Setting trends with eco-fashion – PART II

During EFIB 2019, sustainable fashion and novel textile technologies have been discussed with industry and startups showcasing the broad spectrum of approaches and the potential of biotech innovation currently taking place in the field.

For the first time, Europe’s largest annual meeting for industrial biotechnology solutions, the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology (EFIB, 30 September-2 October 2019, Brussels), turned to sustainable biofabricated fashion, and it was on display at the show’s ‘Start-up Village’. On a guided tour around biofashion and sustainable protein food products, German start-up ScobyTec GmbH (Leipzig) presented another solution for improving the ecological footprint of cellulose-derived products like cotton and viscose – a nanocellulose produced in symbiotic bacteria-yeast co-cultures.

ScobyTec’s genetic engineers currently use the biofabricated cellulose to create viscose threads for a tough, vegan-friendly leather substitute. According to CEO Bernhard Schipper, who presented the process at the EFIB, the microbial production process in bioreactors is far better for the environment than the process used to make animal-derived leather. He says when compared to the leather from a single cow, manufacturing Scoby­Tec’s microbial vegan leather consumes just 260 litres of water instead of 7,550 litres, and requires just six kilograms of cheap nutrients such as glucose and mineral salts instead of 4.8 tonnes of feed. It also takes just three months to produce rather than three years. And in contrast to other synthetic leather alternatives, the nano­cellulose-derived leather has high mechanical strength and enough flexiblility to ensure extended use, even in products that are subjected to a lot of mechanical stress such as shoes. The company plans to start production at the pilot scale next year, and wants to scale up to start shoe production by 2022. According to Schipper, ScobyTec is aiming to establish full production circularity, as the bio­degradable end product produces no waste.

Biotech vs. biobased processes

In line with the current Horizon 2020 funding focus, most of the methods presented during the event, which was hosted by EuropaBIO and organised by BIOCOM AG, were incrementally improved, existing processes. Most were also still biobased, and thus require a lot of space  for cultivation – they aren’t being vertically biofabricated in tanks. Within the tree-to-textile project, which is being conducted by a joint venture made up of sustainable forestry specialist Stora Enso Biomaterials ASA, the H&M Group, the Inter IKEA group and inventor Lars Strigsson, cellulose fibres are made from wood-fibre pulp. Kissi Säppäläinen, Vice President Strategic Projects at the Finnish-Swedish company, says it has made huge progress with the novel extraction process, which now consumes less energy and chemicals than conventional pulp extraction. However, as trees are needed as a raw material, scaling might require huge areas under cultivation. Another biobased process that’s focused on circularity was presented in Brussels by Tanja Kliewe-Meyer, founder and CEO of the startup ‘Like a bird’. The company makes viscose fibres with a subtle flowered scent from rose leaves that are especially grown for textiles in Portugal.

Organism-based fashion

A hybrid technology that falls somewhere between bio-based and biotech methods has recently emerged from labs. The approach uses lab-grown micro­organisms instead of plant materials to produce fibres or non-toxic colorfast dyes, thus completely avoiding the problems caused by fertilisers, insecticides and water wastage.

With her start-up NEFFA, Dutch designer Aniela Hoitink wants to completely rethink the fashion industry and its value chain with the help of biology and digitalisation. At the EFIB, she explained how a standard piece of clothing is made today: “A plant is cultivated, then threads are spun, from these threads a cloth is woven, then pattern pieces are cut, which are then sewn together in different sizes so that they fit as well as possible.” Hoitink wants to shorten this cumbersome chain of steps and make it more customer-friendly at the same time with the help of fungi and digital, on-demand production under the label MycoTEX.

“We grow mycelium, apply it to 3D moulds, and after drying the garment is ready. After use it can be naturally decomposed,” Hoitink told European Biotechnology. “The garments are seamless, and fit any body, shape & style perfectly, meaning less returns and longer use of the product,” she explains. “Our holistic approach is shortening the production chain by cleverly combining elements from different industries.” Resource use is also reduced during the production phase, as well as waste throughout the whole cycle. “Unlike others, we are working on improving the whole supply chain,” Hoitink stresses. The company is currently looking for industrial partners interested in producing mycelium for their sustainable textile.

US-based company Mycoworks is another example of a firm chasing the new trend of organism-based fashion. It turns P. crysosporium mycelium and agricultural waste into biodegradable, vegan-friendly leather in a few weeks. Together with Stanford University’s synthetic bio­logy pioneer Drew Endy, the company has also worked out a way to produce mycelium-based bricks.

Non-toxic biotech dyes

Founder of Vienna Textile Lab Karin Fleck is more focused on producing biogenic dyes that avoid the environmental problems posed by synthetic dyes in the clothing industry. The company has identified gene clusters in bacteria such as Serratia marcescens or Streptomyces coelicolor that are reponsible for dye synthesis, and is seeking to combine these to produce more dye diversity. In the pre-commercial first stage of a project that started in 2017, the Lab established co-creation projects with designers. One for example worked with highly individual patterns that the bacteria left on fabrics. After founding the company in Q4/2019, the bioengineers are now approaching stages two and three: dying textiles and fibres with quality-controlled, colorfast ISO-certified dye extracts and marketing the purified dyes.

Next year the first fund for sustainable fashion – the Fashion for Good Fund – is set to launch €30m in its first closing. Compared to the EU’s Horizon programmes, the fund is little more than a gesture. However, it is focused on social sustainability at Asian manufacturing sites for clothing and (bio)technology funding, rather than on providing subsidies to EU farmers for biobased production. Another player in the emerging biogenic dye and biofabricated fibre scene is German­-Israeli start-up Algalife, which produces fabrics and colours from algae. Its pigments and fibres have a smaller impact than conventional materials and dyeing methods. To produce a t-shirt using the company’s process takes only a fifth of the water used to produce a cotton t-shirt. It also requires no fertilisers or chemicals (0.5kg each per cotton t-shirt) and produces no CO2 (cotton t-shirt: 32.5 kg).

Synthetic fibres go biogenic

Chemicals industry giants have taken notice of the new sustainability trend in the fashion industry, and are trying to adapt by running sustainable pilot projects that may become economically feasible if they are one day scaled up. At the EFIB, Italian nylon producer Aquafil SL presented a project aimed at reducing classic nylon waste in marine environments. As with most plastics, the polyamid is not biodegradable, and resists chemo-mechanical decay for hundreds of years. Every year, nylon fishnet waste floating in the oceans directly or indirectly kills millions of fish and seabirds. Aquafil’s Econyl project is about using collected nylon products as source materials for nylon production. The company collects abandoned nylon fishing nets, which are chemically regenerated in order to be processed into new nylon products. According to its Executive Director Fabrizio Calenti (see interview, p. 18-19), the firm’s approach reduces production-related net CO2 emissions by 80% and closes the loop to true circularity.

In another project, Aquafil and US partner Genomatica are developing a microbial process to produce the nylon building block caprolactam from plant material, thereby preventing production of any benzene intermediate. Like the Econyl process, the microbial GENO CPLTM process eliminates the significant amounts of by-products that are common to most oil-derived caprolactam production methods.

The big advantage of biotech-inspired and tank-based processes over biobased processes may be its built-in sustainability. This summer, Adidas announced a tennis dress manufactured by Stella McCartney’s biotech partner Bold Threads In an open letter, the British designer remarked on the increasing urgency of the debate, and the steps that have to be taken to remedy a glaring shortfall: “Only one percent of textiles are recycled back into textiles each year – this is simply unacceptable. Supporting innovators will help to drastically increase this number, but we need this shift now.”