Buh-bye fast fashion, hello biomaterials
From cars to clothing, the synthetic silk movement aims to provide a sustainable replacement for petroleum-based materials across a range of businesses.
Believe it or not, humans have been trying to untangle the secrets of spider silk for at least hundreds of years.
The material has become almost legendary—it’s stronger and better at retaining heat than the silkworm silk we currently use to make fabrics, and certain spider silks boast strength rivaling that of some steels. But spiders aren’t very cooperative; they’re almost impossible to corral for silk-gathering purposes, and many species have an unfortunate habit of going cannibal in captivity. So, while over the years some spider wranglers have managed to collect enough fiber to make small numbers of garments, no one has ever figured out how to produce large quantities of spider silk. (Maybe befitting its rarity and allure, the best known and largest piece of real spider-silk fabric in the world is a priceless, shimmering golden cape made in 2009, a one-of-a-kind art piece that required more than a million spiders to produce.)
Now, the modern quest to tame the wonders of spider silk continues in laboratories across the world, as scientists and startups race to create synthetic materials that mimic its properties.
Part of a larger, growing biomaterials industry, producers of synthetic silks hope they can be a sustainable replacement for petroleum-based materials across a range of businesses, from cars to clothing. Recently, The North Face Japan, in partnership with Japanese biomaterials manufacturer Spiber, passed the latest milestone in the spider-silk marathon: In December, the companies sold 50 parkas mostly made from synthetic, spider-inspired silk. Dubbed the “Moon Parka,” the name and run-size are a nod to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, writes Daniel Meyer, Spiber’s head of global corporate planning, in an email interview.
The Moon Parka first debuted as a prototype in 2015, and since then Spiber has been refining its materials, in the process announcing other high-profile partnerships, like a “kinetic seat” project with Lexus, and releasing another Goldwin collaboration, the “Planetary Equilibrium Tee,” in June.
The company still faces stiff competition: Bolt Threads in California, probably Spiber’s closest competitor, has also been busy, releasing a spider-inspired lab-silk tie, and partnering with companies like Patagonia and Stella McCartney. AMSilk, a German synthetic-silk contender, is testing silk-coated breast implants and has teamed up with Adidas on a sneaker project.
Spiber now makes several materials, but refers to them under the umbrella term “Brewed Protein,” which the company has trademarked. No actual spiders are used to make these materials; instead the process employs even tinier creatures—microorganisms like e.Coli bacteria, which Spiber genetically modifies to produce proteins resembling those in spider silk. Grown in large industrial tanks, these microorganisms eat sugar and “proteins are produced at high efficiency via fermentation,” writes Meyer, after which the desired material is separated out and dried into a powder that can be processed into fibers and other forms.
In industries like fashion, these kinds of “structural protein materials” could be an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based or animal-derived fibers, explains Meyer. Fibers made with fossil-fuels (like acrylic and nylon) are incredibly useful, cheap, and durable. But their production is a major contributor to climate change, and the source of a worsening pollution crisis, as tiny strands and particles make their way into waterways, disrupting delicate ecosystems and even tainting human food supplies. Even “fast fashion” retailers like Zara and H&M, whose basic business model is a notable driver of the industry’s environmental woes, have begun to at least pay lip service to sustainability concerns. And though corporate sustainability promises should really always be viewed with some skepticism, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which—due to some combination of regulation and consumer demand—manufacturers increasingly turn to biomaterials, like synthetic silks, to mitigate their negative environmental impa