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Sustainability gets stylish

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Biotech and other technology startups are creating cheaper, eco-friendly substitutes for a widening range of luxury goods.

  • Facts


    • Adidas created its first “sustainable” sports shoe using synthetic silk derived from spider DNA.
    • A U.S. startup is marketing “biofabricated” leather indistinguishable from its real counterpart.
    • Diamonds can now be made in the lab with a zero carbon footprint.
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main 34656758 source Alex Hofford DPA – German designer Karen Jessen winner of the EcoChic Design Award 2013 at the Hong Kong fashion week
It pays off to produce sustainably. Source: Alex Hofford / DPA

A warning to green consumers trying hard to make ethical choices: Beware the high-end clothes rack. Creating a single silk dress can cost the lives of 50,000 silkworms. And it won’t have been an easy death. Traditional methods require boiling the silkworm larvae alive inside their cocoons just as they begin to pupate. For decades, the process has been a target for animal-rights activists, and hardline vegans stay away from silk altogether. Gandhi was an early opponent.

But Gandhian self-denial – or the sartorial sin of wearing polyester – may finally be unnecessary. Thanks to a German biotech start-up, a wholly natural substitute for silk from dead bugs is now available. What Bavaria-based AMSilk, a spin-off of the Technical University of Munich, offers is Biosteel, a fiber derived from the DNA of spiders. Left to ferment in giant steel tanks, genetically modified bacteria form a white powder that can be spun into silky thread. It’s not just cruelty-free, it’s also cheap to produce, light, tough and biodegradable. A product that’s economically viable and leaves the conscience easy.

AMSilk is part of a lengthening list of start-ups whose new, planet-friendly technologies are hoping to grab a share of the €1-trillion-a-year luxury goods market. Their wares include biotech silk, lab-made diamonds and super-soft ersatz leather. And what’s already emerging from the labs outperforms anything Nature can offer. A single thread of Biosteel, no thicker than a pencil, could hoist a Boeing 747 off the ground, and the company talks of a future not just in fashion, but in the aviation and motor industries. What’s more, its natural properties can make Biosteel more acceptable to the human body than other synthetic materials. Medical uses such as breast implants are already being explored.

With their planet-friendly technologies, these startups want a share of the luxury market.

Small wonder, then, that lab-made silk is attracting the interest of manufacturers and high-profile investors from Silicon Valley. Last year, German sportswear giant Adidas unveiled a prototype of a fully biodegradable, sustainable shoe made from Biosteel. The eco-friendly U.S. clothing and outdoor gear company, Patagonia, has linked up with AMSilk’s Californian competitor, Bolt Threads (backers include PayPal founder Peter Thiel) to produce a first collection using luxury, lab-made silk.

Comfort-hungry consumers will be happy. The bio-fabric has the same warm, soft feel as conventional silk but it’s easier to wash and wear. There’s no need to dry-clean Bolt Silk because it’s tough enough to be washed in a machine. Big business will be equally happy. According to the Swedish biotech start-up, Spiber, also developing its own yarn, one gram of eco-friendly silk could soon cost less than $30 compared to the $50 now paid by textile manufacturers.

But it’s the more eco-scrupulous shoppers who will have most to celebrate. Luxury often comes at a high price to the environment. Take the case of top-quality leather. New or unborn calves are often used to make the softest, most supple varieties. And the tanning industry, especially in the Far East, employs a chemical cocktail that includes chromium, a carcinogenic. For good measure, the methane-belching cattle providing the hides are the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas.

That’s where a New York-based start-up can help. Modern Meadow claims it can use engineered collagen cells to produce “biofabricated” leather – indistinguishable from its real counterpart – without ever leaving the lab. There is no need for the toxic chemicals used to remove hairs from conventional skins and the leather is guaranteed free of disfiguring marks. That makes a big difference, since up to 80 percent of ordinary hides are junked because of scars or blemishes. In short, there should be no losers. Modern Meadow, in the company’s own words, brings the world closer to a future where “humans make the materials and animals go free.”

The company’s first handbag or wallet may not reach the market for a few years, as it readily admits, but there’s good reason for major players in the $100 billion leather market to get a little anxious. Modern Meadows has accumulated some $40 million in venture capital from investors, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Or how about artificial diamonds? The gem industry, too, is ripe for green disruption. Dodgy middlemen have marred its reputation, and uncovering a single one–carat diamond requires shifting an average of 250 tons of earth, expending tremendous amounts of resources and labor. So why not create your clean stones above ground? The process is already well established – synthetic diamonds have long been used for drill bits — but the latest technology could transform the market.

Just ask Munich-born Martin Roscheisen, who set up Diamond Foundry, a California start-up backed by Leonardo di Caprio that claims a zero-carbon footprint. Operating from a warehouse, the company deploys plasma reactors to replicate the diamond-making process that takes billions of years in nature. The result are stones that, in Roscheisen’s words, are “morally pure.”

No less important, they already sell for top prices in some of the classiest jewelry stores in Los Angeles and New York. A fickle public, it seems, is coming to agree with Roschcheisen that a diamond is a diamond – a tetrahedral hunk of carbon – regardless of whether it’s man-made or mined. Diamonds are forever, perhaps. But the market surely evolves.


Thomas Stölzel writes for the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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