SaltyCo Innovates for Planet-Positive Design

A model wears a navy insulated jacket in the mid-distance, tall plants are blowing in the wind in front and behind her

“We’re on the precipice of planet-positive design,” says Julian Ellis-Brown, CEO of SaltyCo.  

In less than a year since they graduated from the Royal College of Art, the team behind SaltyCo has accumulated a long list of achievements. Since winning the Vogue / YOOX Challenge – The Future of Sustainable Fashion last year, they have been shortlisted for Deutsche Bank’s Award for Creative Entrepreneurs and nominated for the 2021 Index Award, aimed at celebrating ‘designs to improve life’. 

The accolades reflect a wider commitment to solving some of the major environmental challenges posed by textile manufacturing with regenerative agriculture practices.  

By growing plants that can thrive in salty conditions and feeding them with seawater, before using fibres made from the crops, the startup has designed a carbon-negative, ‘freshwater-free’ textile. Not only can this be used to offset demand on freshwater supplies, but it also provides a new opportunity to expand valuable blue-carbon ecosystems that can sequester up to 50 times more carbon than an equivalently sized rainforest. 

At the same time the company is experimenting with paludiculture: regenerating wet peatlands, which make up less than 3% of the world’s land mass but which currently emit a sixth of all man-made carbon emissions. Office for National Statistics data shows there are currently over 240,000 hectares of peatland in the UK in need of being restored using regenerative techniques such as SaltyCo’s. 

“We’re intersecting a number of different regenerative agricultural sources with our material development so we can make the greatest impact,” Julian explains. “All our textiles will be planet-positive in specific ways.”

Beyond reducing environmental harm, the startup is working to actively benefit the landscape – which meant signing Terra Carta was a natural choice. Launched by Prince Charles’ Sustainable Markets Initiative, the charter endows Nature with fundamental rights and urges businesses to commit to environmental sustainability.

Beige-coloured fibres in a cylindrical glass jar
SaltyCo fibres are made from plants grown using regenerative techniques. Image: SaltyCo

In joining Terra Carta, SaltyCo is listed alongside major players such as John Lewis & Partners, Yoox Net-A-Porter and Burberry who are embracing the growing emphasis on sustainability for both brands and consumers.  

That same shift in awareness has translated into increased customer demand and even additional investment for a startup launching at a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change: small investors were the driving force behind SaltyCo’s recent fundraising campaign, which exceeded its target of 30% match funding for an exciting new project. 

Supported by an Innovate UK Smart Grant, the project will see the first full pilot of SaltyCo’s complete supply chain, from the raw materials and processing through to the finished product. A capsule collection made by an Italian design partner will feature the freshwater-free textiles, demonstrating the potential of the new materials. 

To push the project forward the company is moving to a new industrial facility just outside Edinburgh where, as well as having the space and facilities they need for development work, the team will also be able to upscale to meet larger orders from existing customers. 

“After running a business via Zoom for a year having the physical setup is great,” says Finlay Duncan, Chief Technology Officer. “We always want to be on site to play around and prototype. It’s the RCA background I think – we’re into tinkering.” 

A model wears an ivory-coloured puffa-style insulated jacket over a black sports bra and leggings
Insulation for performance clothing is one of the early applications for SaltyCo textiles. Image: SaltyCo

It was on a Masters programme in Innovation and Design Engineering, jointly run by RCA and Imperial College London, that the founders of SaltyCo met and developed their business idea.

Bringing together students with expertise in design, engineering, materials science and business strategy has been key to the startup’s early success. 

“Our backgrounds balance each other well,” Julian explains.

“Collectively, our skillset means we can build a coherent narrative around our business and its impact in the wider textile industry.”

At the same time, access to additional support from the wider industry has helped to grow and refine products and the business strategy. Working with Future Fashion Factory, SaltyCo led a collaborative project with the University of Leeds to fully characterise the first products, producing a baseline of the full technical specification to use in future R&D.

“Access to Leeds’ facilities opened up new possibilities for the product, but we’ve also been able to build great relationships with our research partners,” says Finlay. “It was really encouraging to have their endorsement of what we’re doing, and we definitely want to continue those relationships long-term.” 

Forging the right partnerships is a priority over the next 12 months, while the Innovate UK project offers SaltyCo’s founders the time and space to plan for the future as they are upscaling. Climate-positive textiles pose challenges; not only do they take time and investment to develop, but they come with the risk inherent in introducing a totally new feedstock to the market. Collaborating with like-minded innovators is crucial to navigating R&D. 

“We need to work with people who get it,” Julian explains. “We have to mitigate some of the risk by choosing the right products, but also the right partners. Brands have been patient and supportive so far and we want to build on that as we grow.”