Biotech fashion takes naturally sourced textiles literally

biotech fashion

As fashion weeks in both the U.S. and Europe come to a close, it begs the question of staying fashionable and environmentally friendly.

In recent years, trends like up-cycling, vegan-friendly, and vintage shopping as a means of combating fast-fashion textile waste, have become the very definition of trendy, especially among younger generations. These are all fantastic ways to be a mindful consumer, but there are more problems to solve when it comes to fashion waste and environmentally considerate production. 

For example, “about 8% of European microplastics released to oceans are from synthetic textiles—globally, this figure is estimated at 16-35%. Between 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter the global marine environment each year,” according to the European Environmental Agency. Similarly, “Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. What’s more, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year, and washing some types of clothes sends significant amount of microplastics into the ocean,” reported the Geneva Environment Network

How can we start addressing these problems today rather than tomorrow? Enter biotech fashion.

Expanding natural textile alternatives

Historically, the main sources of natural textile alternatives (with a lower carbon footprint) in the fashion industry were mostly limited to the use of cotton and hemp. However, the biotech industry today is working in tandem with the natural world to understand exactly how to produce sustainable textiles. Everything from algae to fungi to spiderwebs to brewing your own textiles is being considered and used to change the textile landscape as we know it. 

Here are a couple of the most exciting (and downright sci-fi) biotech fashion innovations being developed today, and where else the industry is poised to grow.


When you step on a slimy piece of seaweed on the beach, it’s doubtful your first thought is fashion, but scientists, designers, artists, and innovators have realized that the low-maintenance, textile-like growth structure of algae (seaweed), along with the ease with which it can be contoured into textile weave patterns, is actually an ideal alternative to textiles that previously relied on synthetic microplastics. 

Charlotte McCurdy, an award-winning designer and researcher who works at the intersection of emerging technology, futures, and existential threats, asks, “What would it feel like to get back into a present tense relationship with the sun?”

She points out that much of the world’s carbon consumption comes from ancient sources: concrete, fossil fuels, plastics, etc. But poses the alternative that a more sustainable means of production hinges on a present-tense relationship with the sun and therefore products. 

“[Cement, steel, and plastic] materials are carbon emitters. Because they are fossilized life,” explains McCurdy. “They are ancient sunlight. So what do I mean by ancient sunlight? Big beautiful carbon based molecules are how life stores the energy of the sun…Thinking about materials as ancient sunlight, raises the question for me. What would happen if we made them out of present tense sunlight? It turns out we can and if we need our materials out of present tense sunlight, which is to say the product of photosynthesis happening right now. We could not only reduce our dependence on ancient carbon, we could—if we do it just right—trap our current carbon in our materials.”

And her ideas hinge on the powers of biotech to become a reality. McCurdy, for her part, created a raincoat made out of marine algae that is carbon negative, but acknowledges that she is far from alone in her designs production and entrepreneurship. 

Indeed, German-based company, SmartFiber, has created a seaweed-infused cellulose fiber containing 19% seaweed content referred to as SeaCell fiber that “has limitless applications in textiles…for a broad spectrum of uses in sports and leisure textiles—from underwear and loungewear to soft furnishings.” 

“SeaCell allows your skin to harness the power of nature as its fibers are rich in minerals, antioxidants and vitamins,” as stated on the company’s website. “This means that the fibers are not only good for your skin, but good for the environment, too.”

And the company has partnered with brands like Lululemon and Pangaia to create trial products. 


Mycophiles will have more to celebrate as the myriad uses of fungi continue to expand. Whether in construction, electronics, and now fashion, fungi is slowly becoming the most versatile tool in the biotechnology toolkit.

Fungi offers help in the fashion industry in two ways: by breaking down old generations of textile and plastic waste, while also building up the new generation of mycelium-based textiles. And the best part—mycelium-based textiles break down when discarded.

“A 2017 study led by researchers from China and Pakistan identified a strain of the fungi Aspergillus tubingensis that was breaking down plastic at a landfill in Islamabad, Pakistan,” reported Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and partners. “To date, 436 species of fungi and bacteria have been found to degrade plastic and Kew scientists and partners believe their latest findings could lead to the development of efficient enzymes designed to biologically degrade plastic waste.”

The discovery and development of plastic and petrol-consuming fungi is angling to be a game changer in the waste industry, but what about how fungi is growing next-gen fashion? You can start by asking the vegan leather industry.

In the past, if consumers wanted a leather alternative, their only option was plastic-based leather products—hardly a step in the direction of sustainability. Mycelium, however, is working to create a better-quality, more sustainable product.

Early in the research and development cycle, Bolt Threads partnered with companies like Stella McCartney, Kering, and Adidas to create vegan leather and other textile alternatives. Sadly, Bolt Threads ceased production of last year saying their mycelium-based leather, Mylo, “was ‘devastatingly close’ to commercial scale, but inflation and waning funding opportunities have brought the company to a standstill,” as reported by Vogue. Though the company is still running and continues to highlight Mylo on its website. 

Bolt Threads is not alone in its struggles to reach sustainability. Companies like “Reishi from Mycoworks, Mirum from Natural Fiber Welding and Forager from Ecovative” are also fighting the good fight to reach commercial scale. And there continues to be an ever-growing hunger for their products by consumers, indicating that it is really a matter of when these products can reach commercial viability.

“We are not immune to the same macroeconomic pressures everyone else is facing, so we have paused Mylo to reassess what works and what will work in the future,” Bolt Threads CEO Dan Widmaier tells Vogue Business. It’s not out of the question that Bolt Threads would sell the technology in the hopes of getting Mylo to market. “There’s no finality to this story yet. Humanity needs a more sustainable future, or we will cook ourselves on this planet with climate change, and fashion has a huge role in that. My hope is that we solve this problem for the good of everyone on the planet—that’s why all options are on the table.”

And Bolt Threads and other’s stories point out the investment and policy needs of alternative, sustainable production to become viable options in the market. Just as we saw in the solar industry, it takes time and investment to make new technologies affordable and available on the market. And while much of that is dependent on the ebbs and flows of investment markets from year to year, on the policy end, the same subsidies that are allotted to fossil fuel-based companies and production could be diversified to include more sustainable options.

As JP Morgan points out, “75% of consumers view sustainability as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ in their fashion purchasing decision. And over 50% of consumers would switch for a brand that acts in a more environmentally and socially friendly way. But in practice, are consumers really willing to pay? Not yet, it seems. Only 7% of consumers say sustainability is the most important factor in their decision making.” 

It would seem then that the impetus is still on producers and innovators to drive down cost. Luckily, a number of brands in the sports arena, especially Adidas, are still acutely interested in alternative and sustainable clothing production.

Infinite options for the natural world

Algae and fungi production are just two of the sustainable options that biotech is exploring when it comes to fashion, but the options hardly stop there. 

Biotech is also combining the powers of yeast, bacteria, and spider’s silk to brew some interesting textiles as well. Spiber, a biotech company based in Yamagata Prefecture, has partnered with Goldwin, a sportswear manufacturer, to create next-gen sportswear. 

As reported by the Japan Times, “Company founders ventured out to catch spiders and analyze their DNA as part of an effort to replicate spiders’ silk genes and see if microbes could reproduce spider silk. 

The company’s offering—which it calls Brewed Protein—is now fundamentally different after it was discovered that garments made from spider silk protein shrunk dramatically—a quality shared with actual spiderwebs.”

The product isn’t spider silk exactly, but a material all its own, using “94% less water and [contributing] 97% less habitat damage,” according to the company’s 2022 sustainability impact report, which also found their products have lower associated carbon emissions.

On the bacteria front, there are also a number of bacteria-based dye alternatives that are being developed as well. “Faber Futures is developing colorfast dyes that don’t fade with time or washing,” reports Labiotech, all using bacteria such as Streptomyces coelicolor.

Typically, dying fabric is a water-intensive process, but “water is reduced massively [in our process] and we don’t need to use any chemicals because the dye is deployed directly onto the textile,” said Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder and CEO of Faber Futures, with early tests using 500 times less water than conventional dyeing. 

All in all, biotechnology is a trend that will always be fashionable and has even paved the way for some of the most exciting fashion moments in recent history—notably Bella Hadid’s spray-on dress made of polymers, biopolymers, and solvents produced by the company Fabrican LTD during Haute Couture Fashion Week September 2022. In fact, the technology highlights how fashion is catching up to biotech, not the other way around (the tech had existed for years before its fashion debut).

As the fashion industry might say: Biotech fashion is iconic.

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