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The textile and clothing industry is a notorious polluter but is making steps toward more sustainable practices. Transforming cotton into fibers and textiles for clothing still relies on coal, and the process contributes 10% of global carbon emissions. Producing clothing requires a tremendous amount of water, and washing clothes made of polyester releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the oceans each year. That’s the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Roughly 85% of textiles end up in landfills annually. Plus, there are all those unwanted clothes that get discarded, by both retailers and consumers, to make way for the new season’s replacements. That’s enough to fill Sydney Harbor— the biggest and deepest natural harbor in the world— every year. So, consider if microfibers could instead be grown in a biofoundry. Bolt Threads developed a synthetic fabric called Microsilk that’s engineered from spider DNA and was used by Stella McCartney in a 2017 fashion show. A Japanese startup, Spiber, synthesized enough fibers to manufacture a limited-edition parka. The company now develops microbially fermented materials for the apparel and fashion industry. Synthetic biology processes can transform mycelium—the fuzzy, fibrous structures that help fungi grow—into rugged material resembling leather. Whereas it takes years for a cow to mature to slaughter for its hide—during which time that cow must be fed, housed, and cared for—it takes just a few weeks for a spore to grow into mycelium leather. If fibers are designed and grown, rather than harvested and processed, then other opportunities could open up. For instance, bio-based pigments used to dye textiles could be edited to deposit the optimal amount of color with less water (or none at all), and be fully biodegradable.

Greening fashion

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