What’s in a name? When it comes to biomaterials—think yeast-engineered silk or mushroom-root leather—quite a lot. And like the trend itself, confusion about how they differ, how they’re made and what they offer is growing.
Buoyed by burgeoning ethical concerns from consumers, fashion brands are seeing the promise of lab-developed materials as functional alternatives to conventional, polluting and less humane ones derived from fossil fuels or animals. Yet the category remains ill-defined, even confusing, particularly when terms such as “biosynthetic,” biofabricated,” “biobased” and bioassembled” are thrown into the mix. Questions, too, are being raised about the use of such materials: Their critics say, for instance, that there’s little oversight or regulation around any potential environmental or health risks.
“It’s a complex subject because there are many underlying technologies that we’re talking about when we apply the term ‘biomaterial,’” Suzanne Lee, CEO of Biofabricate, a New York-based platform for biomaterial innovators and consumer brands, told Sourcing Journal. “It’s not just speaking to one technology.”
On Monday, Biofabricate and Amsterdam’s Fashion for Good released “Understanding ‘Bio’ Material Innovations: A Primer for the Fashion Industry,” the first in-depth review of biomaterial technologies for fashion. The report, which doubles as a reference document, examines the challenges of creating biofabricated materials, from designing and engineering cells to scaling up production in large, specialized facilities. It tackles topics such as access to capital, technological readiness levels, market viability, impact considerations and commercial collaborations. More than 30 experts in the field, including brands and startups such as Adidas, AMSilk, Bolt Threads, Kering, Modern Meadow, MycoWorks and Spiber, share their insights.
Equally crucial, the report pins down “robust definitions” for the litany of terms companies bandy about, while “forging a deeper understanding” of the different technologies with a series of easy-to-follow diagrams, Lee said.
“Biomaterial,” as an overarching concept, is “pretty meaningless,” she noted, since it can refer to anything with ingredients that originate in nature, however minute. (Cotton, for instance, is a biomaterial, as is corn-based plastic.) Whereas when people talk about materials that use living organisms, such as microbes, they’re really referring to “biofabricated” materials. As such, there needs to be a “tipping point” of understanding and an alignment of objectives to move developments forward, Lee said.
“We want to bring transparency to the different technologies because they’re not all the same, and we want to equip brands with tools that enable them to ask smarter questions,” she said. “Not all innovation is necessarily a good thing—there are better solutions than others. And we need to get much smarter, much faster about which ones should be supported with investments and which ones are no better and maybe worse than what we currently already doing.”
Indeed, one misconception is that material innovations with “bio” in their names are automatically better for the environment. Or that they are biodegradable or compostable. Though “bio” generally indicates a move away from petroleum-based feedstocks, each technology comprises multiple dimensions, including feedstock choice, energy use and end-of-life disposal, that must be examined on a case-by-case basis, said Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good.
“It’s really a granular step-by-step comparison that you need to implement for each material that you’re assessing,” Ley said.
The report comes at an opportune time. Demand for biofabricated materials has never been higher. Next year, Adidas, Kering, Lululemon and Stella McCartney will roll out the first commercial products made from Mylo, a mycelium-based leather alternative by Bolt Threads. In November, MycoWorks raked in $45 million in financing to scale up Reishi, its own mushroom-derived counterpoint to cowhide. Spiber and The North Face’s Japan distributor Goldwin are pushing out sweaters infused with Brewed Protein, a biopolymer produced from plant-derived biomass from microbial fermentation.
“While there used to be a couple of frontrunners, there is now a critical mass of innovators,” Ley said. “There are also way more [companies] at a technological readiness level where it becomes really interesting for the industry to engage with. There is also much more interest in the field now.”
Demand for biofabricated materials, in fact, now “massively outstrips” supply, which can be frustrating for brands that aren’t used to a pace of progress measured in decades rather than years. But companies need to temper their expectations, both in terms of timelines and the cost of developing these technologies, Lee said. In many cases, it will take close to a decade, if not longer, for many of these materials to amass the necessary volumes.
“Fashion wants to do everything quickly,” she said. “And with this type of material innovation…we’re not writing apps here. Some of it is at the forefront of science; certainly in biotech, where we’re designing with the code of life itself.”
Part of the appeal of animal-free silk and leather is the growing demand for vegan products. Searches for “vegan leather” have increased by 69 percent year over year, according to Lyst’s 2020 Conscious Fashion report. Demand for “eco vegan leather,” it said, has also been increasing over the past year, an indication that consumers are more aware that “vegan” products can contain large amounts of plastic. Similarly, retail intelligence platform Edited saw a 43 percent year-over-year increase in product described as “vegan” stocked in the United Kingdom at the end of pre-pandemic January. In the United States, the number jumped to 64 percent.
Given sufficient runway, there’s no reason biofabricated materials couldn’t capture a large market share, much like vegan companies such as Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods have, Lee said. Until material innovations get that kind of economy of scale regarding infrastructure, however, they’re not going to take over “radically overnight.”
“Unfortunately, one of the limiting factors in the next few years is these technologies require unique facilities. So they’re building their own plants, and that requires capital expenditure and time,” she said. “So I think [uptake] will be small and incremental. But, for sure, I think the consumer demand is giving brands confidence to make these kinds of investments.”
Enough financing exists, Ley added. “It’s not that there is no capital, it’s that the fashion industry needs to join forces intelligently, to make the risk profile for investors more manageable,” she said.
Still, not everyone is on board. Organizations such as ETC Group and Fibershed have previously warned that any commercial-scale expansion of biosynthetic fabrics, such as those derived from genetically engineered microorganisms, could exert undue stress on ecosystems while creating potentially hazardous sources of biotech waste. In addition, by diverting resources from “truly sustainable” natural fiber economies like wool, cotton or hemp, such technologies could also jeopardize the livelihoods of farmers worldwide.
“Genetically engineered fiber production is risky, unnecessary and could perpetuate unsustainable pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture,” Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said in 2018. “Instead, we should support proven and truly sustainable solutions including natural fibers produced by regenerative and organic farmers.”
Lee said this is an “important debate” to have. There are currently no certifications that guard against any unintended consequences of biofabrication processes. Though established international systems such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety provide guidelines for the safe handling of genetically modified organisms, textile supply chains may struggle with dealing with such regulatory issues for the first time.
“The reality is there should be no genetic material in the end product,” she said. “Now, how you test for that is something that we need to get to. That work has yet to be done by anyone. And hopefully, maybe this report [will lay] a foundation for work like that.”