Kombucha leather is a material developed by NYU Shanghai’s own, Professor Marcela Godoy. She got inspiration from her background in upcycling what most consider “trash” into materials for art and clothing, as well as from watching a TED talk by Suzanne Lee.

During the process of making kombucha there is a layer produced by the fermentation, which becomes the “scoby” as Professor Godoy calls it. The scoby grows as the kombucha continues to ferment, and over time it becomes a thick layer that can be pulled out and pressed with heat to make kombucha “leather.”

This “leather” can then be produced repeatedly using the same technique. The creation of such an organic material instead of recycled plastic is significant, since most modern-day brands’ environmentally friendly clothing is the latter, which still potentially ends up in landfills.

This example of both creativity and environmentalism from Professor Godoy is a highlight of what the NYU Shanghai community is doing to uphold environmentalist goals. However, it is still necessary to evaluate what we contribute as a community.

Therefore, it is necessary to pose the question: What is NYU Shanghai doing to combat climate change and waste management?

Starting in Fall 2022, there were initiatives such as the Trash Fashion Show hosted by Green Shanghai, as well as the reusable metal cup experiment by Environmental Studies Professor Yifei Li.

Later, starting in Spring 2023 and continuing to Fall 2023, Professor Godoy’s interactive fashion course as well as experiments on more sustainable clothing/other wearable materials are in full bloom. Additionally, IMA Professor Andy Garcia’s composting initiatives and urban farming plans also began.

Turning back to Fall 2022, the Trash Fashion Show hosted by the Green Shanghai club was a major success in providing more awareness across the campus of how much trash is really produced by students, by turning it into wearable art.

Each year in the two months leading up to the show, all the designers must collect their own trash to later configure into dresses, capes, and other wearable items. To help with this process, workshops collaborating with the IMA lab teach students to fuse plastic, sew, and more.

As emphasized by Lauren Zheng, the director of the environmental sustainability committee within NYU Shanghai’s student government, “…it’s more that we create our own environmental initiatives and/or programs.”

Pivoting to fall 2023, Professor Godoy shared, “I have this project with interactive fashion… how to recycle material and… grow your own materials. So, I’ve been thinking how to combine both… here in the lab [we are] working on making our own materials with roots for example…”

Professor Godoy has been creating new materials and asking her students to only use materials they can find on and around the campus since last year’s interactive fashion class.

Her inspiration, “I define myself as a maker… [but] I cannot make anything just for making things because it’s more trash that I’m producing. So every time that I want to make something I ask myself why… and if this… [is] just going to produce trash.”

Thus, kombucha leather was born, “…every time that you make kombucha you create this mother, that is the scoby. Then you have so much because you make more and it will grow another one.”

Professor Godoy has continued this kombucha leather project this semester, as well as a few others like growing “lace” with plant roots and making necklaces out of old cables. Walking into the IMA lab, many of her creations are on display.

Another IMA Professor that promotes environmentalism within the school, is Professor Garcia. Although he calls himself more of a “humble environmentalist,” his hot compost on the campus roof coupled with creating and teaching an urban farming class this semester is no small feat.

“I was just growing things because it was cool… The moment I arrived here… People kept asking ‘Are you going to do the urban farming?’” Professor Garcia clarified. Although the idea was his own, he received faculty support and encouragement to continue his plans.

Professors and other faculty within NYU Shanghai can offer many different forms of support, like funding student events and getting Green Grants, but the burden to make a change within the school is shouldered by students.

As Lauren notes, “We’re trying to step up on sustainability for… the student body… [students are] trying to link sustainability with something else that can intersect with this topic.”

This is also echoed by Professor Li, “…we quite honestly depend on student faculty energy to get a lot of things done.”

Without this support and energy from faculty and students alike, it is unlikely that NYU Shanghai would put as much emphasis on environmentalism. The university does not have much direction from formal policies; however, despite this there are still green initiatives from students and faculty each year.

Therefore, Professors Godoy, Garcia, and Li, as well as Green Shanghai and the environmental sustainability committee have become the driving force of “student faculty energy” as stated by Professor Li. This is the core of how NYU Shanghai contributes to environmentalist goals.