Setting trends with eco-fashion – PART I

Enzymes have been used widely for years to bleach textiles or shrink wool. However, the clothing sector is one of the world’s most polluting industries. Now, fashion labels are turning increasingly to sustainable biofabrication and biotech-inspired methods to help lower the environmental footprint of their products.

Back in July 2017, one of the world’s ecological fashion icons made a strong commitment to bio­tech. “This is truly a moment to celebrate technology and the future of fashion,” British designer Stella McCartney said when she signed an agreement for her collection with Bolt Threads Inc, a producer of biotech­-made silk. The California-based firm has engineered the complete synthesis pathway for spider silk protein in a yeast strain in order to offer a scalable, lower-cost and sustainable solution to silk-fibre manufacture.

The collaboration highlights two facts: that the €1.3tn clothing market remains unsustainable, and that consumers are hungry for social and environmental change. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the global textile industry accounts for around 20% of all industrial water pollution. The organisation’s figures indicate that agricultural production of natural fibres like cotton take up 2.4% of total cropland, and it says the production of a single kilogram of cotton – enough for a t-shirt and pair of jeans – requires 20,000 litres of water. The crop also contributes to environmental degradation and global warming by consuming fertiliser, and 24% of all insecticides are sprayed on cotton acreage. The overuse of pesticides in agri­culture has been linked to cancer development in associated populations. Under the aegis of the Global Fashion Agenda, well-known fashion labels have already taken action. The industry alliance has promoted fashion sustainability since 2009. “While it’s encouraging to see 12.5% of the global fashion market taking concrete action toward circular business models,” says Morten Lehmann, the leadership forum’s Chief Sustainability Officer, “we must urgently address major roadblocks collaboratively to pave the way for a systemic shift towards circular­ity.” He believes governments and policy­makers have to play a strong role in creating a supportive regulatory framework.

Biotech is showing up on the radar

Biotech and synthetic biology is increasingly showing up on the radar of large brands. The H&M Foundation’s Global Change Awards, for example, are increasingly going to approaches like a recycling concept implemented by Agraloop, which makes bio-textiles from food crop waste. The subsidiary of Circular Systems SPC has invented a closed-loop system that takes by-products from crops like oil-seed flax, hemp, sugarcane, bananas and pineapples and turns them into a biological fibre that can be used to make textiles. Driven by the trend towards sustainable fashion, more and more biotech start-ups are now turning to the fast-growing clothing market with more sustainable bio-inspired and almost wasteless cradle-to-cradle solutions.

Because natural fibres can’t be grown quickly enough to keep up with the frenzied, low-cost demands of the fashion world, biofabrication firms are turning to bioreactor-based microbial production for raw materials like fibres or dyes. Most of those approaches are still in very early stages, but a few pioneers in the field have already demonstrated the huge market potential of sustainably biofabricated fashion.

One of these pioneers using sustainable, biotechnological methods to produce biodegradable materials for the fashion industry is German-based Amsilk GmbH. The company’s bio­engineers worked for years to master the challenges posed by the recombinant bacterial production of high-quality silk bio­polymers, and their fibres now even outperform natural spider silk in textile products, medical devices and cosmetics. Since 2014, the company has scaled up production. Today its Bio­steelTM fibre is fermented in 50,000-litre tanks, spun using a proprietary spinning process, and finally functionalised for optimised application in sportswear/footwear, industry, furniture and automotive textiles. According to Amsilk CEO Jens Klein, the firm is absolutely focused on establishing partnerships with customers – such as Adidas – that can open the door to mass markets. Amsilk and the sporting goods giant have already presented a bio­degradable, ultra-lightweight running shoe prototype made from BiosteelTM fibre. The German company’s strict focus on the mass market was reportedly why McCartney, who initially wanted to collaborate with Amsilk, decided instead to turn to US competitor Bolt Threads Inc, which uses a yeast strain to express the spider silk protein rather than bacteria. But spider silk is just one area of biotech innovation when it comes to raw materials in the fashion world.