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Biosynthetics vs. Natural Fibers: What Makes a Sustainable Material Sustainable?

Sustainable sourcing begins with raw materials. Experts agree that a “sustainable materials mix” should be a priority for the fashion industry because they can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, pare back water and carbon footprints and pose less of a burden at the end of their lives. But what makes a material sustainable? And should we look to the past or the future for answers?

In this podcast episode, Sourcing Journal reporter Jasmin Malik Chua speaks with Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, and Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg Co., about how novel materials like synthetic spider silk derived from yeast stack up against agricultural systems both conventional and “regenerative.”

“I would say we’re at the very earliest phase of this and few of the new, interesting and exciting materials have come to scale,” Kibbey said. “But we also have to support innovation and try to find these new materials that do reduce impact, and do allow us to give optionality in a changing world.”

Burgess cautions, however, that the current regulatory system is ill-suited to managing the growth of synthetic biology and its waste streams. “What we have is a history of launching things into our biosphere, without having measurement frameworks or scientific analysis about potential impacts to dynamic ecosystem function,” she said. “So I have concerns and I’m not the only one.”

Regenerative agriculture, Kibbey explains, increases soil fertility and biodiversity, helps with sequestration of atmospheric carbon and helps the land “self-renew without synthetic inputs…just the magic of biology.”

Kibbey agrees that a balance between old and new is necessary to clothe the people of the future. “It’s very important that we both have to support innovation and support new ways to look at clothing…but we also have to be very careful of the unintended consequences of those materials as we develop them…and carefully try to understand and reduce or ideally eliminate those unintended consequences.”