Genetically Engineered Clothes: Forward Thinking or Harmful?

Can science make for a better fashion future? That has been the driving question behind the pursuit of new, sustainable materials. It’s a pursuit that has brought together scientists, brands and even the U.S. Army, researching and developing the potential for a whole new field of biosynthetic textiles.

Using genetic engineering, researchers have developed everything from fluorescent silkworm fiber to E. coli fabric. Bioengineered fibers are a lucrative market. Bolt Threads, a materials science startup founded in 2009 and responsible for textiles like lab-grown spider silk, was recently valued at $700 million.

But a new report released by technology watchdog ETC Group and natural textile collaborative Fibershed titled “Genetically Engineered Clothes: Synthetic Biology’s New Spin on Fast Fashion,” seriously puts into question what a genetically modified fiber future would look like.

Detailing how proposed use of biosynthetic fabrics could disrupt supply chains globally and displace genuinely natural fiber production, the report challenges the idea that these scientific developments are in fact our best option for a sustainable fashion industry. In fact, as the report demonstrates, a dependence on these new fibers could lead to severe consequences for the industry. “High-tech approaches, including synthetic biology’s genetically engineered fibres, don’t necessarily put the brakes on fast fashion, and could amplify the most damaging effects of industrial textile production,” write the authors of the report.

Image: Dupont

Bio-based materials are often touted as a sustainable alternative to traditional petrochemical based synthetics. DuPont’s Sorona fabric for example is the result of a process which uses genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to ferment corn glucose into a synthetic organic compound called Bio-PDO. According to DuPont, “the production of Bio-PDO™ consumes 40 percent less energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent versus petroleum-based propanediol. Production of 100 million pounds of Bio-PDO™ will save the energy equivalent of 15 million gallons of gasoline per year, or enough to fuel more than 27,000 cars annually.”

“We’re concerned about the lack of economic and ecological evaluation going into the biosynthetics fiber creation process. DNA manipulation is unnecessary for next generation fibers and potentially dangerous,” says Fibershed Founder Rebecca Burgess.

“There is EVRNU and so many other great new technologies that do not need to engineer DNA. Recycling fibers and changing molecular status of a fiber like EVRNU, is a great concept to deal with the current rates of waste in our opinion, and most importantly, it’s essential that society trend towards waste elimination via investing in timeless natural clothing that can stay in play,” adds Burgess.

Image: Evrnu

So are these improvements or just marketing claims? While it may be a bio-based material, according to Genetically Engineered Clothes, “Sorona shares some of the same environmental drawbacks with conventional polyester. Sorona contains at most 37% of renewably-sourced Bio-PDO – the rest is petroleum-derived TPA. Also, Sorona is neither biodegradable nor compostable, thus contributing to microplastics pollution. Sorona, made from industrially grown corn starch, is also implicated in the negative environmental impacts of chemical-intensive, mono-crop agriculture.”

So what about entirely bio-based materials? Bolt Threads’ Microsilk has garnered much media attention. Strong, sturdy and stretchable, spider silk is an impressive natural fiber, and researchers have been working hard to emulate it in the lab. Using engineered yeast, Bolt Threads develops proteins that are similar to this natural silk, eventually spinning the protein into fibers in the same way acrylic and nylon are made. This innovative fabric has brought on partners like outdoor apparel company Patagonia and even Stella McCartney.

But as interest in these fibers grow, other areas of the market are impacted.

“The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South depend on farming natural fibers for textiles—it’s such livelihoods that these Bay Area biotech bros are targeting when they boast they want to ‘disrupt’ apparel,” says Neth Daño, Philippines-based Co-Executive Director of ETC Group. “Many farmers play a key role in protecting regional ecosystems. If their economic lives are disrupted, we’re not just losing a chance to create better fiber systems, but potentially creating land use changes and ripple effects of poverty and ecological crisis that reach far beyond farmers.”

“Genetically Engineered Clothes” challenges that with these these innovations comes a concern that “the money, hype and scientific brain power being invested in synthetic biology platforms could foreclose opportunities for truly sustainable fibre options.”

Image: Paige Green for Fibershed

While these types of biomaterials may show promise, at the same time they also detract from the systems already in place. “We can produce products in a way that not only sustain but also rehabilitate natural ecosystems,” said Ariel Greenwood, a rancher based in Sonoma County, California. “Synthetic biology takes market share away from products grown in a natural ecosystem, and that’s a missed opportunity to direct existing demand toward products that actually benefit both land and people.”

When looking at the fashion industry as a whole, it is not just the sustainability of fibers that should be taken into consideration. Social sustainability is also essential. Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute points out that “the cost of genetically engineered “spider silk” and other false synthetic biology products in the apparel industry will be borne by the poor farmers and artisans—mainly women—in India, Thailand, and China.”

For a truly sustainable path forward, scientific innovation will have to weigh its costs and benefits while at the same time, we as conscious consumers need to ask whether nature needs yet another revamp.