Get Up to Speed On the State of Eco-Fashion

The race is on to bioengineer carbon-neutral, recyclable, biodegradable, and affordable materials.

In December 2019, an odd new product hit the headlines. Called FLWRDWN, unlike every other fashion material innovation you’ve read about that always seem to be years out of reach, the mixture of waste wildflowers, biopolymer, and a patented cellulosic aerogel debuted to the world ready to be worn, encased inside a fashionable nylon puffer coat. 

Fashion drops are usually 99.9% hype. But FLWRDWN, which garnered press mentions from  Vogue to Wired UK, arguably deserved more. It is natural, plant-based, animal-free, fossil-fuel free, fluffy, and warm. It is a seemingly perfect replacement for what you usually find in puffers: goose down if you’re a traditionalist or, if you are the kind to worry about feathers being ripped out of live geese, polyester fill. 

FLWRDWN may have solved for the fact that so-called “conscious fashion” consumers usually have to choose between two unsatisfying modalities: biodegradable natural materials that hurt animals and the environment, or cruelty-free synthetic fabrics that will stick around on Earth until the sun burns out. 

Enter the biotech industry, which is racing to grow nature-inspired textiles, leathers, and dyes in the lab. These innovations would supposedly combine the best of both worlds: made-to-order and efficient factory production with plant-based ingredients. The question then becomes: can you actually commercialize these materials to make a tangible difference?

So called “natural,” i.e., traditional, materials—such as down, leather, and cotton—feel more eco-friendly, but come with a whole host of messy human, animal, and environmental issues. The alternative—synthetic fibers like nylon, acrylic, polyester, and vegan leathers like polyurethane and PVC—are equally if not more reviled by tree-hugging fashionistas. Made from fossil fuels, they’ll biodegrade as quickly as any plastic, which is, for all intents and purposes, never.

Fashion brands are tired of being dragged into these very unglamorous and ugly conversations about animal cruelty and toxic chemicals, and they would like to find a solution. The race is on to create a library of carbon-neutral, recyclable, biodegradable, and relatively affordable materials that mimic nature’s cyclical material flows and diversity, and to produce them in quantities large enough to satisfy the appetites of 8 billion consumers. 

For all its trend chasing, until now the fashion industry has been notoriously averse to technological innovation. “In the tech industry, you always have companies that are looking two years, five years, 10 years ahead, at what the next product would be and designing the needs of their own production,” says Amanda Parkes, the chief innovation officer for Pangaia, the fashion startup behind FLWRDWN. Parkes has worked as a science museum curator, has been a structural engineer for couture fashion, studied wearable tech at MIT, and founded an algae biofuels startup. In other words, she is well qualified to lead fashion into the future. “There hasn’t been a lot of internal R&D inherent to big fashion brands,” she says. 

Not so anymore. H&M, as one of the world’s largest fashion brands, has been taking heat for contributing to the 92 million tons (and rising) of fashion that we collectively send to landfills, incinerators, and oceans every year. Sustainable fashion advocates will tell you we should just buy less stuff (which, we’re doing right now with, uh, mixed results) but the fast-fashion brand has taken a different approach: throwing money at almost every fabric innovation on the market. It’s invested in several material tech startups (including Colorifix, Worn Again, Renewcell, Ambercycle, and Infinited Fiber) and promotes the materials in its glossy Conscious Exclusive capsule collections.

H&M’s Global Change Award winner page can sometimes read like the inventory of an eclectic compost bin.

As a small and scrappy material technology startup and fashion brand, Pangaia has a different, more holistic approach. It researches the most sustainable materials currently on the market and comes up with patented technology to fill the holes. It hosts a direct-to-consumer online shop filled with sleek streetwear, including tees from its other famous release, Seaweed Fiber. But it also collaborates with the rest of the industry, selling materials to other brands, connecting startups to manufacturers, and helping smart but nerdy textiles scientists talk to fashion lovers about their product. It seems to be working: since FLWRDWN was released, Pangaia’s Instagram following has grown from 10,000 to 500,000, and Parkes says there are some exciting new product drops coming this fall. 

H&M’s annual Global Change Award winner page can sometimes read like an inventory of a truly eclectic compost bin: Orange peels, seaweed, grape waste, cow manure, mushrooms, wheat, Peruvian fruit, and nettles, have all shown up in prize-winning materials. Other crops that have had their five minutes of fame in the fashion world include pineapple leaves, sugarcane, soybeans, apple waste, winemaking waste, cactus, yeast, and coconut fiber. 

But the big question is this: Will any of these material innovations actually solve our planetary problems? 

Fashion for nerds

The two words on everyone’s lips right now when it comes to fashion innovation are “lab-grown”: lab-grown leather, lab-grown silk, and lab-grown cotton. These aren’t faux materials, but the real thing produced either by growing stem cells, in the case of cotton, or genetically engineering yeast to eat sugar and spit out collagen or silk proteins. These startups, and the resulting headlines, talk in the present tense, even though it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll be able to wear any of it.

Both the fashion and tech world tend to be too impatient about the time it will take for the science to come to fruition. After enduring the avalanche of inquiries that follow on the heels of breathless hype in fashion magazines, vegan blogs, and business publications (guilty), the researchers retreat to their labs for years to disentangle all the knots in the new science, while the startups try to find enough money to build an entirely new supply chain to produce their products—which don’t even exist yet—at scale.

It can sometimes feel like an endless fashion show of prototypes we’ll never get to buy. Bolt Threads, for example, collaborated with the luxury, cruelty-free fashion brand Stella McCartney in 2017 on a cocktail dress made from its lab-grown silk. Bolt Threads has engineered yeast to eat sugar and spit out silk proteins, which are isolated then spun into what the startup calls Microsilk. The sell is that traditional silk spinning requires boiling silkworms alive, and purportedly has high energy and water usage—the highest by far of any textile, in fact. 

Because of the great press about Microsilk, in late 2017 Bolt Threads raised $123 million and then licensed technology to grow mushroom leather from the New York startup Ecovativ. The technology, called Mylo, is made by growing mycelium, the root network of mushrooms, into a sheet that is then tanned like real leather. They debuted a prototype of a mushroom leather bag in early 2018 with Stella McCartney, and later that year launched a Kickstarter for a tote bag made of mushroom leather. However, consumers have yet to see either product up close. The promised tote bag’s delivery has been pushed back several times to late 2020—partly due to COVID-19, the company says—and we’ve heard nothing of microsilk since Adidas and Stella McCartney collaborated on a tennis dress in 2019. 

Bolt Threads’ mushroom leather, Mylo.

Modern Meadow, another exciting startup that engineers yeast to spit out collagen for lab-grown leather they call Zoa, also blew past an expected commercial launch date of 2018. They have since had their heads down working in their Brooklyn lab, avoiding press. An investor for lab-grown leather competitor MycoWorks got in a dig at Modern Meadow in a February essay explaining his investment. “Don’t get me wrong, Modern Meadow has an incredible team,” he wrote. [CEO] “Andras Forgacs is as smart as they come, and I expect they’ll get there; but harnessing biology is a really really hard problem.”

The investor is right: We’re talking about designing and manipulating biomolecules and proteins to create an entirely new material the world has never seen before, eliminating animals and the farm entirely while also satisfying the fussy designers at luxury brands, and then building an entirely new supply chain. And not everyone is comfortable with a world where we are genetically engineering silk and leather in a lab. A joint report by the California nonprofit Fibershed and the Canadian nonprofit ETC Group warned that lab-grown textiles “could undermine farmers worldwide, create a dangerous new source of biotech waste, put additional pressure on ecosystems, and divert support away from truly sustainable natural fiber economies.”

They may be relieved that all signs point to Reishi by MycoWorks winning the race for commercially available, petroleum-free leather. Reishi is also made by growing mycelium, which feeds on agricultural waste such as sawdust in two-by-three foot trays in a dimly lit, low-energy facility before being sent off to a heritage tannery in Spain for finishing. A chief manufacturing officer and chief of product joined the startup in June, and CEO Matthew Scullin says the company actually added brands to its customer roster during the pandemic and is in the process of opening a third commercial plant with a production capacity of 80,000 square feet of material per year. Scullin unfortunately couldn’t share any details about the luxury products designer clients are launching with MycoWorks, except that they are slated for “the next few months.” Vague, but promising.

Agricultural waste alone could provide 2.5 times the material we need to meet global fiber demand.

Before you start dreaming about a world in which the Amazon rainforest is no longer burned for cattle ranching, we must point out that there will be zero practical effect on the leather industry if we replace the real stuff with its lab-grown or mushroom equivalents. Even before fashion’s appetite for leather plummeted, a cattle rancher would earn less than 8% of his income from selling the hide—it’s always been just a bonus. At the same time, the global demand for beef is rising. The result is a huge glut of cow hides, which go to the landfill or are burned. As long as we’re eating more steaks than we are wearing cowboy boots, we may as well put that leather to use.

Still, there are definitely some environmental benefits to lab-grown leather aside from the absence of a slaughterhouse. Because it can be grown into custom shapes, it doesn’t produce off-cut waste like irregularly shaped cow hides. It also skips right over the step used for real leather, in which chemicals help scrape fat and hair off, creating a noxious waste; MycoWorks’ process uses benign, chromium-free chemistry. And the process of growing mycelium actually draws carbon down from the atmosphere instead of emitting it.

Newcomer Galy is a startup that grows cotton fiber in a dish. Using the plant’s stem cells—which can be coaxed to become any part of the plant—Galy is able to grow just the fiber in their lab. Galy claims their lab-grown cotton grows 10 times faster than field-grown cotton, using a fraction of the land and water typically needed, emitting a fraction of emissions, and with no pesticides. They emerged from stealth mode this year to win H&M’s Global Change Award, and garnered a $500,000 investment from Agronomics, a venture capital firm that mainly focuses on biotech meat replacements. 

Unsurprisingly, these lab-grown materials will be in the premium category when they do come out, meaning their uptake by the notoriously price conscious mass-market fashion industry will be low. For now, anyway.

What to wear now

While we wait for fashion from a beaker, here are new biotech materials that we can shop now. 

Renewcell in Sweden, Evrnu in Seattle, and Infinited Fiber in Finland use cotton waste and nontoxic chemicals to create new, cotton-like fibers. Levi’s launched its first batch of jeans made with 20% Circulose, Renewcell’s product, in July this year and probably would have made a bigger splash were it not for the pandemic. So far, the products from Adidas, Stella McCartney, and Levi’s that use Evrnu’s technology, NuCycl, have been prototypes. That could change soon with the $9.1 million Series A investment it closed last year. 

Increasingly, entrepreneurs are looking to mine the world’s agricultural waste which, according to the Biomimicry Institute, could alone provide 2.5 times the material we need to meet global fiber demand. Orange Fiber is the name of both an Italian startup and its product, a silky acetate made from the waste generated by Sicily’s orange juice industry. It was featured in a jacquard print, off-the-shoulder top in H&M’s small 2019 Conscious Exclusive Collection, but since then the company has gone quiet. Agraloop has ditched chemicals completely for a secret physical process that turns agricultural waste into a linen-like material, and has hinted at its own 2020 H&M launch. 

Then there are what you could call the food leathers. There’s grape waste leather by Vegea, which has been used in H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection, some luxury Italian brands, and a Bentley concept car. There’s Apple Leather from Frumat, made from harvest waste that you can find in some quite nice fall boots; Desserto cactus leather, which went quiet after releasing a truly memorable promotional video; and the industry’s favorite, Piñatex by Ananas Anam, made from pineapple-leaf fiber, which you can find in everything from sandals and watch straps to “leather” jackets and journal covers. Unfortunately, all of the above vegan leathers use synthetic finishes and binders, so aren’t entirely fossil fuel free or biodegradable. They’re likely stopgap measures on our way to 100% plant-based and lab-grown materials, and appeal mainly to resolute vegans, rather than eco-warriors.

There’s one truly plant-based leather on the horizon, and that is Mirum by Illinois-based Natural Fiber Welding. They take fibrous materials like waste cork, hemp, coconut, cotton, and vegetable oil to create biodegradable composites that are pressed into the shape and grain of leather. Founder Luke Haverhals, who discovered the chemistry while at the Naval Academy, says Mirum is close to carbon neutral and can be recycled in the same facility in which it was made. Ralph Lauren took a minority stake in Natural Fiber Welding in August to help it scale its materials—you should be able to buy a Mirum wallet or shoes by mid-2021.

The huge missing piece in all of this very exciting news is the data proving that these materials are sustainable. It’s hard to measure the footprint of your product until your material mix is set and your factory is pretty much up to speed. But large brands, which have been publicly committing to science-based targets around climate change, are starting to demand receipts. 

In that regard, Algix, which creates an algae-infused EVA foam called Bloom, has a market advantage. It sources algae from projects that filter out algae blooms from lakes, plasticizes it, mixes it with regular petroleum-based EVA or TPE to get it up to performance, and then ships the resulting pellets to Asian manufacturers who produce for footwear brands including Vivobarefoot, Adidas, Dr. Scholl’s, Aldo, Billabong, and Red Wing.

While Algix’s data hasn’t been publicly released yet, founder Ryan Hunt says that 1.4 kilograms of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases are released for every kilogram of Bloom manufactured, less than half of regular EVA. The algae itself is carbon negative and regenerative; Hunt says that the algae in one kilogram of Bloom has filtered 2,200 liters of water. (For context, one kilogram of cotton requires on average 1,200 liters of irrigation water.)

Algix’s Bloom product in the making.

Bloom’s petroleum-based EVA content means it won’t biodegrade, but when it’s literally locked up carbon and water pollutants inside your shoes, that almost feels besides the point. Brands have been banging on the “regenerative” drum in recent months, and Bloom slots right into those plans. “I believe the reason that we have received such rapid adoption in the footwear space is because we have done all the homework and we’re a group of scientists,” says Hunt, who has a background in physics and engineering. “The brands view us as a sustainable ingredient that can help quantify the environmental improvements.” 

But Bloom alone won’t be the solution. Neither will mushroom leather, or lab-grown cotton, or linen made from agricultural waste. But it could be all of them, together, with some room still left for smallholder farmers to grow and raise traditional materials the right way: regeneratively.

“People used to ask me this when I worked on fashion and wearables,” says Parkes, Pangaia’s chief innovation officer. “Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna become the Apple? The way that you win is to have everything work together in balance. It’s a lot harder to do, but it’s totally necessary for us to have a system that mimics nature.”

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