Fashion’s Biological Future is Now


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.



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.


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.


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.


another ear because we realised we needed two...

Sorry Natalie, Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

The New York Times recently ran a piece by Natalie Angier called “Sorry Vegans, Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too“. It was categorized under the “Science” section, with the further distinction of “basics“. In other words, the author wants to let us know that making an ethical argument to curtail the science-fiction and horror-movie-like indignities and atrocities that animals endure in exchange for a plant-based diet is flawed because plants want to live – and duh, that’s just basic science.

“…plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.”

That may be true, if it’s aspirations we’re talking about. And following this line of logic, we may as well throw in that lightning does not aspire to illuminate a bulb, a mountain does not aspire to be a car-frame, an island does not aspire to be a tourist destination, and a child does not aspire to get heart disease.

Can you imagine if Angier said “plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a woman aspires to be raped”? It is consistent with this line of logic where no one is safe, and one wrong justifies another. When I was four, I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Eating plants doesn’t make eating animals okay (if eating plants were even an equal “wrong” as Angier suggests). The optimal inner-dialogue she wants us to have upon reading her article goes something like this: “well, if plants are that hell-bent on surviving, what’s the point of trying to spare animals when clearly they are just as deserving of consideration – and we have to eat something, so we may as well just eat what we want because it’s such a big gray area“.

“It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.” let’s humor Angier, even though plants are lacking a brain, and even though we know that while someone who is brain-dead (a vegetable), though bio-chemical reactions still persist, does not respond to bodily injury that would typically cause the type of pain most animal advocates seek to alleviate. Let’s say that plants can suffer in a similar way as do people and animals. Let’s just say that ripping a carrot out of the dirt is along the lines of forcibly impregnating (raping?) dairy cows, then tearing the baby away (which is met by hours and days of a howling, distraught mother), sentencing the calf to a veal crate (where he can not even turn around or lie down) and stealing the milk for ourselves. Does the former justify the latter? I don’t want to live in Angier’s world where potentially causing pain justifies certainly causing pain. Mustn’t that also justify inflicting pain upon people? This is a messy, messy road to go down.

I wonder if Natalie Angier is aware of what farmed animals eat? I also wonder if she knows what the ratio of plant-based animal feed converted to meat and dairy is. Or how much land is used to meet the demands of producing animal products? If she did know these things, and she were a vehement “plants’ rights activist” she would still be making the most ethical choice by going vegan because the most plants would be spared, instead of being converted into animal protein and graze-land at a losing ratio.

How about some clarity? Most animal advocates are talking about actively avoiding incredible amounts of suffering, ecological devastation, and health and social problems in relation to using animals for food, clothing, research, and entertainment. This can result in legislation, direct action, grassroots activism, lifestyle changes, and other advocacy with the aim of alleviating preventable suffering, decreasing environmental impact, and improving health and human welfare. Natalie needs a lesson in “basics”, herself. Far from the recent, trendy food discourse she invokes exists the response to her confusion, as laid out by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

To frame the moral dilemma in “Killing animals for human food and finery” as being about aspirations is to fail in understanding the agenda of many animal activists. The intention of many vegans I know is not moral purity – yet this consistent misconceptionplantbrain isn’t responded to as clearly by animal advocates as it should. It is more often a social justice issue involving individual animals who actively dissent by vocalizing and struggling to escape sources of pain and suffering, defending their young, mourning the death of and separation from family and friends, maintaining a preference for complex and communicative social structures, and seeking out comfort when faced with pain.

Like many critics who consider animal advocates self-righteous cow-huggers, and whose first response to finding out that someone is vegan is typically “well, what’s your belt made out of?“, the author of this article exemplifies this misconception about the purpose of veganism. Is it political? Yes. Is it about moral puritanism? Not usually. Nor is it about preventing death. Of course plants strive to live, but everything living eventually dies. It is about preventing preventable suffering. It is about not choosing the duck or the lamb because they have brains and bodies that register suffering in a way with which we can empathize.

Angier blabs, as if her audience were the confessional:

“I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer.”

If the title itself didn’t make it obvious enough that the purpose of the article was to rationalize her whimsical diet and piss off vegetarians who live in the “moral penthouse”, as Angier refers to it, then the content itself does the job. Angier neither offers insight into her inability to exert self-control in face of cheese and duck, nor does her artless and callow argument to consider the will-to-live of vegetation on same playing field as the suffering endured by animals with consciousness, brains, and nervous systems have any defensible logic. It is riddled with the anthropomorphizing of plants (something of which animal advocates are commonly accused), and it is creepily reminiscent of the joke website VRMM.

Senseless torture

“Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl.”

Is it valid to point out that plants fight, cooperate, and evolve to optimize survival, like any other living organism? Sure. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and all living organisms are amazing, complex, and have spent billions of years evolving into performing delicate and not-so-delicate dances with everything around them. Whether homeostasis is the Earth’s aspiration (as proposed by James Lovelock‘s Gaia Hypothesis) or the destruction of everything is the Earth’s Aspiration (as proposed by Peter Ward‘s Medea Hypothesis), or if the Earth or universe even has aspirations are not the issues at hand when we talk about veganism or animal advocacy.

Angier claims “This is not meant as a trite argument“, yet her purpose in writing the article seems as trite as rationalizing her own, flimsy food choices.

FEED 100 & Paradoxes

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1. The newest FEED bag, the FEED 100 bag is available now exclusively at Whole Foods Market nation-wide! Each FEED 100 bag will provide 100 school meals to hungry children in Rwanda through the UN World Food Program ( Help them reach their goal of provide all the WFP school meals in Rwanda for 2008 and buy your FEED 100 bag!

2. I’ve often wondered why certain unethical products and practices persist in consumer culture. One theory is that there is a paradox pertaining to accountability. The consumer rationalizes, “If this were unethical, they wouldn’t be selling it“, and at the same time the producer justifies, “if making this were unethical, there wouldn’t be a demand for it. Something as simple as ordering foie gras at a restaurant presents this cultural paradox. The restaurant continues to sell foie gras because people are still demanding it – and people are still choosing foie gras from the menu because the ostensibly virtuous authority of the producer is invoked, and the submissive consumer believes that if it really were that bad, it wouldn’t be on the menu in the first place. The producer makes their money, and the consumer – well, consumes.

One explanation for this phenomenon is that the consumer has been trained to grant authority and power to
retailers and corporations – and with that, many people believe these authorities aim to ‘do the right thing‘. On the other hand, the producer believes that, even up against the amazing influence of advertising, the consumer will make educated purchasing decisions.
Whether this is a relationship of convenience (profit & hedonism) or an oversight of economic ethics, the outcome typically results in the perpetuation of destructive things.
• I would love to hear your thoughts on this phenomenon – is there an actual term for this?