Words by Grace Cook
Photographs by Nicholas Alan Cope
From mushroom-grown leather to bioengineered spider silk, six companies at the forefront of material innovation are emulating nature’s timeless structures and strategies.
“Coming across what is behind the scenes of the fashion industry was the turning point for me,” recalls Renana Krebs, a former senior fashion designer who had worked in the industry for 16 years before founding her company Algalife—a pioneer in sustainable textile innovation. “I saw exactly what was going on in the factories, who was making the clothes. I discovered that the textile industry was among the most polluting in the world and that 10 percent of the chemicals from textile dyeing transfers to our skin. I realized we needed to change it…The industry cannot carry on down this destructive path.”
And destructive it is. Every year, 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced (with fast fashion fuelling the problem). Of these, 75 percent end up in the ground. Every second, enough textiles to fill a garbage truck are disposed of. Fashion also currently lags behind other industries, like food and beauty, in terms of provenance. The farm-to-table movement in food arguably started the trend: in 2017, sales of organic produce rose six percent in the UK and eight percent in the US. Similarly, the beauty industry moved last year to ban the microbeads that, swept into the oceans, cause harm to marine life. But the fashion industry has much catching up to do, and the challenges are multifaceted, both on the levels of consumer mindset and brand investment.
Enter Krebs and a new wave of entrepreneurial vanguards attempting to reroute the industry’s path by producing engineered textiles that can be turned into luxurious items. Some, like Algalife, are creating fibers from the microorganism algae, making a fabric that is not only sustainable and completely pesticide free, but that also releases antioxidants and proteins into the skin when worn. Others, like Orange Fiber, are turning waste orange peel into Hermès-quality silks. Both are incredible developments and offer the opportunity—if used en masse—to completely change the future of the industry and perhaps even our carbon footprint.
Some designers who experienced a sudden realization about the dark underbelly of the industry might have launched a new fashion brand with a sustainable ethos. But Krebs decided to go one step further, initiating change from the very starting point of the garment: the textile. “Design today, for me, is not about designing the product,” she says. “It’s about designing the process. It’s really about creating a circular supply chain—only then can we really find the right path to create a revolution in this industry.”
“Design today, for me, is not about designing the product. It’s about designing the process. It’s really about creating a circular supply chain—only then can we really find the right path to create a revolution in this industry.”
Stacy Flynn, founder of Evrnu—a company that recycles old clothing, breaks it down into liquid, and turns it into a new sustainable fiber that is stronger than cotton—agrees: “The first step towards a full supply-chain redesign starts with fiber and ends with eventual garment waste,” she explains. “How we innovate will continue to be a focal point for the industry over the next 20 years.” According to Flynn, it’s essential that the industry devises alternatives to their two main fibers: cotton and polyester (90 percent of clothing is made from one or the other). Both fabrics are problematic and “significantly impact natural resources,” she says.
Cheap, man-made fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic will end up being responsible for over 20 million tons of microfibers in the ocean by 2050. When garments made of such textiles—say yoga pants—are washed, they release thousands of microparticles into the water that are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants. Consumed by sea life in the oceans, these particles find their way back onto our dinner plates: Plastic fibers were recently found in shellfish being sold for human consumption in California. The damage done by microfibers is said to be 16 times more dangerous than the microbeads in beauty products.
And in an era of instant gratification—where everything from food to cabs and Amazon Prime can be ordered within seconds—fast fashion is crafted from these fibers. But those inexpensive, disposable garments have led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by textiles: Currently, the number amounts to 1.2 billion tons annually. That’s more than those from all international flights and maritime activities combined. Meanwhile, retailers that operate within this realm of consumerism have experienced double-digit revenue growth. The statistics are unsettling.
However, even natural fibers can be environmentally damaging, especially in luxury, where the practice is to use the finest fabrics. Cashmere is flown in from Nepal via China, denim is flown in from Japan, cotton comes from Zimbabwe. Many luxury garments are made in Eastern Europe and finished in Italy or France: The air miles on a designer bag or pair of shoes are astronomical.
Furthermore, the actual production of cotton has a huge impact on the environment. It is currently responsible for 2.6 percent of the global water we use. That’s a hefty amount when you consider that, by 2030, demand for water will exceed supply by 40 percent. “In the future, I don’t think we will use cotton in fashion,” says Krebs, whose fiber is cultivated in labs in Israel. “Why? Because we will need the land to grow food for the growing population.”
Meanwhile, some 17 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing: That much beloved 100 percent cotton navy blue T-shirt or lilac cotton jersey sweater is part of the problem. Evrnu’s fabrics, on the other hand, use 98 percent less water than farmed cotton. Not only that, but all chemicals employed in the making of its fabrics are able to be reused. Algalife’s algae fabric uses five times less water than cotton production and is made with only natural, non-toxic dyes. The benefits of such textiles are exponential.
Slowly but surely, change is occurring. Last year, Orange Fiber partnered with Italian luxury house Salvatore Ferragamo on a capsule collection of silks. Algalife has innovated custom fibers for hosiery infused with aloe vera for a client, while Evrnu has partnered with both Stella McCartney and Levi’s. “Brands are now seeking us out, they want to be a part of this change,” says Krebs, who argues that the sheer number of pioneering companies and investment in the field shows how crucial sustainable textiles are for the industry’s development. But while it’s important for brands to get on board, real change can only be initiated when every level of the industry—from CEO to consumer—is engaged. “It’s about working with the stakeholders and the brands, as well as government regulation being enforced,” explains Krebs. “Of course, we need to educate consumers, too.”
What’s interesting, however, is that neither Krebs nor Flynn expect consumers to buy less. In this fast-fashion landscape, it has become unrealistic to ask customers to do a complete 180 on their consumer values. “Since there are no signs that consumers want to give up the products to which we’ve become accustomed, we as designers and manufacturers have a responsibility to find ways to bring more environmentally sustainable solutions to our customers,” says Suzanne Lee, cofounder of Modern Meadow, the New Jersey-based company producing bio-fabricated “leather” that is completely animal free. “Habits and practices can’t be changed overnight.”
But being able to mass produce such fabrics will no doubt help. Krebs’s fiber is currently 20-25 percent more expensive than ordinary textiles, but she anticipates a price reduction as demand grows—and the company already has the ability to produce the fiber on a mass scale. “Algae grows unbelievably fast, you cannot compare it to cotton or other natural fabrics,” she explains. “We can create as much as we need. We have no limitations.” Earlier this year, Modern Meadow partnered with Evonik to produce its Zoa fiber, a leather-look fabric crafted from lab-grown collagen, on a commercial scale. The company currently produces “billions of collagen cells that are then assembled with proteins into fibers,” says Lee. “Eventually, we will have an advantage over livestock production in terms of land, water usage, and CO2 emissions.” Meanwhile, Evrnu’s fibers can be endlessly recycled.
“Imagine having beautiful, amazing materials that don’t take away from our world’s natural resources,” muses Lee. “It’s vital for the survival of our planet.” Indeed, developments in sustainable fibers are happening across all aspects of the luxury industry, from fruit-waste silk to lab-grown diamonds. The next era of ethical consciousness in fashion is here. Meet the innovators of today and the pioneers of tomorrow.
“It’s critical for brands and retailers to understand the impact their raw materials have on natural resources,” says Stacy Flynn, CEO of sustainable fiber company Evrnu. “For the last 20 years, we’ve been focused on driving down cost. But the old way of making textiles is no longer an option; it causes too much damage.” Flynn founded the company in 2015 after a business trip to China proved eye opening: Stepping out of a cab, Flynn remembers being overwhelmed by the polluting smog from the textile factory to which she had been sent as an observer by the sustainable garment firm at which she was then employed. The horrified Flynn decided to do something about it.
Based in Seattle, Evrnu got off to a confident start and launched with $4 million in investments. It has patented a program that breaks waste cotton garments down into a pulp, which is then turned into new textiles that resemble the characteristics of silk, cotton, performance fabrics, and more. An avid cook, Flynn has likened the process to making pasta dough: The substance can be turned into any type of pasta, from spaghetti to penne. “We need fiber alternatives that are lower impact to offset our cotton usage,” she explains. As such, Flynn doesn’t believe that fiber should replace natural materials; instead, she thinks they should be used in tandem with one another to lessen the global impact of textiles overall.
Currently, Evrnu is working with four global brands, including Stella McCartney, to build bulk production: The process of creating their fibers is quicker than traditional cotton production—new fibers can be made within 7 hours, as opposed to the year it takes to cultivate natural cotton. “It’s the first step towards a supply-chain redesign,” she says.
Who would have thought that the humble garden spider could become an unsuspecting muse for luxury fabrics? California-based Bolt Threads—one of the industry’s biggest disruptors—has not only figured out how to make “leather” from mushrooms, it also makes a bioengineered spider silk using a genetically modified yeast. When fermented, the yeast creates proteins that are then transformed into a silk-like fiber.
Their Microsilk quickly made its way to the runways of Paris: The supple, slinky fabric was used by ethical pioneer Stella McCartney for her Spring 2018 collection in everything from trousers to tops and dresses. After pledging last year to make her company a zero percent waste business by 2020, the designer has signed a long-term partnership with Bolt Threads.
The company is making moves in the “vegan leather” market, too. Mylo is made from the mycelium cells of mushrooms cultivated in beds of nutrient-filled corn stalks under optimum conditions, causing billions of cells to form. These mycelium are then pressed into a 2D material and dyed. The accelerated conditions mean that it can be produced within days, rather than years, giving it a huge advantage over farmed leather.
To date, Mylo has been featured by high-profile brands including Patagonia, Adidas, and Stella McCartney (in her iconic Falabella bag). And there is considerable potential for further disruption: Seven months ago, the company, founded in 2009, closed in on $123 million in funding. What textile will they dream up next?
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or so the old saying goes. This is exceptionally true for the Italian company Orange Fiber, which turns waste orange peel into luxurious silks. The company goes a long way in solving Italy’s very specific recycling issues: While recycling food packaging is very commonplace today, Italy faces the unique problem of being unable to adequately dispose of its citrus waste. Italy—famed worldwide for its citrus groves—has been unable to find an adequate solution for recycling the 700,000 tons of citrus byproduct produced every year. This issue has been so problematic that it has resulted in the closure of some companies that, finding the costs of correct disposal prohibitively expensive, opted to illegally dump their citrus waste.
Orange Fiber, helmed by Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arena, is part of Fashion Tech Lab, the sustainability incubator founded by Miroslava Duma in 2014. A year earlier, in 2013, Orange Fiber patented its process in which cellulose is extracted from the citrus peel to form a yarn that can be spun into any fabric. The result is a delicate textile with a sheen that has been used in garments by Salvatore Ferragamo. The heritage Italian brand, based in Florence, helped develop an illustrated printed silk that they transformed into everything from scarves to sweaters and jackets, highlighting the versatility and luxury of Orange Fiber’s textile. The company is now also producing twill, poplin, and jersey—the possibilities for growth and development are endless.
In her journey to sustainability, Renana Krebs took inspiration from the lotions and potions she used to moisturise her face every morning. “I did research on microorganisms and I came across other industries using this amazing algae—we see it in cosmetics, we see it in food as we all eat sushi, and we see it in biofuel fields,” says Krebs, cofounder of Algalife. “And then I asked the question, Well why not use it in textiles?”
After working for a fast-fashion designer for more than a decade, Krebs decided to take a more ethical approach when she realized the detrimental effects of textile production on both an environmental and social level. She quit her job and enrolled in a sustainable design master’s program in Berlin—and has been on a mission to disrupt the textile industry ever since.
Together with her father Dr. Oded Krebs, a biologist and botanist with more than four decades of experience, she patented a system that turns lab-grown algae into fabrics. “I grew up in my grandfather’s greenhouse in Israel,” she says. “I always knew what it was to work with the land and be connected to the land.” A self-titled cleantech innovation, Algalife borrows principles from skincare, creating fibers that can be infused with proteins, vitamins, anti-inflammatories, and antioxidants that release into the skin, like a facial oil, when the garment is worn. According to Algalife, it can benefit the wearer in terms of health (for conditions such as diabetes) as well as in terms of beauty (T-shirts and tights can be woven with moisturizing proteins to soften the driest of skins).
It’s a refreshing and necessary change from standard textiles. Unbeknownst to many, such fabrics can transfer 10 percent of their chemicals into our skin. For this reason, Algalife cultivates its own algae, rather than sourcing algae from the ocean, which contains metals that would transfer into the body. Not only that, Algalife’s materials use five times less water to make than cotton. Environmentally friendly fabrics with added health properties have the potential to be far more luxurious than even the softest of natural silks.
Who would have thought that a Hollywood blockbuster could change the face of the jewelry industry forever? Yet Edward Zwick’s 2006 release Blood Diamond not only brought the systematic human rights abuses within the diamond sourcing chain to the world’s attention, it also inspired its leading actor—Leonardo DiCaprio—to do something about it. Diamond Foundry was founded in 2013 with investment from DiCaprio and offers both consumers and the jewelry industry an alternative to mined diamonds diamonds with a 100 percent carbon- neutral, natural gemstone grown entirely in a lab.
Named one of the world’s most innovative companies, Diamond Foundry pioneered man-made diamonds in its San Francisco laboratory, prompting other jewelers, such as De Beers, to invest in the field. Lab-grown diamonds will arguably drive the jewelry industry forward in coming years by appealing to the sustainable and ethical sympathies of millennials. In a social media age where provenance is key and details of the often-horrific mining conditions are easily searchable, the story of an unmined diamond will prove a selling point—a totally clean-conscience diamond.
The company currently makes 100,000 carats of real diamond in the lab annually and this number is set to skyrocket to 1 million once a second facility, in Washington opens. Hot forged aboveground using high-pressured conditions that force the stone to form, each diamond comes with its own certification by the gemological foundation. The company has already attracted stellar partnerships, from the American jeweler Jennifer Fisher to Swarovski and Barneys New York.
“We need to do something about the state of our planet,” says Suzanne Lee, designer and chief creative officer of New Jersey-based Modern Meadow. “At the rate we are using up the planet’s resources, we are going to deplete the earth’s natural resources faster than we can consume them and be left with nothing,” she warns. Lee—a graduate of Central Saint Martins school of design in London—has worked with sustainable microbial materials since 2003: She’s the pioneer of the technological developments in the company’s lab-grown fibers.
Her missive? To create Modern Meadow’s Zoa bio-fabricated leather-inspired material, made from lab-grown yeast collagen as opposed to animals. She sees these sustainable options as a major problem-solver for the consumer’s fast-fashion mindset: Replacing cheap, man-made fibers, such as polyester, with lab-grown sustainable textiles will change our impact on the planet without us having to change our relentless shopping habits.
Modern Meadow’s “leather” is not only kinder to the planet, it also mimics the textures of natural hide, meaning that the surface-level differences for a consumer are minimal. The fiber, which is dyed with natural tan, can be made in varying textures and weights, making it suitable for use across a range of garments, from bags to gloves. And hopefully it will be on a mass scale soon: This year, the company partnered with the German company Evonik, experts in microbial fermentation, to produce the fiber on a commercial scale.
SET DESIGN Adrian Crabbs (The Magnet Agency) MODEL Vinca Minor (Parts Models)
Neo-Natural is a study of humankind's relationship to nature in the age of climate change, including topics such as resource depletion and regeneration, gene editing, cellular agriculture, and the increasingly inarguable effects of the Anthropocene on indigenous communities around the globe. It features contributions from artists like Yoko Ono, ANOHNI, Ryan McGinley, Daniel Beltra, and more, all attempting to answer the question: What does "natural" mean in the modern world?