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.
I 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.