Sustainability Infrastructure

Stella McCartney and Adidas use spiders to revolutionize fashion

Innovative textiles could help you live your woodland-witch-fashion dreams with clothing made from spider silk and mushrooms. Companies are producing environmentally friendly alternatives to the plastic-based fabrics that have taken over fast fashion, but clothing isn’t the only industry seeking a biology-inspired makeover.  

Fast fashion offers cheaper versions of designer styles in huge quantities — textile production is up by 33 percent globally in the past 10 years. Producing textiles requires coloring them with often-toxic dyes. If they’re made of synthetic materials like polyester, the effect on the environment is even worse. Research shows that washing one load of acrylic-based clothing can release 700,000 plastic microfibers into the water, which gets flushed into the environment.  

One solution is to buy clothing made of natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, that will decompose more quickly than plastic when you’re done with it. But if you’re looking for a high-performance fabric that’s both strong and lightweight, spider silk threads might be the answer. 

The company Bolt Threads created bioengineered yeast with a gene for a spider silk protein. The yeast ferments with water and sugar, producing silk proteins along the way. After the proteins are purified, they can be spun into a textile that Bolt Threads calls Microsilk. Many companies have made synthetic spider silk for use in medical devices and transportation, but it seems that Bolt Threads is the first company to scale up their process with a focus on clothing. Already, Adidas has premiered a Microsilk-cellulose hybrid tennis dress. Working with German bio-textile company AMSilk, Adidas also produced a synthetic silk sneaker using AMSilk’s product Biosteel.  

Then there’s the problem of leather: Those searching for a vegan alternative might turn to pleather, which is made of plastic. By trying to avoid animal products, consumers might inadvertently cause more damage to the environment. Bolt Threads worked with Evocative, mushroom-materials experts, to create a third option that uses compressed mushroom root fibers to make a leather-like fabric.

An unexpected industry has reason to invest in these super biomaterials: aircraft designers. Every pound of weight they can reduce leads to serious savings in the cost of fuel. In 2018, Airbus announced that it would work with AMSilk to produce a composite material with Biosteel for use in airplane manufacturing.

From fashion to flying, it looks like sustainability is in style.

(Some video imagery courtesy of NOAA, AMSilk, Bolt Threads, Adidas, and Stella McCartney.)