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Are Biomaterials Hype or Hope for the Apparel Industry?

Leather derived from mushrooms. Knitwear cultured from algae. Yoga pants blended with crab shells. For the fashion industry, frozen in the amber of tradition and resistant to change, these are practically mutinous developments.

It isn’t just niche brands that are dabbling in these so-called “biosynthetics,” which is to say, man-made materials with organic origins. H&M has thrown its financial largesse behind textiles made of grape pulp, cow manure and orange peel. Patagonia made the world’s first renewable wetsuit from a South American desert shrub. Reebok is poised to release a series of plant-based sneakers “grown” from non-food-source corn. And Stella McCartney is incorporating both Bolt Threads’ yeast-engineered synthetic spider silk and a fungal-based faux leather dubbed “Mylo” into her oeuvre of vegetarian-friendly togs.

“I think the fashion industry is desperately in need of newness and modernity,” McCartney told Sourcing Journal. “Once you take that technology and innovation and you marry it with luxury fashion and design and creativity, there’s no end to what magical madness you can create.”

In short, if cotton is still the fabric of lives, it may be in for some competition.

But terms like “biosynthetics,” “biopolymers” and “biomaterials” can get swept up in a sea of semantics, according to material futurist Sophie Mather.

Speaking with representatives from H&M, Patagonia and Spiber at a roundtable at the Textile Sustainability Conference last October, Mather said the term “biosynthetic” is often “misunderstood or misinterpreted for many different reasons.”

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As facilitator of the biosynthetics working group at Textile Exchange, the Texas-based nonprofit that organizes the conference every year, Mather toiled with a raft of stakeholders to pin down the elusive term. A newly launched microsite now defines biosynthetics as polymers that have been “created from either partial of 100 percent natural renewable resources for the manufacture into synthetic fibers.”

It’s true that biomaterials can appear gimmicky. (“Leather” made from what is essentially kombucha? Textiles derived from discarded chicken feathersSheep-free “wool”? The marketing basically writes itself.) But they also offer something their petroleum-based counterparts don’t: renewability.

“[With biomaterials], we’re moving from a finite situation with oil-based raw materials to a renewable situation, so we’re lessening our impact on those finite resources,” said Mather, who runs her own practice at Biov8tion. “And looking at climate change, with renewable resources, we can actually capture CO2 within the growing phase rather than produce it to manufacture raw materials.”

The apparel industry isn’t the only one whose interest is piqued. More than 40 countries, including the United States, have developed national policies around the so-called “bioeconomy” to foster economic growth and reduce fossil-fuel use.

In 2012, the European Union created the Bioeconomy Strategy, an initiative designed to address the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into valuable products.

Its ecological prudence aside, the bioeconomy spells big business, too. Bio-based products and biofuels translate to roughly 57 billion euros ($66 billion) in annual revenue and 300,000 jobs, according to an assessment by the European Commission, the politically independent executive arm of the European Union. Forecasts further indicate that the bio-based share of all chemical sales will grow at a compounded annual rate of nearly 20 percent over the next few years.

Vegea grape leather
Vegea, an H&M Global Change Award winner, turns grape pulp from the winemaking process into faux leather.

As the world’s largest apparel company after Inditex, owner of Zara, H&M’s interest in biosynthetics is as much born out of practicality as it is altruism.

“The UN estimates a population of 10 billion people by 2050,” said Mattias Bodin, sustainability business expert for materials and innovations at the Swedish retailer. “This also means a huge increase in the middle class that would result in an increase in consumption of textiles and other products. The question is will the world’s resources be enough? And I think we’re pretty sure today that that’s not the case.”

Although recycled or other sustainably sourced materials currently make up 35 percent of H&M’s total material use, the retailer says it wants to see that number reach 100 percent by 2030. Even from today’s vantage point, it’s obvious that organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles alone aren’t enough to make up the shortfall, Bodin said.

“We still have a lot to do,” he said. “We need to add, for example, biosynthetics to our synthetic fiber portfolio that are not based on fossil fuels. They can come from renewable sources like crops, agricultural waste or residues, and wood or some other cellulosic materials.”

In 2015, the H&M Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, debuted the Global Change Award, an annual event designed to suss out innovations that reduce clothing production’s environmental burden. Every year, a jury chooses five winners to participate in an accelerator-slash-boot-camp, where they’ll divvy up a grant of 1 million euros and receive expert help to bring their ideas to market.

Past winners have included an Italian company that uses winemaking dregs to make vegetal leather, a group of Dutch scientists that transforms cow dung into bioplastics and a team from Sicily that spins the cellulose from citrus byproducts into silk-like fibers. In March, Circular Systems, a materials-science startup that wants to turn food crop waste like banana peels, sugarcane pulp, hemp and flax stalks into high-value textiles for the fashion industry, received a a $350,000 grant from the foundation.

Don’t expect to see these materials on the racks of H&M any time soon, however. As Bodin pointed out, winners usually need further development to reach commercial viability. “The fact is that most of the materials that we would need by 2030 do not exist today,” he said. “They might exist on a lab level or scale but not really as a commercial product.”

That’s not to say certain technologies aren’t further along than others. Spiber, a Japanese firm that tinkers with proteins at the molecular level, is planning its first large-scale production plant, which will allow it to produce its tentpole product—a synthetic spider silk, which it employed to create a series of limited-edition “Moon Parkas” for The North Face—on a mass scale.

The process of creating the fibers, which is similar to fermentation, requires sugar as starting point.

“We use microbes to produce our materials,” explained Kenji Higashi, director and executive officer at Spiber. “We put the genes that we synthesize into microbes. We feed them with sugars in a fermentation process and we extract our proteins from that process and spin them into fibers.”

Using valuable cropland to grow the feedstock for non-food products is something the bioeconomy’s detractors can’t get behind. With fertile soil at a premium, this line of thought could lead to potential land grabs, the destruction of forests and a hungrier planet, critics say.

“Simply substituting where our plastics or fuels come from is in no way a magic bullet that will clean up pollution, slash greenhouse-gas emissions and cut our resource overuse,” Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Environment Europe, said in 2016. “Far from it. Switching to biofuels and bioplastics means eating up vast swaths of land, primarily outside the EU, with damaging impacts on the ground. The only sure-fire way to fix these problems is to drastically cut our use of resources in the first place.”

It’s a predicament of which Spiber is all too aware. “We need to source ethically; that’s a very important aspect for us,” Higashi said.  “I see that as something we need to face a little bit further out after we have larger production scale.”

Yulex wetsuit by Patagonia
Patagonia uses natural rubber stead of petroleum-based neoprene for its wetsuits.

Scale is certainly something Patagonia is willing to invest in. In 2016, the outdoor-wear maker debuted an internal venture-capital fund, which it dubbed $20 Million & Change but has since renamed Tin Shed Ventures, to buttress startups that offer solutions to environmental problems. Those companies, according to Claudia Richardson, materials innovation manager at Patagonia, have “become an arm of our innovations team.”

Among Tin Shed Venture’s stable is Beyond Surface Technologies, a Swiss firm that develops low-impact bio-based textile treatments, including finishes that wick moisture and ward off odor. They’re nowhere as sexy as say, leather made from pineapple leaves or cloth you cook up using spoiled milk, but it’s in this workhorse milieu that biomaterials have quietly found their groove.

“Their bio-based finishes are actually sold on our base layers which are in stores today,” Richardson said.

Yulex, the natural material that has supplanted neoprene in all of Patagonia’s wetsuits, presents another practical application.

“Yulex is sourced from a natural rubber from Guatemala, from the hevea trees,” Richardson said. “And we work with Forestry Stewardship Council–certified farmers to make sure that those wetsuits aren’t contributing to deforestation but instead are helping the local economy and area. By using this material we’re actually able to take out 80 percent of the CO2 emissions, which is super-exciting.”

Patagonia is also experimenting with Bolt Threads’ synthetic spider silk, although details are, for the moment, scant. With Virent, a Wisconsin-based outfit that uses biomass-derived sugars to replace petroleum, Patagonia is developing a “100 percent bio-based PET with equivalent performance to virgin PET but a reduction in the environmental impact,” Richardson said, noting that recycled materials don’t always supply the same performance as their virgin brethren.

Then again, just because a material has “bio” in its name doesn’t make it more ecologically sound. A bio-based polyester is still, chemically speaking, a polyester, which means it presents the same challenges when it comes to end-of-life management, such as recycling.

“The recycling technologies we’ve developed for some polyesters might not fit very well with bio-based or other kinds of polymers,” Bodin said. “That’s something we need to be cautious about, to see how we can secure each material and hit a loop that makes new textiles and gets them out of the waste stream.”

Mather further noted that biomaterials aren’t synonymous with biodegradability, but it’s a common misconception.

“There’s been a lot of talk about biodegradability as a solution for other challenges that are cropping up in the apparel world, like marine microfibers,” Mather said. “A lot of people are jumping to the conclusion that a bio-based polymer would be a solution for that, so I think we’re at a stage of level-setting communication and understanding.”

Establishing a common vernacular, like creating scale, takes time. “It’s about consistently walking forward,” Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads, told us afterward.

Together with Stella McCartney, the San Francisco company produced a glittering gold dress for the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” At the British designer’s Paris Fashion Week show last October, she trotted out a bodysuit and a pair of parachute pants clad in a fine knit version of Bolt Threads’ yeast-grown yarn. And in April, McCartney reworked her signature Falabella bag in Mylo for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Fashion from Nature” exhibit in London.

The garments aren’t just proofs of concept, Widmaier said. They’re a promise that the tipping point, if we haven’t already reached it, is fast approaching. Still he cautioned patience.

“This is not a quarterly storyline; this is not even a year; this is a decades-long storyline for not just us but the entire industry,” he said. “Then again, there are few if any other good ways to tackle this problem on this planet, so I’d rather start now than wait too long.”