Along Brooklyn’s west-side waterfront, not far from the Bay Ridge neighborhood where many of our immigrant grandparents grew up, there is a woman working to start a clothing line in a biotech lab.
It all started when Suzanne Lee, a British-born fashion designer, was writing “Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe,” a book on the intersection of style and science. She met David Hepworth along the way, a biologist who taught her how living bacteria can be used to cultivate a number of materials, including fabric. Together, they created what has since become the basic formula for growing clothing: Vinegar, sugar, tea and microbes, similar to those found in kombucha. When the right amount of each ingredient is combined and left to dry on the flat surface of a container (say, for example, your bathtub or kitchen sink), it will eventually come to very closely resemble leather. The full formula was published in a recent Popular Science article.
If it truly becomes possible to start a clothing line in this manner – by using naturally-occurring, non-animal contents – the implications will be monumental. Not only will vegan shoppers have greater options, but also, any decrease in commercial leather production carries a huge environmental impact. First, it could limit the use of the myriad chemicals used to remove hair from cowhide (which Green Living Tips kindly provides here). There are also the overall ecological effects of cattle ranching to consider, like the EPA‘s estimated 80-110 kilograms of methane produced by the average cow per year. In a best-case scenario, high-profile designers who seek to ban animal products (like Stella McCartney) may take note of this new, human made material, decreasing the reliance on and prevalence of factory-like cattle raising.
It’s a likely end-goal of Lee’s work. After she launched Biocouture to work toward formalizing the process, she partnered with Modern Meadow, an emerging biotech business housed in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where she today serves as creative director. The operation has quite a bit of ground to cover; in fact, according to the Popular Science article, very little information on the status of the collaboration has been made public. However, there’s good reason to invest attention, at the very least, beyond the aspirational decrease in leather production. This type of science could also lead to the growth of cotton-like products, eliminating the many ramifications of the crop’s current supply chain: labor issues, pollution and pesticide treatment of cotton fields, among others.
The possible conflicts arising from project’s success shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Of course, it will almost undoubtedly be met with resistance and protest from members of the leather and cotton industry, not to mention the manufacturers who rely on the availability of cheap cotton. It’s also necessary to consider the science itself; is it GMO? And, if so, what might the production of this alternative material, however benevolently motivated, mean for the future of such manipulated organisms?
However, the project is just that: Altruistically-charged. “Use less water, hell yeah,” Lee says in her interview with Popular Science. “Low energy, absolutely. Less chemicals, less dyes.” Pay attention. Good things are coming.
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