Sustainability made stylish
One company is weaving spider silk and fungi in an attempt to revolutionise the fashion industry one thread at a time.
Fast, fresh and fabulous; fashion in the 21st century seems to know no bounds. But behind the glamorous avant-garde fashion shows and colossal stores lie a darker truth—the US$1.3 trillion-dollar industry is a significant contributor to global pollution and waste.
A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that textile production alone emits 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, while a garbage truck worth of clothing gets dumped in the landfill every second. The impact of fast fashion hurts the consumer too: According to the same report, customers globally miss out a good US$460 billion worth of value just from underutilising clothes.
Helping to redesign the future of fashion from a linear to circular economy is Bolt Threads, a technology company focused on creating sustainable biomaterials for fashion. Founded in 2009, Bolt Threads was started by three scientists with an idea to change fashion through biotechnological innovation.
In this interview, IPI spoke to Dr Dan Widmaier, CEO and Co-Founder of Bolt Threads, about the company, his thoughts on sustainable fashion and the future of fabrics.
You got your PhD in chemistry; how did you go from the lab to disrupting the fashion industry?
Ethan Mirsky (a Co-Founder of Bolt Threads) and I were working on coaxing bacteria to secrete spider silk proteins when we were introduced to David Breslauer (another Co-Founder), who was studying the mechanisms of how spiders made silk. Our common fascination with spider silk’s unique properties—its high tensile strength, elasticity, durability and softness—led to a partnership that eventually formed the company in 2009.
Our first breakthrough was MicrosilkTM, a silk fibre made from spider silk protein through fermentation, which we launched in 2012. We have since expanded our repertoire of materials to include MyloTM, a leather-like material made from fungi; and Eighteen B, a skincare brand using our proprietary B-silkTM protein. We have also released a number of industry-first MicrosilkTM- and MyloTM-based products that are available for sale.
What are Bolt Threads key product offerings? In what way are they better for the planet?
We strive to make the most sustainable choice at every stage of the lifecycle by moving away from hazardous chemistry and harmful ways of producing materials to design for reduced environmental and ethical impact. In addition, our materials are also designed to be animal-free and biodegradable.
In March 2017, we brought our first spider silk product to the market with the Bolt Threads MicrosilkTM tie, made entirely of spider silk. Just six months after, we launched the Best Made Co. Cap of Courage—a wool cap made from a blend of MicrosilkTM fibre and Rambouillet wool. Both products received an incredible response from consumers and quickly sold out.
Another biomaterial we developed in 2016, MyloTM, was made from mycelium—a network of thread-like cells that forms the underground structure of mushrooms. MyloTM, with its leather-like texture, was made to replace animal and synthetic leathers. The Driver Bag, which launched in September 2018, was the first commercial product we made using MyloTM.
How can companies learn from nature in designing their products?
In its 3.8 billion years of existence, nature has perfected the circular economy with qualities of adaptability, interdependency and efficiency. We recognise that and use nature as a blueprint for creating materials that work with, and not against, our planet.
What trends in material design do you anticipate on the horizon?
It is clear that sustainable materials have been gaining more and more attention in the past five years. It is important to remember that our attitudes towards materials, and how we make and design them can have a tremendous impact on the future of our planet. While there are a number of avenues that can be explored to make more sustainable materials, one popular option at the moment is the use of biomaterials.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion surrounding what ‘biomaterials’ actually are. Many times, a biomaterial is just as—or even less—sustainable than its synthetic counterpart. Hence, our goal at Bolt Threads is not to simply manufacture fabrics using the latest biomaterials, but to create trustworthy, truly sustainable materials that can bring about a positive impact to the world.
What’s next for Bolt Threads?
We aim to bring more innovative and sustainable materials into the market so that fashion brands can make better choices in how they manufacture their clothes. Having spent the last year building the capacity to scale up our production, we are excited to make our materials widely available in the future. Ultimately, we hope to pass down these sustainable choices to the consumers and the world at large.