The Cell-Made Man: Menswear & Cellular Agriculture

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When Fortune Magazine announced that The North Face’s “Moon Parka” collaboration with Spiber would hit shelves in Japan (for the handsome price of $1000 each), I could feel the ground shifting; something truly revolutionary had happened. And then Patagonia announced similar plans with the American company Bolt Threads. Both companies began making high-performance garments from spider-silk, but no spiders were involved in the process.

 

Spider-Man_webshootersI read the Spiderman comic books growing up, and the fantasy of having a readily accessible store of spider-silk, a material five-times stronger than steel ounce-for-ounce, to swing from and capture bad guys with was enthralling. But my rational brain convinced me that Peter Parker’s web-shooters – equipped with wet-fluid spider silk cartridges – was pure fiction. But two decades later, real wet-fluid spider-silk is about to change the fashion industry and the world as we know it. We are approaching a time where silk-lined wool suits with horn buttons, leather oxfords, and beaver felt hats will all be brewed from yeast like a rustic ale.

We are approaching a time where silk-lined wool suits with horn buttons, leather oxfords, and beaver felt hats will be brewed from yeast like a rustic ale.

I’d been following developments in biofabrication for some time, but these were more than momentous events. I hate to use the term “revolutionary” because I feel like it’s exhaustingly overused in marketing and advertising. As a guy who still works in mainstream commercial production, I’ve developed an allergy to many marketing clichés, so when something truly revolutionary happens, like, say the biggest advancement in large-scale material manufacturing since the industrial revolution, we’re sadly left with a word that’s used in every car commercial: revolutionary.

What’s so great about a coat made from protein that came from yeast cells that were implanted with genes and fermented with sugar, salt and water to produce proteins with the “exact same chemistry” nature’s thread-makers? To wrap your head around that one, it’s helpful to understand how mainstream, large-scale materials manufacturing works. So here it goes in a nutshell:

Most fashion is a beautiful object with a secretly ugly past.

Fashion materials begin as plants, animals, chemicals, or even minerals. The major problems, whether it’s pollution, waste, animal cruelty or worker exploitation occur outside of what most people buying or wearing fashion ever see or experience. Therefore, most significant impacts happen before the clothing hits the racks, and exist outside of what most advertising and marketing illustrates. Nearly invisible problems are difficult to confront. Most fashion is a beautiful object with an secretly ugly past.

The impacts of simply growing cotton, or rearing billions of sheep and cows are so staggering that even if no further processing occurred – if cows magically transformed into leather boots –  they’d still be unsustainable materials. So you can toss all the “vegetable-tanned leather” “organic wool” and “naturally dyed” cotton right into the hamper to be thoroughly greenwashed.

The revolutionary thing about cellular agriculture and biofabrication (growing things like leather without cows, and brewing things like cellulose or keratin fibers without cotton plants or sheep) is that it cuts out that first, hugely impactful step of having to dedicate fragile resources like land, water and fuel, for example, to process 33 million hectares (each hectare is 100 acres) of cotton fields. Think about all the energy and resources it takes to get that much cotton from seed to sewing machine and consider the circumstances of modern-day slavery and child labor for many people who work in cotton fields. Now plug sheep into a similar production framework for wool, or cows for leather, or mink for fur – but now make it even more troubling by considering the ethics of controlling, confining and killing enough animals to produce 7.7 million tons of skins and hides or 87 million mink pelts. Who wouldn’t want to find a way to completely eliminate these first, most harmful and costly steps?

The global fashion and textile industry is valued at 3 trillion dollars, and what companies like Bolt Threads, Spiber, Modern Meadow and others are doing is seizing a big financial opportunity to start a new mode of manufacturing that will make industrial production-as-we-know-it obsolete, while solving some really big problems.

Brewed spider silk is the first to market, but it’s only a matter of time before cultured leathers, hairs, feathers, and materials that we can not yet even conceive of will replace their less efficient predecessors. That’s what’s so great about a coat made from cultured protein.

Fashion’s Biological Future is Now

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by Joshua Katcher (also published on Huffington Post)

In an industry notorious for transience, flux and experimentation, it’s counterintuitive to consider that the fashion system is stuck in a rut when it comes to materials and real sustainability. Year after year, season after season, there’s this feeling of velocity, of working towards something better. Sure, there are a million ways a shirt can look, but if the way that shirt is made never changes, are things actually changing – or is it simply an illusion of progress?

Designers, press and editors alike continue to rationalize what happens to animals caught up in the fashion industrial complex as a necessary evil in achieving the highest quality, performance and most luxurious fibers, as if mother nature herself were meticulously positioning a leopard’s spots, arranging a reptiles scales or softening a goose’s down for the sole purpose of human use. And more often than not, the more rare an animal or cruel a process – from fetal lamb (also known as astrakhan or karakul) and calfskin (from veal calves) to angora and fur, the more heightened the perceived payoff will be. This is a strange psychological equation to say the least, but one that rules in the realm of luxury fashion. While animal agriculture is the single most environmentally problematic aspect of the fashion industrial complex, the choice to actually breed, farm, trap, confine and kill animals in order to attain their fibers will soon be obsolete thanks to a burgeoning sector of biofabrication startup businesses.

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Image: boltthreads.com

Leather without cows? Shearling without sheep, silk without spiders and furs without foxes? At first glance, something sounds wrong about this. The word “unnatural” gets thrown around when criticizing the cellular farming, synthesizing or culturing of animal materials. We think of frightening laboratories, test tubes, and scientists crouched over bubbling chemicals who are ‘playing god’ or at least Dr. Frankenstein! Our food and clothing should be coming from those bucolic images we see in ads of the quintessential farm with a red barn and two or three happy sheep lazing in a field, right? We cling to the marketed myths of where animal products come from because the images of factory farms, fur farms, leather tanneries or commercial shearing operations are not likely to stir up nostalgia, legacy and heritage. Outrage would be a more accurate reaction, which is why the reality of these industries are kept hidden – and now with AgGag laws, its illegal in many states to even document what’s happening inside these operations.

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Image: Joshua Katcher at IndieBio with the BioLoom team, holding cellulose used in production.

Enter Bolt Threads, BioLoom, Modern Meadow, Biocouture, Pembient, and BioFur. They are among the existing and emerging synthethic biology companies who are redefining agriculture, textile manufacturing and the fashion industry in general through innovation on a systems level. Bolt Threads has already developed an exact replica of spider silk without spiders, as Bloomberg recently reported. Modern Meadow is developing lab-grown leather and Icelandic designer Ingvar Helgason is developing BioFur, which is lab-grown pelts. Pembient has grown Rhino Horn in the lab, and will soon take on elephant ivory, while Biocouture developed a leather-like cellulose and now is a biofabrication and design-application consultancy. BioLoom has taken on the water and pesticide-intensive conventional-cotton industry with lab-grown cotton. The exciting thing about all of these companies is that they are just scratching the surface. This is a field of development and production that will be endlessly customizable, increasingly efficient and high-performance, and inherently more sustainable and less cruel than raising animals to kill them.

This is why the fashion community must stop kowtowing to the most sluggish and démodé symbols of luxury: fur, leather and wool that are still grown on an animals’ back.

It seems that if you have an idea for creating sustainable animal products without actual animals, you’ll be in luck because a huge trend in the field of synthetic biology is taking the greatest causes of the worst environmental problems, like animal agriculture, and finding visionary solutions. IndieBio, the San Francisco-based synthetic biology accelerator, recently announced that it’s offering $250,000 in seed funding for people with ideas for these types of startups.

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It’s also happening with food. New Harvest, a nonprofit that describes itself as “advancing technologies to feed a growing global population”, has helped launch companies like Clara Foods. Clara foods makes real eggs without hens. New Harvest also led Muufri, a company engineering yeast to produce cows milk without cows, to a similar accelerator. Modern Meadow, in addition to leather, has developed cultured meat, as has Impossible Foods.

The Biofabricate conference, heading into its second year, is a fantastic way to place your finger on the pulse of this movement.

We are on the brink of an industrial revolution and cellular agriculture is at the center of it. Companies like Ouro Botics are figuring out ways to take these developments into our homes and places of work by combining 3D printing technology with Bioprinting, so we’ll soon be able to print three-dimensional objects with organic and biological materials. Electroloom is mastering the technology of spray-on clothing, so clothing could be made of healthy, organic substances that are recyclable or biodegradable and always fit. We have only scratched the surface of what is possible.

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