Behind every environmental crisis currently gripping the planet, from raging wildfires to dying oceans, “there’s an economic failure, and a design failure,” says Cyrill Gutsch, founder of the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans. That is what Gutsch realized around five years ago when, as the head of a design company, an activist acquaintance of his introduced him to the sheer volume of plastic–as much as 12 million tons annually–accumulating in the oceans and destroying marine environments.
Plastic, he tells Fast Company, is a material that should no longer have a place in the supply chains of industries like fashion and design. Gutsch set up Parley in 2012 to intercept plastic in marine and coastal environments and bring together designers, artists, and industry leaders to put it to use–a strategy Parley calls A.I.R (avoid, intercept, redesign). Parley’s collaboration with Adidas on a shoe knitted from marine plastic waste that’s been converted into a durable thread, is perhaps the best-known example of the organization’s work. But now Parley is setting a steeper goal: In the next seven years, Gutsch says, they want to see every harmful substance, like plastic, be replaced with a natural alternative.
“The fact is that we don’t believe that plastic can be contained by recycling structures,” Gutsch says. “That’s the design failure. The material itself needs to be reinvented.” Parley is calling this new initiative a “material revolution,” and it’s fitting that their partner for it is Biofabricate, an organization and annual summit founded in 2014 by Suzanne Lee to advance research and innovation in materials made completely from natural sources. Biofabricate, essentially, is about rethinking readily available ingredients: Compounds like yeast, algae, animal cells, and bacteria now, with current technology, can be manipulated into materials that serve much the same function as materials like plastic and leather.
Lee is also the chief creative officer for Modern Meadow, a New Jersey-based startup that perhaps best exemplifies the potential of bio-fabrication. In October, Modern Meadow unveiled Zoa, a bioleather material made not from animal skin, but from fermented yeast; it’s making strides on developing similar bio-fabricated leather substitutes, Lee says, and has attracted a swarm of companies from the fashion, design, and automotive sectors who are interested in incorporating the substance into their supply chains and design processes.
Modern Meadow, Lee says, is proof-of-concept for the material revolution that Biofabricate and Parley for the Oceans want to bring about. But it’s far from the only example. In 2016, Adidas introduced a shoe made from Biosteel–a fermented-bacteria-based silk-like thread pioneered by the German company AMSilk, which specializes in creating sustainable, biodegradable alternatives to synthetic materials. Bolt Threads, a company based in Emeryville, California, has created a bioengineered spider silk that they’ve worked into a necktie, and now, a wool cap, through a couple of brand collaborations.
“Whether it’s a spider silk or a bio-fabricated leather, the potential for these materials to apply across so many different products is revolutionary,” Lee says. She and Gutsch are hopeful that companies will be open to the possibilities that these plastic alternatives offer.
“We just can’t afford to have harmful substances like plastic on the planet, and we’re quickly coming to the realization that we just can’t continue like this,” Gutsch says. Parley, he adds, “has reached the moment where we’ve done everything we can to raise awareness of how endangered the oceans are, and how bad plastic is.” Advocating for brands and designers to abandon the material completely, in favor of naturally derived, biodegradable alternatives, he says, is the natural next step.
The goal of completing this complete material revolution in seven years may seem like a radical proposal. “But the bio-fabrication movement has been a long time coming,” Gutsch says. Modern Meadow, for instance, has been finessing its yeast fermentation process since 2014 (the same year Lee founded Biofabricate) and has reached the point where it’ll be able to produce its leather-like material at scale. “Certainly, when I founded Biofabricate, it all felt a little bit science fiction–much of the work was still in the lab, still in R&D,” Lee says. “Now, you see Bolt Threads putting their new hat into the store and it sells out in three hours; you now have a bio-fabricated product like spider-silk shoes that consumers are wearing. It’s not just in the future, it’s in the marketplace now.”
“The whole environmental cause needs to be owned by the creative industries,” Gutsch adds.