Are biomaterials introducing a new form of craftsmanship?

Morgane Nyfeler

By Morgane Nyfeler09 août 2023

Cruelty-free and environmental-friendly, innovative plant-based materials made in laboratories have the potential to transform the textile industry for the better, while preserving traditional crafts in the supply chain.

Naze naze, founded by ZUCZUG in 2020, originating from the Dulong Project in 2015, collaborates with local female weavers from the Dulong River Valley to fuse urban lifestyles with traditional craftsmanship (Naze naze)

The difference between manufactured and man-made products is that makers create something new while experiencing with the materials

Yiren Shen, naze naze's overseas representative

Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Moncler – these are some of the luxury brands that have gone fur-free over the last winter. And the list keeps growing, illustrating a cultural shift in how animal-based materials are perceived and echoing consumers’ expectations to see brands add animal welfare to their sustainability strategy. Although fur suppliers have tried to promote the material as a by-product of the meat industry and a natural fiber, fur conventionally comes from polluting factory farms where cruelty is the norm and is processed with chemicals to make it last, which also prevents it from biodegrading. However, in 2021 alone, 1.8 million tonnes of animal fibers were still produced, according to Textile Exchange.

Innovative textile firms are using organic materials, like fungi and algae, to create sustainable alternatives to traditional leather (Arda Barrel)

Animal-free alternatives have been around for decades, but most faux fur and leather rely on oil and therefore aren’t the ideal solution. Petrol-based materials such as polyester and nylon already made up 61% of the global fiber market in 2021, as 72 million tonnes of synthetic fibers were produced. As the textile industry is expanding year on year and is projected by Boston Consulting Group to reach a value of $3.3 trillion by 2030, urgent action is needed to diversify the basket of materials available and offer more sustainable alternatives to polluting fibers.

Faux materials of the future

BioFluff creates sustainable, biodegradable insulation materials for the textile industry using agricultural waste, offering an eco-friendly alternative to traditional synthetic insulations (BioFluff)

Luckily, new material sources are now coming to the forefront. Made in laboratories from plants or microorganisms, bio-based synthetics offer promising solutions to achieve sustainability targets and create systemic change. BioFluff is the world’s first plant-based fur solution that wipes out the ethical concerns of animal fur and the environmental impact of its plastic counterpart. The company is currently waiting for the fabric to be patented but can already reveal that the raw material is agriculturally available and not a primary food crop while also using green technology to be processed so the impact on the environment is kept to a minimum.

Future fashion designers will return to working with nature by creating new biomaterials and reinventing old ones – they will only be limited by their imagination

Jim Ajioka, Scientific Director of Colorifix

While many of these innovations are still prototypes or in the early stages of research and development, private capital investment in next-gen biomaterial start-ups has doubled from 2020 to 2021, reaching $980 million, which could accelerate their availability on the market. “At The Mills Fabrica, we are continuing to build a community of like-minded innovators, creatives, and entrepreneurs with the same vision of making the textile and apparel industry more sustainable and better for our planet,” says its Acting Head of Europe, Amy Tsang in London. “We invest in companies that create systemic change and are driving positive impact.”

At the intersection of nature and technology

Portrait of Martin Stuebler, the CEO and Co-founder of BioFluff (Biofluff)

Innovative textile companies keep experimenting with organic raw materials – sometimes by-products of the food industry – that were replaced by petrol-based synthetics in the last century and transferred to the modern days. “Inspired by nature and leveraging cutting-edge biochemical and technological techniques, we’ve created a ‘canvas-like system where brands and designers can build their products with their own unique features and benefits that the much-loved animal and plastic derivatives struggle to achieve,” explains Really Clever’s Co-founder Patrick Baptista Pinto. Using fungi and algae, the company has developed a green, low-energy product solution for leather that is smooth and strong while being biodegradable and scalable in already established supply chains.

We’re helping them to replace the animal fur with our material so they can preserve their cultural heritage

Martin Stubler, CEO and co-founder of Biofluff

Biofluff’s material also has huge commercial potential, responding to brands’ design needs and desire to become innovation leaders while distinguishing themselves from the current saturated market. “We can achieve the same quality, softness, and suppleness as fur, and at the same time, we aren’t confronted with its limitations, so we can create different types of material that wouldn’t exist in nature,” says its CEO and Co-founder Martin Stübler. “Future fashion designers will return to working with nature by creating new biomaterials and reinventing old ones – they will only be limited by their imagination,” adds Jim Ajioka, Chief Science Officer at Colorifix, the first company to use a biological process to produce, deposit and fix pigments onto textiles, revolutionizing the dyeing process which is usually water and chemical-intensive.

Supporting the supply chain transition

At the same time, biomaterial companies are slowing down the manufacturing process and participating in preserving traditional craftsmanship and textile making skills. Arda Biomaterials is crafting its animal and plastic-free materials just south of London Bridge in Bermondsey – the present-day craft brewing hub and historic leather tanning district of the city. “We’re returning leather to The Leather Market in a completely new way, sourcing our feedstock directly from local brewers and restoring some of the British leather industry,” says its Co-founder Brett Cotten.

Colorifix is a company that has developed a sustainable dyeing technology using engineered microorganisms to convert agricultural waste into vibrant, long-lasting textile dyes, reducing the environmental footprint of the textile dyeing industry (Colorifix)

Designed and manufactured in Italy, Biofluff originated from a tannery instead of a textile engineering space and is employing already existing facilities, giving them a new raw material to handle and this without chemicals. “They are now setting aside a separate factory that’s only dedicated to plant-based work,” explains Stübler. “We’re helping them to replace the animal fur with our material so they can preserve their cultural heritage.” The company also boasts full supply chain transparency, from raw material to finish product, which is taking place locally in Europe – characteristics that many luxury brands value.

Craftsmanship in the 21st century

Portrait of weaver He Xiumei (Naze naze)

Given the right circumstances, craftsmanship and innovation can learn from one another, resulting in long-term creative partnerships. Naze naze is a design studio working with local women weavers in different regions in China and aiming to connect urban lifestyles with traditional craftsmanship and blend long-established techniques with contemporary tastes. “The difference between manufactured and man-made products is that makers create something new while experiencing with the materials,” says naze naze’s Oversea Representative Yiren Shen. “I believe there’s room for us to bring bio-generated yarns to the makers and see what kind of chemistry there will be.” Only the future will tell.

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