brands, and around 47% of those brands know who sold their garment, which is a huge leap from even 10 years ago where people didn't look into it. Then if you're talking about the fabric, we're looking at 27 percent of people that look into the fabric supplier. So, the people that are dyeing it, that are making it, and these are some of the biggest polluters. So only 27 percent of these of these companies are looking into it. And if you're talking about the fiber part of it, it drops to like 11 percent.”

Nick: “That's even just looking into it. That's not even doing anything about it. It's just like they are aware of it.”

Natalia: “That's kind of what we're trying to do with Terratela is to have much more of this transparency, traceability, of seeing where these things come from, how they're made and how the people are treated. And how is the fabric treated? Are we dumping water into rivers? Are we are we trying to be circular and deal with these chemicals in a better way. A lot of materials are made using chemicals, I think it's hard to avoid that that process of turning something into something else does involve some chemicals, but it's kind of creating that closed loop process that they don't go out into rivers. They don't hurt the community; they are just kind of staying in their own cycle. This is what we're looking for. And to be honest, it is one of the hardest things to do. It's like, baby steps to get there, because you're really kind of going all over the globe to find these things because it's not all in one country.”

On turning food loss into fashion

Natalia: “I'm not the only person in the industry that's exposed to these materials, but what I found just through researching is that people aren't using them, or they'll use it for like a collection as a marketing moment. So I was thinking, why don't we just combine all the things that I personally love: food, waste, sustainability and clothing? Why don't we make something that kind of blends all of these things together, and really goes for it? That we only use products that are made of food, food waste or food loss, which is another important thing, I think, is to differentiate between those two. Food loss is the majority of our materials right now, which is postindustrial food loss. Our first T-shirt was made with seaweed, which is actually a regenerative food source. Our second T-shirt is made of soybeans, which is made from food loss. So, it's using the hulls of the soybeans from tofu production, stuff that would just get discarded. The majority of our first collection this year is going to be from food loss.”

Nick: “So there are soybeans, a major industry, worldwide. They’re grown everywhere. It's very destructive, and there are tons of waste from it, I imagine. Normally this waste, there's nothing you can do with it?”

Natalia: “Normally, they don't really do anything with it. So soy bean is interesting, because it has been around since the 40s, the technology footprint. A lot of this stuff is not really new. It's just that it's kind of been put aside for synthetics. So actually, Henry Ford was really into soybean manufacturing. He made some cars out of it, he upholstered some of the leathers using a soybean leather. There's even this like amazing photo of him wearing a soybean suit on his birthday. He was really trying to push it. At that time, it was the 40s people were into it. And then the war came, and they were looking for cheaper alternatives. Polyester kind of got ahead of it. The technology was there and now companies are bringing it back. So, it's pretty interesting, the soybean production. What you said is true. It's not a great industry, there are GMOs involved and everything, but it is better in that sense that we're using the waste of it instead of sample putting a whole new field of cotton out where you're using a lot of resources. So that's kind of what we're trying to do is find places where there's waste and using those materials.

Nick: “You're not encouraging new soy fields, you're just taking the byproducts. And seaweed, I found this super interesting, but you're in Icelandic seaweed.”

Natalia: “Just to go back to our traceability, we really want to drill down the fiber suppliers in this area of Tier III factories that people don't really reach. We’re actually going to Iceland next week to meet with the seaweed farmers, so we kind of want to see the whole process there. They do seaweed farming for the beauty industry, food industry and textiles. They're actually USDA organic, certified and the whole process is very clean. So, we want to go and check in on them.”

Nick: “There's this deep history of seaweed use in Iceland, but it's just mostly been forgotten. It's been making a comeback for 10 years in terms of food, but there's tons of it. I imagine you've been there? There's seaweed everywhere. And you're using a brown algae called Knotted wrack. And what part of Iceland is it coming from? The North?”

Natalia: “There's tons there. And they wild harvest it. It's kind of harvested every four years. It's like trimming hair, you know, you just kind of take off some and then it grows more every time.”

Nick: “So you just take the top, it's a very sustainable way of harvesting this wild seaweed. But how do you turn that into a T-shirt? That's what I'm fascinated by. I see how you can cook seaweed, which is already complicated sometimes, but to turn that into a T-shirt, into fibers and things…”

Natalia: “The process is pretty cool. They dry everything there in Iceland, then they crush it into a powder. And then they work with the supplier in Austria, that uses wood pulp. It's this really great certified company called Lenzing. And they only use forests that they grow that are kind of grown by rainfall. And they bring that seaweed into their wood pulp production. They kind of blend it together and it's kind of like a binding agent for the seaweed. So, the seaweed is sort of embedded in that and you get all the great benefits of it because it's not like an oil on top. It's like fully baked into the fiber. So, they spin it and make it into a fabric.”

On transparency

Natalia: “It's [fashion] kind of like draped in the secrecy that people don't want to share where they produce, because they're don't want other people to have that access. We're just trying to be really transparent with that whole chain. We’re going to start visiting more often and we want people to see how amazing these factories are. Because there are not a lot of factories in the world that are really striving for these certifications, and all of these things on their own. These factories in Portugal take it upon themselves to push their limits.

One of the factories that does our fabric, they actually collect the vapor that comes out of the machines, and they reuse it to dye the fabric. They kind of collect it and then turn it back into like a liquid and use it to dye just to make to not create more water. These are the kind of the stories that we want to tell because it’s amazing. I mean there are a lot of factories that just pollute endlessly and don't even think about it. And these guys, it is more expensive, it's more of a step for them, but they're putting money behind that tech so that they can help to not create more waste in their environment.”

Nick: “I was going through your website and the packaging is compostable, like every part of the T-shirt. Everything you do, there's some aspect of sustainability around it.”

Natalia: “The packaging is interesting because it's kind of a forgotten thing. You get your item, you're excited and everything else goes to trash. You don't even think about it. People spend all this money on hangtags, and all these other things that they shipped with your garment, and it just goes to the trash. You're not thinking about this as a consumer, maybe in an unboxing video, but you're not really thinking about it otherwise. So, we've really done like a good job of finding suppliers that are thoughtful about their package. If we start with our hang tag, it's made of seed paper. So, it's a recycled cellulosic fiber and inside they put seeds. It was a really big passion of mine to find seeds that are some sort of vegetable or herb. I have seen this paper made with flowers and I was like, this is great, but it's not what I like quite what to depict here. So, we found a great supplier in California that is putting basil seeds in it.”

Nick: “So, I can actually plant the tag?”

Natalia: “Yes, I planted it when I got it because I'm trying to test everything and our basil is about that big now. Maybe two inches. So, the basil seed tag, then we have, I'm sure you've bought clothes online and you get them in like a plastic bag. We are using a cotton mesh bag that's like a produce bag that you can use in place of plastic at the supermarket. We have that and then all of that goes inside of a compostable mailer that we ship out.”

Nick: “I saw the produce bag and I think it's super nice because it's mesh. It's actually a great mushroom foraging bag. Immediately, that's what came to mind because you can collect the mushrooms and spread spores. Like a lot of people use these plastic potato bags, but this is much, much better.”

Natalia: “That's so interesting. I'm going to put that on the website.

Nick: “Yeah, you should. You could market it as a mushroom foraging bag. I don't think one exists. And then there's a QR code on the on the sleeve.”

Natalia: “The QR, so on the sleeve. We have a little icon of what the material is the base material. And at the bottom hand, we have a QR code that you can scan, it brings you to the website, where we have created this video kind of showing the process. When you go to a factory, that's a fabric factory, you see fabric really coming off the machine, you can kind of see these things. But when we're talking about this seaweed production and all that, it's hard to see that when you go to a factory, because they’re happening in a vat of some kind, like it's not out in the open. So, we worked with a CGI artist that kind of helped us create that visual representation of the seaweed kind of becoming a powder mixing with Eucalyptus, and you get that feeling of oh, I see what's going on here.”

Nick: “This has been done with food a little bit, the QR codes. I think it could be improved on a lot. Just because with food, it's usually at a fancy restaurant, and it's like this is the fisherman or something. But it's hard to trust how accurate it is. Sometimes it's just a gimmick, but there's one company in Brazil, Origens, that's been doing it with like indigenous products and I think it is quite cool. I think brands could be utilizing this technology a lot more.”

Natalia: “I agree. And I think just customers are getting more interested in where product comes from, whether it's food or clothes. Om the clothes side, it's small, but growing that interest from the consumers. I think as a brand, it's important to kind of give that journey to the consumer. Like say, hey, we know our product might be a little more expensive, but here's the whole story of product was made. And make your mind about if you want to support this, because we're making this effort to visit each of the factories to make sure that these things are done ethically, that there's nothing happening that’s kind of hidden behind the scenes that are not sustainable, either environmentally or socially.”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.

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