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Fashion’s Biological Revolution

The fashion and beauty industries will benefit from a biological revolution that could transform value chains, change society and potentially mitigate pressure on the environment. As scientific breakthroughs unfold, we expect more partnerships between large brands and start-ups, deeper research, and increasing commercialisation of these ground-breaking innovations.
Inside Modern Meadow's Fermentation Laboratory | Source: Courtesy
  • Michael Chui,
  • Matthias Evers,
  • Alice Zheng,
  • Anneke Maxi Pethö-Schramm,
  • Maliha Khan

LONDON, United Kingdom — Several trends in science and technology are powering a biological revolution helping us improve our understanding of biological processes, and then engineer them. Driving this revolution are advances in omics, an umbrella term that covers the measurement of intracellular components such as DNA, RNA and proteins. With the ability to engineer these components comes the ability to edit human, plant and animal DNA in a basic biology lab. At the same time, interest is beginning to mount in studying the microbiome — microbes that live on and in the body that collectively have more genetic material than the human genome. Beyond omics and molecular technologies, the ability to "bioprint" structures with cells and grow animal or other cells in a petri dish continues to develop. In all these areas, there are potential uses in the fashion and beauty industry.

In the case of DNA sequencing, falling costs have been a game changer. The cost of sequencing the first human genome was almost $3 billion; in 2019 it cost less than $1,000, and that could be shaved to less than $100 in a decade. No wonder annual venture capital for genomics has risen by a factor of 10 over the past decade to reach $4 billion in 2018.

A new frontier for fashion textiles

Numerous smaller companies are now experimenting with aspects of the biological revolution. California-based Genomatica and Mango Materials have engineered microbes to ferment renewable feedstocks and methane gas into biopolymers. The latter uses waste methane to produce PHA, a polymer that is then spun into thread. US-based Bolt Threads, Germany's AM Silk and Japanese textile research company Spiber have used fermentation techniques to engineer artificial silk proteins and fibres. Spiber first joined forces with The North Face in 2015 to develop a special Moon Parka prototype from artificial spider silk. The parka did not make it to market, but four years later the companies created a follow-up using a new textile (Qmonos) made of synthetic fermented proteins. US-based Modern Meadow developed Zoa, a biological, lab-originated alternative to leather made from collagen protein. In 2018, Modern Meadow signed an agreement with Evonik, a chemical company specialising in microbial fermentation, with a view to moving into commercial production.

There is also significant innovation in the supply chain as companies use cutting-edge technology to create cleaner and more efficient processes. For instance, Algalife and Faber Futures use genetically-engineered microbes to produce environmentally-friendly dye. Faber Futures lab-engineered pigment producing bacteria (“coelicolor”) from which textiles take on rich blue, purple and red tones depending on the pH of the environment. Germany-based Algalife is doing similar work to engineer the DNA of algae to develop pigments and combat pollution caused by dyeing processes.

Omics and molecular technologies are also being used to help companies recycle end-of-life textiles. Los Angeles-based Ambercycle has genetically engineered microbes to digest polymers from old textiles and convert them into polymers that can be spun into yarns. The company, which says it is “building an ecosystem for closed loop textile production,” won a €250,000 ($279,000) grant from the H&M Global Change Award in 2016. Currently, less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new apparel, an annual loss estimated at $100 billion globally. The production of textiles in a closed-loop system would mean that waste is fed back into the manufacturing process and that products themselves are biodegradable. While the impact is currently limited to a few companies, it holds great potential to limit some of the waste produced by the apparel industry in the future.

Going forwards, omics and molecular technologies could also play a role in smart textiles. A collaboration between MIT Media Lab and New Balance has made live bacteria that naturally react to moisture and produce a breathable “second skin” suit. US-based start-up Tandem Repeat is producing fibre based on squid genes. The genetic code in the material is focused on healing, enabling garments to repair themselves. The material also acts as glue, which minimises microfibres shredding during washing and reduces the flow of microplastics into the oceans.

Biological beauty innovations

A recent innovation is direct-to-consumer microbiome and DNA testing for personal wellness and beauty insights. Based in Santa Clara, California, Viome offers at-home gut testing and analyses the human microbiome (consisting of hundreds of trillions of microorganisms) to establish links between gut bacteria and skin conditions such as acne and eczema. San Diego-based Pathway Genomics provides direct-to-consumer DNA Tests for skin traits and procedure options such as response to sun exposure. Skincare brand Mother Dirt, a unit of AOBiome, is researching live probiotics products to restore essential skin bacteria. With the cost of microbe DNA sequencing falling, there is potential for improved and personalised products and services in this area. While not yet commercialised, gene editing techniques could make a mark in the beauty industry, enhancing interventions in areas such as hair loss and skin ageing.

Major brands are expanding their activities in the beauty business, often through partnerships. In 2017, Johnson & Johnson invested in probiotic cosmetics specialist S-Biomedic. In 2019, L’Oréal announced a tie-up with San Francisco-based uBiome to research skin microbiome (uBiome filed for bankruptcy in September 2019 but this was not related to its scientific work).

Looking Ahead

While the pace of adoption of these innovative technologies over the next 30 years is heavily dependent on market factors, regulation and consumer acceptance, we expect more partnerships between large brands and start-ups, deeper research, and increasing commercialisation of these ground-breaking innovations. With rapid advances in science and new funding pouring in, developments in the biological revolution are exciting and worth tracking for the fashion and beauty industry. Companies that pride themselves in being at the forefront of innovation should ensure they take steps to remain at the cutting edge of this exciting research with huge future potential.

This work is part of a larger body of research on the biological revolution by the McKinsey Global Institute, due for publication in spring 2020.

The McKinsey Global Institute is the business and economics research arm of McKinsey, whose mission is to help leaders in the commercial, public and social sectors develop a deeper understanding of the evolution of the global economy.

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