Most attempts to make the fashion production process more eco-friendly have involved changing the current way of doing things, but what difference would it make if we had to rethink them entirely? What if, rather than relying on rhizomatic production chains, we found a way to grow our clothes from scratch? Well, thanks to groundbreaking materials scientists, this science fiction vision is not far from a reality! Yes, rather than woven textiles, major industry players are increasingly recognizing the benefits of working with lab-grown biomaterials – a solution that takes steps to correct fashion’s shameful record on eco-responsibility. and ethics, while satiating our voracious appetite for new clothes.
But what are even biomaterials? And how are they better than fabrics derived from raw materials harvested from the earth? Well, while textiles like cotton and wool fall under the banner of biomaterials – which encompasses “any material that has at least 25% of its composition derived from renewable biomass”, according to the USDA – here we’re talking about fabrics that are either created from living cells or using renewable biomass during production processes – think nylons derived from castor beans and synthetic spider silks.
Perhaps the The hottest material right now, however, is bio-based leather. Indeed, what makes one of fashion’s most beloved luxury materials a particularly good candidate for bio-replacement are the ethical and ecological dilemmas surrounding its consumption. While leather is generally considered a by-product of the meat industry, it is nevertheless estimated that the current growing demand for leather goods will result in the slaughter of 430 million cows by 2025. There are also the astonishing environmental footprint of cattle farming to consider, with cattle farming contributing around 14.5% of annual CO2 emissions. And the fact that chromium – a chemical used in the lion’s share of industrial tanning processes – has long been shown to have a dramatically negative effect on the health of leatherworkers and those in surrounding communities, with frequent effluent discharged into nearby water sources.
While alternatives to vegan leather have abounded in recent years, they are often problematic on their own, given that most are created from non-biodegradable plastics. If you’ve had your ears to the ground in the past year, you’ve probably heard of mushroom leather – a fabric that it wouldn’t be unfair to call fashion’s current hero material. Grown in precisely controlled environments, vegan textile is the product of mycelium – the underground root network of fungi – and can be produced in just days, as opposed to the months or even years it takes to raise livestock. for slaughter. . Fed with sawdust, the resulting large mushroom leaves are then transformed into a durable leather-like material, which can be used in almost the same way as real skin.
The end results are so compelling that they have caught the attention of some of the biggest players in the industry. In 2020, it was announced that Bolt Threads – a California-based materials solutions company, maker of Mylo™, one of the most advanced mycelium leather alternatives developed – had received a significant investment package from a brand consortium including Adidas, Lululemon, Stella McCartney and the Kering Group; the first products resulting from the partnership having arrived in stores last year. And then there was the announcement of Hermès – maybe the luxury leather brand apex – that they had partnered with biomaterials company MycoWorks to create a mycelium leather version of its Victoria shopping bag.
Yeezy foam runner. Image via Farfetch.
Of course, while perhaps the most developed, lab coat leather isn’t the only biomaterial solution out there. In 2019, Adidas x Stella McCartney revealed a dress created from vegan spider silk – essentially a fiber that replicated the exact proteins of silk from a type of orb-weaver spider – again created in collaboration with Bolt Threads. Elsewhere, New York-based label Public School, in collaboration with materials scientist Dr Thianne Schiros, has managed to create a biodegradable sneaker using primarily a culture of bacteria and yeast; Yeezy’s iconic Foam Runner was created using foam containing algae; and just last week, Fendi announced that it had teamed up with CSM and Imperial College London to develop lab-grown alternatives to fur fibers.
While we may not be quite at the point where the entire industry can rely on the use of such materials, to call the results we have seen in the development of biomaterials in recent years impressive. , is to sell short. Question marks may linger over how easily consumers will adopt these innovative new textiles, but the truth remains that – in the face of the existential crises that lie ahead if we continue “business as usual” – the choice between sticking to familiar but harmful standards and changing tactics is a no-brainer. This all might sound pretty experimental right now, but trust us when we say that lab wear really is the future of fashion.
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