Welcome to the world of biofabrication, a place where your shirts are made from microbes or synthetic spider silk and your sneakers and car seats are made from mushroom leather. Collaborative endeavors between artists and scientists in biofabrication have the power to change the pollutive nature of the fashion industry.
In its current manifestation, the textile industry will account for 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Plastics make up about 60% of the materials used by the fashion industry, which annually release at least 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean and toxic chemicals into landfills. Furthermore, growing and dyeing textile fibers like cotton consumes and pollutes freshwater. Biochemists, design students, mushroom farmers, researchers, molecular florists and designers are working together to find solutions for these issues.
Materials science — understanding what things are made of and why they behave a certain way — is just one piece of the carbon reduction puzzle, but a very impactful one. A growing conglomerate of innovators who recognize the impact of the textile industry on the climate have already begun to research and produce bio-fabricated goods.
In 2021, Theanne Schiros, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and research scientist at Columbia University, collaborated with the New York-based brand Public School to make a sneaker from bacteria cultures and yeast using a process similar to how kombucha is made. This shoe material has an 88% to 97% lower carbon footprint than other alternative leather options, and is also compostable.
Alongside Valentina Gomez and Chui-Lian Lee, Schiros co-founded Werewool, a team of scientists committed to textile innovation. As one of the winners of H&M Foundation’s 2020 Global Change Award, Werewool uses the naturally occurring protein structures of microbes to engineer alternative materials that mimic the functionality of non-biodegradable fabrics. For example, collagen’s spring-shaped protein has elastic properties. Using microbes combined with biopolymers from industrial waste streams, Werewool is engineering biodegradable, performance-based textiles that will degrade at the end of their life cycle.
“More than any other project I have done, it captures the spirit of how entrepreneurship sometimes manifests not from a drive to be an entrepreneur but from other values,” Schiros told Osage University Partners, pointing to the importance of value-based innovation in a climate-conscious manner.
When scientists develop alternative materials, designers have the opportunity to implement them on a larger scale. In an era of greenwashing, or brands claiming to be sustainable as an advertisement strategy, ecological adaptation is a cornerstone of the brand. Stella McCartney proves this can be successfully implemented, standing out as a designer whose sustainable trailblazing is anything but greenwash.
In a 2021 news feature, a bold headline states that “Stella McCartney Does Mushrooms in Paris.” This referenced McCartney’s Paris Fashion Week debut of garments made from Mylo leather, a mushroom-based leather replacement made from mycelium. In 2021, Adidas also released a shoe in their popular Stan Smith style that was made with Mylo leather.
Often, the properties of lab-grown clothing are not only equivalent, but superior to typical materials. Spiber, a Japanese textile innovation group, developed a process called “Brewed Protein” to develop textiles through the fermentation of sugar and microbes. In 2019, Spiber collaborated with The North Face to design the Moon Parka, which features an impressively waterproof yet breathable outer shell made from a Brewed Protein laminate.
Potential applications of these alternative materials go beyond clothing. Geopolymer Solutions uses waste from fly ash and steel production to develop Geopolymer concrete, a greener concrete substitute with a much lower carbon footprint than traditional concrete. Automakers in Japan are engineering safer cars using more sustainable, plant-based materials like cellulose fiber, which is five times stronger than steel.
In order to make these biofabricated materials viable alternatives, consumers must be more mindful. This starts with purchasing less. Consumption in the United States has risen 400% since 1970. When we buy fewer things, emissions and pollution drop. Beyond curbing consumption, we must research the material composition of the essential goods that we elect to purchase and choose sustainable products, like those emerging from the field of biofabrication. To fully embrace the advances made in the biodesign sector, producers and consumers must loosen their tight grip on capitalist tendencies that prioritize careless material sourcing, overproduction, overconsumption and a “trend-trumps-durability” mindset.
The emergence of biofabrication as a science shows that design need not be wasteful and exploitative. If designers utilize and invest in materials that are aligned with sustainable, natural features, they can create better-performing outputs that are carbon-neutral, durable and compostable, challenging the dark side of market capitalism and improving the composition of the biosphere.