At the materials level, the sustainable fashion conversation has been defined by incremental improvements and a series of swaps. Cotton gives way to better cotton. Animal hide is replaced by animal hide with a slightly less damaging treatment process. Petrochemical-based synthetics get progressively refined over time. Each of these is a step in the right direction, but none are fundamental changes to the way the apparel, footwear, and accessories sectors develop, source, and use materials.

And against the current backdrop that pollution and overproduction have helped to paint, fundamental change is probably what’s required.

The Interline has previously written about the rush to identify ‘natural’ alternatives to leather, and the barriers that currently stand between potential and broad adoption – from shortfalls in performance to constraints on scalability.

What if the industry could take a step back and, instead of sourcing slightly more sustainable equivalents, instead start working at the most basic level and rearchitecting new materials at the biomolecular level? Materials that preserve the advantages of what the industry has at      its disposal, and at the same time as architecting out their drawbacks. Materials that are sustainable in a radical, redefining way. And materials that open up entirely new possibility spaces for localised production.

These are the promises made by biofabrication systems – science-led approaches to creating and commercialising new materials by using proteins (and the micro-organisms that create them) as the building blocks for completely novel alternatives to existing sources.

How far have those promises been realised today? What inputs does a biofabrication production system need? What are the applications? And how far can it all scale?

We put these questions to Catherine Roggero-Lovisi, President and COO of Modern Meadow – a company that’s spearheading the biofabrication revolution to build a genuinely sustainable bioeconomy.

The Interline: The term ‘sustainability’ has been overused to such an extent that it’s been diluted, but the simple truth remains: it’s imperative that fashion finds a way to disrupt and fundamentally re-engineer the way we think about the environmental impact of what we produce. Swapping one petroleum-based material for a slightly less damaging synthetic material is progress, but it’s not going to move the needle to anywhere near the extent that it needs to be moved. What’s your take on why so little progress appears to have been at the whole-industry level in fashion?

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: I would agree with that characterisation. My background is in consumer packaged goods – specifically beauty – and coming from that universe, I look at fashion in a different way from someone who’s been immersed in the industry for their entire career. In beauty, supply chain information and traceability is non-negotiable because you’re bringing to market products that directly affect people’s health, and every step of that journey has to be accounted for, and as a consequence, any changes made in the name of gaining market share or changing the sustainability equation need to be conducted far in advance of a product reaching the market to undergo not just research and development, but testing.

Biofabrication in fashion offers an alternative to sourcing traditional materials.
Image Credit – Modern Meadow

What beauty and fashion have in common, though, is the need to go far up the value chain if you’re going to make a fundamental difference.

I also think there’s a misconception in fashion that the race to a more sustainable system is one that you have to run alone, because brand competition is so fierce that collaboration isn’t done on a regular basis. Based on my experience, to go further, faster, you have to work together. At Modern Meadow, we have a vision for a more comprehensive transformation, and we’ve taken the first step, but we’re not ‘there’ yet – and we won’t get there alone.

Our output is obviously biomaterials, but our expertise – and our role in that wider transformation – is as protein application engineers. We utilize natural and recombinant proteins, and we use those proteins as tools to answer problems, create innovation, and find solutions across biomaterials and beauty. In biomaterials the goal is to blend performance and sustainability, and in beauty it’s to combine safety and efficacy. We’ve done the research and development behind those solutions, but we work in a partnership coalition mode to create the final results because that’s the only way to effect meaningful change in a quick enough timeframe.

The other thing that’s important to consider when we’re looking at what seems like inertia and an unwillingness to target the big issues is education. The biomaterial space has been both confused and confusing to brands and consumers, and the opportunities it offers have been unclear as a result. I think it’s now time to clear that up and say: okay, this is what we know how to do, this is what we want to do but don’t know how to do yet, and this is what we hope for, but we don’t know how we’re going to get there.

This equally applies to any alternative materials that are proposing to replace the problematic parts of traditional materials without compromising on the ability to make them at volume, at speed. If we over-promise and under-deliver then the backlash could be monumental; I’ve seen it happen in beauty, and fashion could be headed in the same direction on its sustainability journey. At the supplier level and the brand level, the right approach is about being rational, honest, and educating our audiences to build the kind of credibility that more comprehensive changes will need to be built on.

The output of biofabrication in fashion is entirely novel materials, lab-grown to meet a set of performance and aesthetic characteristics.
Image Credit – Modern Meadow

The Interline: Let’s pin down the impact of traditional materials and at what point in the lifecycle of a traditional fabric that impact is the most pronounced. What’s the scale of the problem today, and why is it important to disrupt the cycle?

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: If we look at leather as it relates to fashion, if you put aside the impact associated with growing the animal, the problem is the tanning process, which involves chemicals, water, and energy. Extensively. Let’s be clear: not all tanneries are equal. Some of them have done a better job, not only in terms of reducing their water consumption, but also in reusing and / or recycling. But on average, the tanning process is pretty intense for what it is. It’s a three-prong process: you start by removing the fat and the hair, then you prep the skin, and then you do the tanning. Most people don’t realise that, when it comes out of this process, leather still doesn’t smell like leather, so fragrance is added. Leather is also coated, so you do have some type of PU (polyurethane) treatment at the end of the cycle as well, which means that patent leather, despite being an organic material, will not biodegrade.

For a tonne of hide, you can consume anywhere between 2,000 to 7,000 gallons of water, just for the initial process. Then you add on top of that a further 250 to 800 gallons for the treatment afterwards. At the aggregate level, it is estimated that leather tanning is an industry that consumes on average 400 billion litres annually.

That might seem small in comparison to other material creation, dyeing, and treatment processes, but we need to remember that tanning, as a business sector, is not big.  Add to that the fact that 95% of the water used in tanning is discarded, and consider that you also have a 2:1 ratio of hide-to-chemical that’s used in the process, and you have an industry with an impact much bigger than its place in fashion would suggest.

This is why so many alternative material companies have zeroed in on leather. The first phase of converting animal skin to a workable material is extremely intensive, and even when that’s complete 30% of the resulting material is discarded after being processed because of tears, scars, and brands on the hide. There’s a tremendous amount of pre-consumer waste being generated.

And this is where I think education comes in again. We’ve used animal skin for millennia, but the way leather is created today, in the volume it’s needed, means that leather tanning is absolutely not a clean industry, and that products incorporating leather are not clean products as a result. That’s a different conversation from the ethics of slaughtering animals in the first place – it’s a more pragmatic discussion that needs to be had based on an awareness of how long-established industries operate, so that people understand the benefits of alternatives like biofabrication in context.

More than just materials, biofabrication in fashion is a new system of production.
Image Credit – Modern Meadow

The Interline: We want to be careful not to conflate leather alternatives (like cactus, mango, mushroom etc.) with what Modern Meadow does, because we’re talking about something very different here: using proteins and the microorganisms that made them as the building blocks of lab-grown materials now and in the future. What has led to that approach and why are Modern Meadow spearheading it now?

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: First of all, we love everybody who tries to find alternatives. Replacing a material with a more sustainable alternative is always going to be progress. But, you’re right that the building blocks are slightly different when you talk about cactus or pineapple, because most of the time you use them as biomass. And there’s no particular property associated with the biomass, meaning the process uses the cactus as a percentage of the total composition of a material, but it doesn’t actually do anything – there are no inherent performance characteristics in the cactus itself. Mushroom is being used for its own properties, but the issue there is the integrity of the materials as it relates to performance; they’re just not especially durable.

Our approach starts at the biology level, and it’s fundamentally different from starting with a desired outcome and working backwards. We spent a lot of time – years in fact – working to understand fermentation and collagen, since collagen is what makes up the integrity of skin, and trying to apply that to creating a leather alternative, but we discovered that it’s not just scientifically complex, but economically difficult to make that work.

Once we understood that, we went back and started from the essential building blocks: proteins. We identified that plant-based proteins have a lot of amazing properties, and we essentially reframed the way we were thinking about the problem. We went from looking to create a bio replacement for leather, to wanting to build completely new materials from plant-based recombinant proteins. And the possibility of space that opens up is huge.

And by doing this extensive work we have a library of plant-based sources proteins but also recombinant proteins (coming from fermentation). So, we went from thinking of ourselves as a bio replacement to leather, to wanting to extend that in the biomaterial space. So much is possible.

Portability and a range of sustainable, plant-based inputs are essential to making biofabrication in fashion scalable.
Image Credit – Modern Meadow

The Interline: It’s important that we clarify something here: what are the inputs for your biofabrication process? Because just as the entire lifecycle journey of a natural or synthetic material needs to be accounted for in a comprehensive sustainability strategy, so does the initial source of any bio output.

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: Our biomaterials are always plant-based, but we have a multiplicity of options for inputs because it was important for us to achieve two things: have full transparency and traceability from lab-to-brand™, and ensure that our process is adaptable and portable to almost anywhere in the world. It erodes a lot of the benefits of having a sustainable material if you’re only able to produce it in a limited number of places and you then have to incur the impact of logistics. Not all plant proteins are equal, though; some have additional benefits when they’re applied to a textile in a certain way, such as breathability, colour fastness, durability, and so on. So our philosophy is to understand the qualities of different inputs, and to identify the ones that are the most abundant and therefore cost-effective.

The Interline: It’s correct to talk about sustainability when we’re discussing inputs, but they’re also inextricably tied to scalability. Broad adoption of biofabrication isn’t going to be achieved if the process can’t achieve the volume the industry requires because it’s constrained by limited availability of inputs. Are you seeing portability as being synonymous with scalability?

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: That’s the idea. And we’re very attached to that because we want to be a drop-in technology. When we talk about development and innovation, we have a paradigm which is a three-pronged approach: it’s about performance, sustainability, and scalable adoption. And scalable adoption means input and processes.

We’ve already talked about being able to make use of different plant-based sources, but it’s also a key priority for us that we’re not asking anyone to invest in entirely new industrial equipment. We have to be able to provide an output that can be brought into the existing value chain, anywhere in the world, because our goal isn’t to create a new supply chain, but to slot into the one that already exists and enhance it.

The Interline: Let’s talk about what it means to architect a new material, because when you’re working at the protein level you have the opportunity, in theory, to preserve the elements of what makes a particular material sought after, whilst also eliminating or mitigating some of its undesirable characteristics. That’s a very different mindset to traditional material and fabric sourcing, where you’re building a product around the constraints of a material that already exists. Instead, you’re potentially creating the vision for a product, and then engineering the target properties into a new material from the outset. How do you think the fashion industry is going to respond to that shift?

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: I think it’s important for any product-driven industry to start thinking about their products at the most basic level, because that’s a key part of being able to measure progress. We’ve recently come to market with our first expression, and we think it’s a good first step in the right direction, but it’s not our last step – we want to go much further with what we can build.

Image Credit – Modern Meadow

At Modern Meadow we don’t think about the biomaterial space just in terms of material. It’s about processes as well, and you’re going to see innovations in both those areas.  As an example, we’re working on new ways to engineer sustainability into a product from the get-go; today we use a water-based miscible blend between protein and bio polyurethane, but we’re also using other polymers that we’ll be using to create a coated textile that can look like something different from leather. And we’re also in the industrialisation phase of creating a breathable material that’s both high-performance and more sustainable, which we’re looking to introduce next year.

Those are some examples of the materials, but we’re also moving forward at the process level. A material is, as you know, a combination of a backer, additives, a top layer, a film and so on, and thanks to our technology, which is the Bio-Alloy™, we are able to reduce this material system, in the case of the breathable material, to a de facto single layer as opposed to three.  The other innovation that we have is a dyeability process that, with our Bio-Alloy™ technology, will allow us to massively reduce the percentage of water and energy consumed in any textile. Any textile can go through this process and have a dyeability that is optimal in terms of vibrancy, colour range, colour fastness and so on. Using existing equipment, we’ve simplified the process. 

Generally speaking, I think the right way to think about having the ability to engineer entirely new materials is this: we know what the consumer wants, and we want to provide designers with the flexibility to create it in a way that hits the right performance and aesthetic expectations, but within a much simpler, and more sustainable material system. Less complexity, fewer raw materials, more flexible inputs, and no compromises.

The Interline: When we think about materials, there are two major ways of judging a successful outcome: one is desired composition or characteristics, and the other is colour. Right now the only way to get a specific RGB or CMYK (or even Pantone guide) reference on a given substrate involves iteration – through manual, water-based, partially subjective processes. What impact could biofabrication have here? Because, in theory, you could set a digital colour target and get very, very close to it without having to do it in an iterative, additive way.

Image Credit – Modern Meadow

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: From my experience, colour matching is a nightmare in any industry. But let’s assume you have the proper equipment to make sure that you understand which dye you need to hit a target colour that’s been communicated to you in an agreed colour reference standard – in that scenario there’s a series of clear advantages to biofabrication in place of additive dyeing. What’s interesting with our Bio-Alloy™ is that you can coat any material with a transparent coating. So you could potentially have a great material that you produce a large quantity of, after which your designer might want it in purple, or yellow. You can then post-dye a fraction of it, so that you’re getting the same efficiency savings, cost savings and so on, but in limited runs, with minimum waste.

The Interline: What does it mean to have complete traceability from lab-to-brand™? Because that’s a very different prospect than traceability from farm-to-garment, which is an active problem. In that latter scenario, it’s very rare to get a purely single-fibre material that is genuinely traceable from the point at which it is harvested to the point at which it reaches the consumer. You’ve already identified this in the multi-step process of leather tanning, but in natural fibres there’s also treatment, mixing, and blending. Modern Meadow talks about creating a sustainable bioeconomy, and it seems like one of the foundational pieces of that is having absolute confidence that a material was made in one location, from a sustainable input, and then arrived at a Tier 1 manufacturing facility. That’s a level of traceability that fashion doesn’t really have today, and it’s a big ask.

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: Transparency and traceability to that degree is complex, but it’s not impossible. Other industries have managed to effectively trace their material sourcing cycles to this degree. That said, it is very costly and it requires tremendous organisation, and the biomaterial space – or the material space in general – is very fragmented.

Let me answer your lab-to-brand™ question first, because what’s important for us is the science and the partnership. We are a technology platform, and the way we go down the vertical is through partnerships, as I mentioned earlier. This is where the ecosystem comes in. Partners should not only be world-class at what they do but should also have KPIs and standards in terms of production processing, manufacturing, and traceability. Of course, not everything will be perfect across your entire production base, but you need to start with a certain level of expectation and requirements, and you need to align on this vision. This is what we’ve done for our first material, which is a coated textile; we’ve partnered with Limonta, a 130-year-old business and one of the most advanced in Europe in terms of sustainability and traceability in coated textiles. They have amazing processes, 65% of their energy is renewable, and that starting point, combined with the degree of traceability we can offer at the material level, is a strong start.

We’re actively seeking now to partner with organisations that are able to provide a similar level of information and that also have the same desires and vision around sustainability. We also use a third party to do our lifecycle assessments, so we can really learn how much better we are than leather, or another material, and how much better we might be compared to a specific process – so we can figure out how to go even further.

The Interline: There has always been an inescapable element in material sourcing: minimum order quantities, and the cost of innovation. Some more sustainable choices have been kept off-limits for designers and sourcing teams because they simply can’t meet the MOQ requirements to place an order, or because they couldn’t fund development of an ideal material. To what extent does this apply to biofabrication? Let’s say a designer is designing a piece of outerwear that needs to be abrasion resistant, water resistant, light and breathable. How does the cost of building those characteristics through biofabrication compare to a more traditional, synthetic approach? What does the R&D cycle look like?

Catherine Roggero-Lovisi: There are two parts here, but you’re really talking about the ‘D’ (development) more than the ‘R’ (research). The ‘R’ is really what takes a long time, and it’s fundamental. In the next four years, we’re going to come out with multiple applications and multiple processes. We are going from bio-replacement, to bio-better, to bio-best. That’s our vision, and that’s something that takes a tremendous amount of research to realise.

Development is where you start to translate that research into an application. Is this material intended for a shoe, a bag, a pair of pants, or a car interior? Then there is the usage – say, a backpack versus a tote bag – and that’s where you create a material system. The ‘R’ is the first phase, where you partner with somebody that allows for iteration: a lighter material, a more solid backer, or a realistic leather-look. It’s a combination of material system and process.

Image Credit – Modern Meadow

By talking to brands and designers, but also producing, we understand what the real-world problems are: colour bleeding, or breathability for example. For most of the things that we’re doing right now, the discovery has been done – it’s just the industrialisation and implementation that is in progress.

Not only are we a drop-in, but we are tunable, because we are essentially a magic ingredient that can be added to a pre-existing material system. You don’t need a large percentage, but depending on how you apply it, when you apply it, and the percentage of it, your performance will vary.

That, to me, is a completely different way of thinking about materials than the mindset that fashion has adopted so far. And I think it’s also going to be the key to the industry making the kind of fundamental changes it needs to make to progress in a meaningful way towards its sustainability targets.