Are Organic Fabrics with Bacteria the Future of Sustainable Fashion?

Faber Futures

With consumers more aware of the impact of their clothing and purchase decisions on the environment, they’re looking for alternatives that make the difference, without compromising on quality. Enter bacteria fabrics, the newest innovation that has the potential to offer a sustainable alternative.

Bacteria Textiles Research

WGSN has been following bioengineering for around a decade now, where bacteria and other living matter such as algae and fungi are engineered into alternative textiles, finishes and dyes. An early adopter of bacteria-grown materials is BioCouture founder Suzanne Lee, who began by growing fermented yeast and bacteria into a bacterial cellulose material, which was engineered into a material skin, as an alternative idea to leather. 

This research led WGSN to the amazing work of Natsai Audrey Chieza of Faber Futures, whose Living Colour work uses living bacteria streptomyces coelicolor to dye colour onto fabric, using very little water and no chemicals. 

Around this timeframe, innovative biotech start-up companies were springing up, such as Modern Meadow, who grows alternative lab-grown, collagen-derived materials akin to leather, and companies Spiber and Bolt Threads, who both biofabricate synthetic spider-silk yarns from yeast proteins through a fermentation process.


Bacteria Fabrics So Far

Some of this work is still at an early stage, as getting lab-based processes to commercial scale can take years. Living Colour, for example, is collaborating some with small brands and independent designers, but on the whole, innovations like these need more investment for scalable development. 

We are, however, starting to see an acceleration of investment for projects that have been in the proof-of-concept phase for a decade. Spiber recently secured a significant investment to build a new production facility in Thailand and Modern Meadow is set to start commercial production in a scaled-up bio-fabrication plant in Slovakia.

Faber Futures

Fashion Forward

Leading active and outdoor performance brands and pioneers in the luxury sector are prototyping these innovations for standout hero pieces and small capsule launches. For example, Spiber teamed up with outdoor brand The North Face for its Moon Parka, and Bolt Threads teamed with Patagonia, Stella McCartney and with adidas for the Futurecraft shoe partnership. 

The North Face

Apart from the material outcomes themselves, what’s interesting is the fact that microbes could even help the fashion industry to get rid of its waste. There is a bacteria called ideonella sakaiensis that can eat plastic PET fibre that is common in our synthetic fibre garments, and the idea that this bacteria could feed on these polymer fibre garments as a food source could have potential to help solve the huge issue of synthetic garments not degrading in landfill. 

Innovative fleece producer Primaloft has developed an insulation fleece on this very premise, with active and outdoor brands seeing this as an exciting inroad into biodegradability. Laura Luchtman & Ilfa Siebenhaar of Living Colour recently collaborated with Puma Innovation on a launch Design to Fade, using bacteria colour to create beautiful organic colour on sportswear.


The Rise of Bio-Engineered Materials

Resource scarcity is really starting to bear down on the design industry. As precious oil, land and water feed the industry’s greedy supply chain, from crop planting and animal grazing to water irrigation and oil extraction, scientifically made, bio-engineered materials could, in the future, be an additional resource. 

There is a growing interest in this. As the resultant materials are renewable, they can be engineered on demand to specific structures and shapes, and are organic, biodegradable and compostable, potentially giving them a lower footprint than conventionally made textiles.

Suzanne Lee

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