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These Clothes Could Be a Cool Response to a Warming Climate

Startup LifeLabs has developed fabric that lets your body heat escape in the summer and reflect back during the winter.

A bearded man wears a turquoise blue windbreaker on top of a mountain
The CoolLife windbreaker is engineered to block the sun's heat waves while letting the body's own -- a different wavelength of infrared light -- escape. I tried the windbreaker while backpacking in the California mountains.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Some unusual new fabric helped me through last week's heat wave in California, when temperatures inside my house hit 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Silicon Valley startup LifeLabs has developed clothing designed to keep people comfortable without having to spend as much on heating and air conditioning. By reducing the power used to heat and cool buildings where we live and work, LifeLabs hopes to make a dent in climate change, said company co-founder and Stanford materials science professor Yi Cui.

LifeLabs' core idea is to make clothes from a fabric that's transparent to the infrared light your body emits as heat and blocks the different wavelengths of infrared heat the sun beams down. A separate line of clothes for winter reverses the direction to keep you warmer.

The idea, spawned in a Stanford University research lab, isn't to make heating and air conditioning obsolete. It's to let you ease the heating and cooling settings so you don't need to spend as much money and power. If you can be comfortable with the thermostat 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the summer and colder in the winter, you can cut your energy use 12% per year, keeping 320 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere per person per year, LifeLabs estimates.

LifeLabs isn't the only company promising cooler, more comfortable clothes, as you can tell from catalogs selling lightweight linen and cotton attire for the summer. LifeLabs, though, is trying to apply materials science to the problem, an approach that's worked with developments like Gore-Tex waterproof jackets and Thinsulate winter gloves.

Changing your clothing won't fix climate change and the heat waves, drought, and other extreme weather problems that come with it. Halting global warming requires a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel burning but taking small steps, like insulating homes and eating less meat, can have a larger collective effect on the problem.

How it feels to wear CoolLife clothing

I tried out the CoolLife clothing and bedclothes over the past two months, including the September heat wave that strained the California electrical grid to the breaking point and pushed up temperatures in my house. The CoolLife products did indeed feel more comfortable than other fabrics, including the lightweight and airy cotton shirt that I previously favored when it's hot.

CoolLife clothing won't magically cool you down when it's really hot or when you're exercising hard. But it can help take the edge off. The fabrics, including the sheets and pillowcases, are eerily cool to the touch.

I liked the short-sleeved collared shirt, which I wore around the house, and a long-sleeved, hooded, UV-blocking windbreaker that was useful on a hot summer backpacking trip into the Sierra Nevada.

The bedclothes seemed like a nice idea -- who hasn't flipped over a pillow to get to the nice cool side? But in practice, the insulating properties of mattresses and pillows meant sheets and pillowcases still felt warm shortly after I lay down.

LifeLabs also offers winter clothing that adds a silvery reflective layer to bounce your body's heat back. The idea is to keep you warm with less of the bulk and weight of a conventional winter jacket. It's similar to mylar space blankets but breathable to avoid the clammy feeling of trapped body moisture.

CoolLife clothing requires polyethylene to manufacture, but the company uses 74% recycled materials.

Clothing choices to cut power use

LifeLabs' high-tech polyethylene fabrics aren't the first attempt to change energy use through clothing choices. President Jimmy Carter famously urged Americans to wear a sweater in the winter, setting thermostats to 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 55 at night, for example.

But the idea has taken on new urgency with climate change problems and today's heat waves. 

When asked why he was wearing a skirt, movie star Brad Pitt answered, "Breeze." That was amid a European heat wave in July.

That same month, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez asked workers to stop wearing neckties. "We can all make savings from an energy point of view," he said, wearing no tie during a press conference.

Office workers are a prime target for LifeLabs, Cui said. Indeed, Google has ordered LifeLabs' CoolLife clothing for employees, he said.

"The easiest [is] if people wear uniforms, like in a factory," Cui said. "With everybody wearing the same thing, then you can change your thermostat."