How lab-made fashion is changing landscapes

The fungal root systems beneath forest floors are being used to create 'leather' for sustainable luxury goods. Bolt Threads
28 February 2019

Haute couture made out of orange peels. ‘Leather’ shoes and handbags grown from mushrooms.

Diamonds formed in labs, not mines.

These are just some of the ways that innovators are clothing, accessorizing and adorning global consumers, while working to keep ecological and social costs firmly in check.

The fashion industry is famously unsustainable. Its production processes are responsible for an estimated 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, as well as occupy vast amounts of land that might otherwise produce food or remain forested.

And the industry is still growing. As the world’s population increases, the average consumer is also buying more clothes than ever: 400 percent more than they did 20 years ago. Many of these new outfits appear to be superfluous, with 40 percent of people’s clothes in developed countries never worn. Disposed clothes account for 21 billion tons of textile waste sent to landfills every year.

Despite Marie Kondo and her disciples, ‘waste not, want not,’ has never been the motto of the fashion industry, nor might it ever be. Rather, reinventing the industry’s foundational materials seems to be the more viable – and on-trend – solution.  

Most of the traditional fabrics that form clothes of are quite problematic from a sustainability perspective. Cotton is biodegradable, but its cultivation requires vast amounts of land and water, and it is responsible for 24 percent of global pesticide use. Polyester’s lightness and cheap price often stem from non-renewable petroleum, which makes the fabric non-biodegradable and, when machine-washed, leach microfibers that ultimately end up in the ocean and affect marine life. Leather is famously durable and long-lasting, but animal agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation and climate change, and the tanning process produces huge amounts of toxic waste.

There are some great options about for improving the status quo: organic cotton, polyester made from plastic bottles, laundry bags and balls that trap microfibers, and more eco-friendly leather tanning options, to name a few. Companies like Worn Again are working to close the fabric recycling loop by using new technology to separate, decontaminate, extract and recycle the raw materials from old polyester and cotton clothes.

In parallel, there’s a growing movement of researchers developing cutting-edge materials in laboratories, using natural processes as inspiration. A committed crew of designers, investors and fashionistas are helping to move these discoveries “out of labs and to the consumer, through products that are sustainable, beautiful and manufactured efficiently at scale,” says Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at fashion tech incubator Future Tech Lab.

A MUSHROOMING INDUSTRY

Growing ‘skin’ in a lab might sound strange, but scientists and product developers at startups like Mycoworks and Bolt Threads are proving that using mushroom mycelium to create leather-like textiles has definite advantages. By feeding sawdust to mycelium cells in a controlled environment,  product that is as strong as deerskin – and carbon negative – can be grown in only two weeks. Fasteners can be grown directly into the faux-leather; a wide range of colors and patterns can be generated without using dyes; and owners can simply toss their goods into their compost pile whenever they decide it’s time to dispose.  

Many in the industry believe this is only a scratch in the surface of what mycelium can do. “I hope that this will just become a standard way that human beings are going to figure out how to provide for themselves,” said Philip Ross of Mycoworks in a recent interview with Science Friday. “Eventually you’ll be growing your solar panels and telephones from a fungus-based substrate.”

At the moment, most mycelium-based products are at the pricier end of the spectrum, but a small niche market caters to those who wish to grow their own. Ecovative Design sells GIY (Grow-It-Yourself) kits for USD 25. In 2015, artist Erin Smith made the news by growing a wedding dress using USD 40 worth of mycelium material, which she fed with agricultural waste.

BIOFABRICATED BLING

While compostable wedding dresses make a lot of sense given that they’re often only worn once, a biodegradable ring might not sound so romantic. Diamonds remain the most popular choice for wedding rings, in part because of their enduring quality to outlive us all.

But the ecological and social footprint of the diamond-mining industry is immense, from the land cleared for mining to the pollution-heavy extraction process. “For a single carat of diamond, approximately 250 tons of earth must be dug up, 2,011 ounces of air pollution is released and 143 pounds (64 kilograms) of carbon dioxide is emitted,” says Martin Roscheisen, CEO of San Francisco’s Diamond Foundry (DF).

What’s more, the high value and small size of the stones has led to unregulated mining and smuggling of ‘conflict diamonds’ that have been used to fund brutal wars in several African countries. While traders have since worked to certify their diamonds as ‘conflict-free,’ there is still a chance that any natural diamond comes from unethical origins.

In response, biofabricators have been finding ways to create diamonds above-ground. At DF, scientists start with a tiny ‘seed crystal’ of real diamond. Then, inside a scorching solar-powered chemical reactor, carbon atoms are stacked onto the seed, layer by layer, to create a new diamond. The result, says Roscheisen, is “atomically identical to a mined diamond,” but ethically sound and certified carbon-neutral. “It’s a way to feel good about what you are wearing, without compromising quality,” he adds.

So, are brides-to-be convinced? These days, increasing numbers of consumers are “looking to make purchases that have a wider reaching impact in the world,” says Roscheisen. “They are more aware of where their food comes from, how their clothing is made and how items are sourced.” In a recent survey by market research company MVI, the percentage of consumers who are willing to buy an engagement ring with a lab-grown diamond has increased from 55 percent in 2016 to almost 70 percent in 2018.

“It’s a great testament to how consumers have embraced manmade diamonds,” says Roscheisen.

WEARABLE TECH: THE NEW FRONTIER?

As well as finding better ways to create fashion ‘classics’ like leather shoes and diamond rings, innovators are also looking at new marriages of clothing and technology. “We’ve reached a crossroads,” says Parkes. “To advance to the next generation of innovation, we need to create a new layer of enabling technologies that work within the language of textiles.”

Current ideas for future fashions align less with Bladerunner and more with the pineapple-banded Apple Watch: think temperature-controlled textiles that warm or cool your body as required, ‘living’ clothes of microbial-based fabrics that nourish the wearer’s skin, and pockets that harness solar energy to charge phones. “We’re working to advance the natural and biological,” says Parkes, “and shifting the materiality of wearable tech to be closer to the body.”



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