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Is Biotech The Future For Textiles? [Case Study]

Supplycompass explores the innovations in biotech including dye alternatives using living organisms that significantly reduce environmental impact.

9 April 2019

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Written by Supplycompass; a sourcing platform that enables brands and manufacturers to find each other and work better together.

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Could bacteria be the future of fashion? A recent biofabric breakthrough has proven it to be a surprising tool for innovation in the industry. Faber Futures and the Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London have created a collection of dyes from Streptomyces Coelicolor, a bacteria typically found in the roots of plants that produces pigment as it grows.

 

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The dyes have been developed under a project named Project Coelicolor, which explores biopigments suitability for dying textiles at a variety of scales. The project is being lead by Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder of Faber Futures, an R&D studio and consultancy that aims towards a sustainable future through biodesign and biofabrication, and Professor John Ward of the Department of Biochemical Engingeering, University College London.

 

Project Coelicolor is an encouraging reimagination of the traditional dye process. According to the World Bank 17-20% of all industrial water pollution is caused by the dyeing or treatments of garments. Pipes running from some apparel factories release coloured wastewater into local streams and rivers where, downstream, people drink the chemical-laden water and eat fish that have been living in it.

 

Faber Futures is one of a growing community of initiatives looking to biology to solve fashion’s environmental problem. Bolt Threads, who are best known for growing synthetic spider silk, recently created a leather made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. While some labs, such as DyeCoo have been using CO2 to dye fabric instead of water.

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The UK’s Colorifix, industry leaders in biodyes, have also just received investment from the likes of H&M Co:lab to expand its commercial offering. The investment, around $3m, will be put towards growing out the biotechnology start-up’s plant, and most excitingly a number of pilots with various international fashion brands. Colorifix, like Faber Futures, use organisms such as microbes, as well as plants, animals and insects to create colourants.

 

Biodyeing uses significantly less water than typical industrial dyeing. All labs like Faber Futures and Colorifix have to do to retrieve pigment from microbes, is to change the pH of the microbe’s environment. Unlike natural dyes, the pigments also don’t require the use of agricultural land and pesticides to grow plants to make them. With synthetic biology, Chieza recently told Fast Company, that it will be possible to program the organism to produce an even fuller range of colours – at the moment the project has achieved a series of blues and pinks.

 

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Previously, such innovations were focused on small production scales, or at a mainly experimental level. Chieza however has been looking at how bacteria such as Streptomyces coelicolor can be used on an industrial scale and is now working with a selection of future-facing brands to test how microbes can be utilised to make their supply chains future-facing too.

 

At Supplycompass we harness the power of tech to bring greater trust, transparency and collaboration to global fashion supply chains, helping brands make their supply chains leaner, faster, more flexible and more responsible. 

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