Colour-changing T-shirts use cabbages to reveal the startling effects of climate change

The T-shirt changes colour to reflect pH water balance which is used as a physical representation of climate change.

Nature doesn’t have a voice. It has signifiers of change and environmental damage, but because they can’t be seen easily, they’re often overlooked or denied by even the highest positions of power.

To make this damage more visible, and show your support for the planet, there is now a T-shirt that lets you “wear climate change” on your sleeve. Designed to coincide with World Environment Day, chemically-reactive fashion brand The Unseen has partnered with The Lost Explorer to create a T-shirt that changes colour to reflect the pH balance of water. In particular, the cotton and hemp shirts, scoured in red cabbage, reflect the acidic and alkaline values found in local water.

Ocean acidification and acid raid are both products of climate change. The ocean absorbs much of the heat from excess CO2 in our atmosphere and, in the process, the chemical composition of seawater changes. When you mix carbon dioxide with water, it creates carbonic acid. The presence of carbonic acid kickstarts a process that lowers the pH of the ocean, making it more acidic. This has a dramatic effect on marine organisms, including oysters, clams, corals and plankton. When these organisms begin to dwindle, the whole marine ecosystem begins to shift.

While humans have a higher tolerance to pH changes, we aren’t immune to its effects. It can do irreversible damage to skin and organ lining if it drops to a pH of below 2.5, whereas a value of greater than 11 can cause eye and skin irritation.

To the naked eye, these differences in ocean acidity are impossible to detect. This is a common problem in environmentalism so a physical representation of this change was needed to inspire action – and so, the Cabbage Project was born.

Lauren Bowker, founder of The Unseen, says that creating a T-shirt to demonstrate climate change was “trying to use material science and platforms like fashion to talk about important subjects. It’s an easy platform to express complex issues without sounding like a psycho.”

As a material alchemist, known for her work in colour-changing hair dyes and clothing, she says she wanted to create a natural pH indicator without the need for complex or harmful chemicals.

“Red cabbage juice contains anthocyanin and can be used as a pH indicator,” she explained. “It’s red, pink, or magenta in acids, purple in neutral solutions, and ranges from blue to green to yellow in alkaline solutions. (…)


The Cabbage Project was designed as a way to demonstrate how creatives and scientists can come together to take a political stand. In fact, the idea for colour-changing, climate change T-shirts came in part as a response to Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which de Rothschild says we should view as a global opportunity.

On June 5 2017, Bowker and de Rothschild are hosting a panel at the Canadian embassy in Washington DC for World Environment Day. Their focus is on connection in the face of tumultuous politics. The power is shifting to that of storytellers, to stand up and use their skills in defence of their beliefs. (…)

“Will people understand and relate to how it impacts them today and not just in the future?” Bowker asks, “Maybe not – not everyone understands politics, me especially. But if I see a T-shirt in front of me change colour when a car goes past or when the water is too acidic to drink or for wildlife to live in then that I’ll understand.”

Reactionary fashion can be seen as a new breed of activism – encouraging people to make positive changes by politicising everyday clothing. As the world grapples with the growing problem of climate change, the focus is shifting to individuals, encouraging global action to raise awareness.

To mark the truly worldwide significance of water acidification, the collaboration is looking to spread its reach even further – hoping to venture into the heart of the Amazon, to the Red Sea and the North Pole.

Alexandra Simon-Lewis, Wired, 5 June 2017. Article.

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