Over the past ten years, a number of startups have been busy in the lab developing new materials for the textile industry. More recently, luxury fashion is starting to take notice. But when will we all be wearing high-tech ecofabrics?
Now that biosynthetic meat is sold in supermarkets and restaurants, bioleather, biosilk, biofabrics are gradually making their way onto the runway. If we can bioengineer proteins in a laboratory to make hamburgers and sausages without killing animals, it was about time we made shoes and shirts without further depleting our natural resources.
By now, we know all too well the ethical and ecological woes associated with raising livestock for leather and fur, the toxic tanning of hides, the exploitation of silkworms (not to mention humans), the petroleum used to make polyester (present in 60% of clothing) and other synthetic fabrics, etc. What may be less evident is that cotton (non-organic, present in 30% of clothing) is also quite unfriendly to the environment: cotton farming consumes exorbitant quantities of arable land (2.5% of worldwide total), fresh water (3%), pesticides (20%) and insecticides (25%). And this is before the cotton is even harvested. All things considered, the garment industry is one of the most polluting industries on our planet.
The life cycle of a t-shirt (by Angel Chang, 2017):
However, the enormous carbon footprint of manufacturing our clothes cannot be faulted entirely to fast fashion. The majority of the supply chain’s carbon emissions occur while processing raw materials. What if we replaced them with biofabrics?
As with alt-meat, the most high-tech alt-fabrics are generally those that attract the most attention and the most funding. Namely, biotech startups that develop new materials for the textile industry by cultivating cell cultures of biopolymers—macromolecules such as cellulose, protein or DNA that are found in living organisms. Not only do these organic materials decompose naturally at the end of their life cycle, they absorb carbon dioxide in the air.
AlgiKnit, a startup founded in New York in 2016 by the winning team of the BioDesign Challenge, creates fibers and yarns from kelp (laminaria digitata), a macroalgae that grows very fast and abundantly in coastal waters of the northern hemisphere. To do so, AlgiKnit soaks the kelp in a salt bath, extracts the biopolymer alginate, dries it into a powder, then spins it into threads that can be knitted into different types of fabrics. The team’s next objective is to render the fibers strong and flexible enough to be compatible with industrial knitting machines within the existing textile infrastructure. AlgiKnit has already raised several hundred thousand dollars, with grants from the Fashion Institute of Technology and National Geographic, and in 2018 is participating (in good company) in accelerator programs at Rebel Bio in London and Plug & Play Fashion for Good in Amsterdam.
In California, since 2009 BoltThreads has been developing new materials for the textile and fashion industries. The first was Microsilk, inspired by spider’s thread, synthesized in the laboratory from proteins inserted into yeast cells fermented with sugar and water. In 2017, a prototype dress made from this silk made without silkworms or spiders, designed by Stella McCartney and knitted on an industrial machine, was included in the “Is Fashion Modern?” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. This year, and through January 27, 2019, the dress is on display as part of the “Fashioned from Nature” exhibition at the V&A Museum in London.
Presentation of BoltThreads (2018, V&A):
In partnership with Ecovative, a New York-based company specialized in fabricating mycelium materials, BoltThreads also developed Mylo: a fine leather made from meticulously cultivating mycelium cells in corn stalks, where they grow into a three-dimensional network that is compressed into a mat, then organically tanned and dyed. On October 5, 2018, BoltThreads succeeded in raising $72,285 from 290 contributors after a crowdfunding campaign to produce the first commercial luxury designer bag made from mycelium leather.
But BoltThreads is not the only one cultivating mycelium into fashionable textiles: Amadou Leather is growing mycelium on recycled sawdust; MycoTex, launched by the Dutch designer Aniela Hoitink, creates fine garments from mycelium fabrics; Zvnder, founded in Berlin in 2017 by the designer Nina Fabert, offers handmade-to-order wallets and hats…
While BoltThreads’s Mylo Driver Bag, which will initially be priced at several hundred dollars, may not yet be accessible to the mainstream market, it is one more step beyond the prototype toward the large-scale commercialization of a biofabric. (In the meantime, fans of mycelium leather can always buy a $25 key fob.)
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Modern Meadow is another company that, since it was founded in 2011 by the American entrepreneur Andras Forgacs, has raised several million dollars in funding for its research in biosynthesizing new materials. In particular, the team has developed DNA that produces collagen—the fibrous protein that constitutes skin, or leather—which is then fermented in yeast before being assembled and treated. Forgacs has baptized Modern Meadow’s first branded material Zoa. Unlike traditional leathers, made from hides with inconvenient imperfections, he says, Zoa is infinitely customizable and adaptable, even in liquid form—which offers unprecedented possibilities to designers working with the raw material. The Zoa prototype t-shirt, decorated with “liquid” leather, is now part of MoMA’s permanent collection in New York.
Upcycling, from biotech to low-tech
What if we upcycled our old clothes, food and atmospheric waste into brand-new textile materials?
Worn Again Technologies in London and Evrnu in Seattle are two startups—each founded by a woman who is passionate about fighting textile waste within a circular system—that collect discarded clothes and fabrics, extract the polyester polymers or cellulose from cotton, then transform them into biofibers that are spun into yarn and woven into new fabrics: 100% organic and biodegradable, upcycled and recyclable.
Orange Fiber, another high-profile startup founded in 2014 by two Sicilian women, extracts cellulose from the local surplus of pastazzo (orange pulp leftover after squeezing juice) and spins the citric biopolymer into threads that are comparable to silk. Salvatore Ferragamo already designed the Sicilian biofabric into a whole collection in spring 2017.
Mango Materials, founded in San Francisco in 2010 by Molly Morse, engineer in biopolymers and biocomposites, collects waste biogas in the form of methane emissions in order to extract the biopolymer PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) and transform it into biodegradable polyester, which can be used to make new sustainable garments.
Presentation of Mango Materials (2014):
In terms of alt-leather and other alt-fabrics, there are also more low-tech organic materials made from fruit (Philippine pineapple leaves, Italian grapes, Tirolian apples…) and plant fibers (lotus, nettle, kapok, coffee grounds…). But they often require a long, labor-intensive process that is reflected in the price of the final products.
Moon shot materials
Since 2007, in a laboratory situated far from the hype in the rural mountains of northern Japan, Spiber has taken inspiration from spider silk (“340 times stronger than steel”) to develop new protein materials. By manipulating chains of amino acids in proteins, the company created the threads for the fabric used to make the Moon Parka, a prototype designed by The North Face in 2015, and in 2018, a ski jacket designed by Goldwin, which was nominated for a Beazley Designs award and is currently exhibited at the Design Museum in London through January 6, 2019.
“Our goal is to offer a platform technology to design custom protein materials (not just spider silk) tuned for various end applications,” says Daniel Meyer, Spiber’s head of international corporate planning. “As the apparel and automotive industries are both large contributors to CO2 emissions, our highest priority target applications in the near term are in these markets.”
Presentation of Spiber (2015):
“The ‘meaningfulness’ of a material is a combination of its environmental impact, its cost, and its performance as compared to the needs of a given application,” Meyer continues. “Each material has its own strengths and weaknesses between these three factors, and often improvement of one comes at the expense of another. The concept of our business is to create a technology where we can design a material that gives the best possible balance of these three factors for a given application.”
As for all these biotech startups, and more generally when it comes to commercial cell culture, the two main challenges are scaling up production and lowering costs.
But Meyer remains optimistic about the general deployment of biofabrics in the near future: “There are several companies who are engaged in similar R&D to our own—protein materials designed for specific applications. Protein materials come in many, many forms in nature, and the proteins that currently exist in nature are only a microscopic subset of the total potential designs that we can create in the lab. This means that the potential applications for protein materials are extremely varied, and we need all the people we can get working on this problem to quickly shift society to a more circular material ecosystem. In that sense, every success story lends more credit to the vision of a society based around fermented materials. We are excited to see how things move forward, especially in the next several years.”