I remember the exciting news when I was in high school, of ‘Dolly the sheep’ bioengineered and made in a petri dish, she was the first mammal to be cloned using an adult cell. The whole concept seemed so foreign and yet a decade later, science has catapulted the world forward (thankfully Jurassic Park hasn’t happened yet). Science and technology have recently been trickling into the fashion industry from design innovation to 3D printing, but could bioengineering fabrics be a mainstream trend in the future?
With the fashion industry having a significant amount of problems, from unethical trade to environmental impacts, innovation is welcome. According to statistics from Eurostat, the global apparel market is valued at over three trillion dollars, so it’s no surprise that the science world is starting to focus on the fashion industry.
Why is it needed?
Fashion has evolved drastically over the centuries, from whale bone corsets to plastic coats. Human’s thirst for fast fashion and disposable trends have caused a huge strain on the fashion industry (although some may argue fast fashion was started by the industry). To keep up with the demand, cheaper and faster clothing fibers from plastic were produced and sold.
“Australians buy an average of 27 kilograms of new textiles each year and then discard about 23 kilograms* into landfill – and two-thirds of those discards are manmade synthetic/plastic fibres that may never breakdown.” Textile Beat.
It’s not breaking news that society’s use of plastic and disposable culture is damaging wildlife and suffocating the ocean (watch Blue Planet II for more detail on plastic’s damage on the ocean). What is more surprising is that synthetic clothing is also poisoning the ocean and making its way into the food chain, as first reported in 2011 by researcher Dr Mark Browne. The Guardian has reported on the issue multiple times calling it, “the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of”. Manufacturing synthetic clothing is also environmentally damaging, it’s energy and water extensive and produced using carcinogenic chemicals from non renewable resources.
Natural fibers are not the perfect solution either. Commercial farming is chemical, water and land extensive, commonly causing severe damage on workers and the environment. According to WWF, cotton uses a reported 20,000 litres of water to make 1 x t-shirt and jeans. Fertilisers and insecticides used on natural crops can contribute to global warming and are associated with various cancers. Natural fibers also can’t grow on mass fast enough to keep up with fast fashion demands and costs. There is clearly a need for material development and innovation in the fashion world.
Related Post: Just How Sustainable Is Organic Cotton?
“2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% of the global sales of insecticides…which has severe health impacts on workers in the field and on ecosystems”, Thirsty Crops report from WWF.
Grow your own clothes
Suzanne Lee was the first person in fashion to advocate and develop textiles made from living organisms (algae, yeast, fungi etc) in a 2011 ‘Grow Your Own Clothes’ Ted talk. In an interview filmed at Wearable Futures in London Suzanne explains, “through an engagement with Biology, I’m really excited how we can actually think of organisms like microbes as the factories of the future”. Suzanne, with her company BioCouture, has succeeded in creating clothing made from bacteria which is grown in sugar liquid to produce bacteria cellulose, creating a material similar to leather. It is fermented in the same way as the hipster Kombucha and completely compostable. I can’t see the current examples going mainstream but it was a pioneering move from Suzanne Lee, who paved the way for others to incorporate science and technology into fashion.
What’s in the market currently?
2017 was a significant year for biologically engineered fabrics, you know something is going to trend when Stella McCartney does it. The high-end British designer went into partnership with American-based biotech company Bolt Threads in July 2017 to create advanced sustainable textiles. Bolt Threads have developed beautiful, innovative and practical fabrics made from protein that are not only sustainable but lightweight and durable. They will compete with commonly used fabrics such as wool, silk and cotton. It will only be a matter of time before other brands and companies follow.
There are also non-animal leathers on the market, for example mushroom leather produced using biotechnology.
The future of the fashion industry
The success of Bolt Threads this year shows that it is possible to produce practical textile materials using biology that are more sustainable and can be applied to mainstream fashion. Biotechnology has endless possibilities in the fashion world, from bioengineering material to be waterproof to fabric developed from seaweed. Either way, I think that in 2018 biotechnology will have a large part to play in material development for fashion.