THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
Dear Friends and Colleagues
Genetically Engineered Clothes Threaten Farmers’ Livelihoods and Ecosystems
Synthetic biologists are using machine-made DNA to engineer microbial cells that can produce novel substances – including biomaterials that can be spun into fibres. Fledgling synthetic biology companies in the US, Japan and Germany are engineering microbes (e.g. yeast and bacteria) to secrete proteins that mimic the qualities of spider silk or other natural fibres. Most recently, Patagonia Inc. has teamed up with Bolt Threads Inc. in the US to help propel genetically engineered clothes to market.
A new report cautions that any commercial-scale expansion of biotech textiles could undermine farmers worldwide, create a new source of biotech waste, put additional pressure on ecosystems, and divert support away from truly sustainable natural fibre economies. Fibres of plant and animal origin not only contribute to food security, livelihoods and poverty alleviation, they are sustainable, biodegradable resources.
Despite being self-styled as a ‘green’ option, biosynthetic fibres depend on industrial feedstocks like sugar, which is linked to deforestation and diminishing labor conditions. The livelihoods of some 58 million rural households in the Global South depend on farming natural fibres for textiles. The biotech textiles sector could harm labor-friendly and sustainable supply chains for natural fabrics that rehabilitate natural ecosystems. The cost of genetically engineered “spider silk” and other false synthetic biology products in the apparel industry is expected to be borne by the poor farmers and artisans – mainly women – in India, Thailand, and China.
The report calls attention to the potential for new forms of biowaste created by the microorganisms engineered to produce the new materials. So-called “B-waste,” the byproduct of organisms that have never been released into the environment, may be difficult to dispose of safely and creates risks of new microorganisms spreading through the water and air.
Civil society groups are calling for socially-just and truly sustainable natural sources of fibre grown by regenerative and organic farmers. The report makes 4 recommendations: (1) The evaluation of novel fibre technologies must include a system-wide lifecycle approach that considers all phases of fibre production, consumption and disposal including a full assessment of the social, environmental economic and ethical impacts of new fibre technologies; (2) Apparel/fashion companies that use or support the development of bioengineered fibres and materials must be fully transparent, including labels indicating GE fibre content directly on the clothing; (3) Consumers should reduce their consumption of clothing, improve reuse practices, and replace synthetic, plastic-based fibre clothing with natural fibres; and (4) Support place-based fibresheds which foster economic development through livelihood creation, and support and create farming systems grounded in ecological agriculture.
With best wishes,
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CLOTHES: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY’S NEW SPIN ON FAST FASHION
by ETC Group and Fibershed
Synthetic biology start-ups and giant chemical companies want to genetically engineer the shirt on your back to grab a piece of the $1.3 trillion retail apparel market.1
Synthetic biologists (the next generation of extreme genetic engineers) are using machine-made DNA to engineer microbial cells that can produce novel substances – including biomaterials that can be spun into fibres. The high-tech genetically engineered (GE) fibre future is being sold to eco-conscious consumers as “green” and “sustainable,” but it threatens to undermine the livelihoods of millions of natural fibre producers and unleash new environmental hazards.
Fledgling synthetic biology (also known as synbio) companies like Bolt Threads (US), Spiber, Inc. (Japan) and AMSilk (Germany) tout their high-tech GE fermentation processes as a game changer with the potential to up-end the trillion-dollar textile market.2 They are engineering microbes (like yeast and bacteria) to secrete proteins that mimic the qualities of spider silk or other natural fibres. Although synbio companies such as Bolt Threads are now focusing on high-value fibres such as silk, they claim that in time microbes can be engineered to produce synthetic proteins that mimic the performance qualities and properties of virtually any fibre or material – natural or synthetic.3 The longer-term goal is to converge high-tech fabrics with other technologies – including nanotechnology, 3D printing and electronics – to bring on a “fashion revolution” with clothes that can “see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, and monitor health.”4
“Fast fashion” describes an industrial textile economy that is profoundly broken. It is wasteful, polluting and climate-destroying.5 Fast fashion means disposable, low-quality apparel including those derived primarily from synthetic, fossil-fuel-based polyester (plastic) fibres that are associated with toxic chemicals, outsized carbon footprint and microplastic pollution. Fast fashion also relies on complex, long-distance supply chains and cheap and economically disenfranchised labour. High-tech approaches, including synthetic biology’s genetically engineered fibres, don’t necessarily put the brakes on fast fashion, and could amplify the most damaging effects of industrial textile production.
No one yet understands the environmental and health risks posed by the genetically engineered organisms used to produce synthetic biology fibres – including the biological waste from the fermentation process – but that’s not stopping synthetic biology companies from touting their novel fibres as sustainable and environmentally benign, and even a techno-fix for the textile industry’s dirty, fast fashion. In reality, the payoff of synbio fibre production is cheaper high-value fibres produced in factory-based fermentation tanks that require fewer workers – all under the green guise of “natural” sustainability.
A closer look reveals that there is nothing natural or sustainable about synthetic biology’s high-tech (and potentially high-risk) approach to novel fibre production. Far from the promise of sustainability, the current development of “smart” techno-fibres raises the appalling spectre of amplifying new sources of industrial pollution: Beyond electronic waste (e-waste) and microfibre plastic pollution, synthetic biologists open the door to a new kind of biotech waste (b-waste). Furthermore, if synthetic biologists succeed in enlisting microbial metabolism to mimic silk or other natural fibres on a commercial scale at a competitive price, it could disrupt natural fibre markets and destroy the livelihoods of millions of people who produce and process authentically natural fibres.
We must build an alternative textile economy. Even major textile industry players acknowledge that fast fashion will lead to “potentially catastrophic” outcomes: the status quo is not an option.6 The good news is that sustainable fibres are already all around us: plant and animal-based natural fibres are 100% biodegradable, renewable and they support the livelihoods of millions of rural communities worldwide. Natural fibres as they are produced today are not a one-size-fits-all panacea for the world’s apparel/textile needs, especially when it comes to chemical and water intensive production of conventional cotton.
Around the world, a growing movement of fibre producers, processors and workers are building (or in some regions, re-building) regional and regenerative textile economies based on the creation of place-based textiles (known as fibersheds). Fibersheds are designed to create lasting ecological and economic prosperity via the creation of cooperatively-based direct markets.7 Fibershed systems foster economic development through livelihood creation, and by supporting and creating farming systems grounded in ecologically-enhancing forms of agriculture.
Increasing sustainable fibre options – and securing support for those options – is imperative. Evaluation of novel fibre technologies must go beyond a narrow technical risk/benefit evaluation to include a broader, participatory technology assessment. It will require a system-wide lifecycle approach that considers all phases of fibre production, consumption and disposal, including a full assessment of the social and economic impacts of new fibre technologies. A new textile economy must feed farmers and workers, restore natural systems, and build sustainable communities.
Our future depends on a radical transformation of the industrial textile economy. But new fibre technologies based on synthetic living organisms are not the solution.
Technology Assessment:Existing regulatory systems and risk assessment protocols, including life cycle assessment, in the US and internationally, are inadequate to address the potential risks of new products derived from synthetic biology. Evaluation of novel fibre technologies must go beyond a narrow technical risk/benefit analysis to include a broader, participatory technology assessment. It includes a system-wide lifecycle approach that considers all phases of fibre production, consumption and disposal including a full assessment of the social, environmental economic and ethical impacts of new fibre technologies.
Need for Transparency:Given the hype and glowing media coverage surrounding hightech fibre fashion, it’s difficult for consumers to unpack the industry’s claims of “sustainability” and “natural.” Apparel/fashion companies that use or support the development of bioengineered fibres and materials must be fully transparent, including about their partnerships and investments. Just as the ‘right to know’ and label genetically engineered ingredients in food is a cornerstone of consumer rights advocacy, companies that buy or sell biosynthesized fibres must provide information to consumers about all steps in the fabric supply chain that involve genetic engineering processes – including labels indicating GE fibre content directly on the clothing. Truth-in-labelling laws should prevent apparel companies from making false or misleading claims that equate biosynthesized fibres with “natural” or “sustainable.”
Consumers actions:Oslo Consumption Research (Norway) offer three common-sense strategies to put the brakes on fast fashion: 1. Reduce production and consumption of clothing. 2. Improve practices in the use phase of clothes (i.e., less frequent washing; extend life of garment). 3. Replace use of synthetic, plastic-based fibres with natural fibres where possible.
Supporting Soil to Soil Fibersheds:A growing movement of fibre producers, processors and workers are building and rebuilding regional and regenerative textile economies based on the creation of place-based textiles (known as fibersheds) that are designed to create lasting ecological and economic prosperity via the creation of cooperatively-based direct markets. Fibershed systems foster economic development through livelihood creation, and by supporting and creating farming systems grounded in ecologically enhancing forms of agriculture.
1 See website of International Apparel Federation: www.iafnet.com.
2 Lora Kolodny, “Bolt Threads raises $50 million to brew spider silk, inks deal with Patagonia,” techcrunch.com, 11 May 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/11/bolt-threads-raises-50-million-to-brew-spider-silk-inks-deal-with-patagonia/.
3 Dan Widmaier, Bolt Threads founder, says of their synthetic spider silk, “We think the same process can make pretty much any protein based material nature has evolved.” Elizabeth Stinson, “The Striped Beanie Shows the Promise of Synthetic Spider Silk,” Wired , 12 July 2017, https://www.wired.com/story/bolt-threads-synthetic-spider-silk-hat/
4 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Advanced Functional Fabrics of America opens headquarters steps from MIT campus,” News Release, 19 June 2017: http://news.mit.edu/2017/advanced-functional-fabrics-america-af-foa-opens-headquarters-steps-from-mit-campus-0619.
5 Patsy Perry, “The Environmental Costs of Fast Fashion,” The Independent, 8 January 2018, https://www.indepen-dent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/environment-costs-fast-fashion-pollution-waste-sustainability-a8139386.html See also, Nature Climate Change Editorial, “The price of fast fashion,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2 January 2018, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-017-0058-9#rightslink
6 Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, 2017, p. 21, http://www.ellen-macarthurfoundation.org/publications.
7 Nikki Silvestri, Rebecca Burgess and Beth Raps with Osyai Endolyn, Designing the Future, Fibershed and Soil and Shadow, forthcoming report.
PATAGONIA’S BET ON BIOTECH FABRICS MAY THREATEN LIVELIHOODS AND ECOSYSTEMS
Farmers and environmentalists sound the alarm
17 September 2018
OAKLAND, CA — The fashion and technology sectors alike have been abuzz about high-tech fabrics derived from genetically engineered microorganisms. Most notably, Patagonia Inc. – noted in the past for its support of organic textiles and its opposition to genetic engineering – has surprisingly teamed up with Bay Area based biotech startup Bolt Threads to help propel genetically engineered clothes to market.
But in a new report, civil society experts cut through the hype, suggesting that any commercial-scale expansion of biotech textiles could undermine farmers worldwide, create a dangerous new source of biotech waste, put additional pressure on ecosystems, and divert support away from truly sustainable natural fiber economies.
“Genetically Engineered Clothes: Synthetic Biology’s New Spin on Fast Fashion” was released jointly today by technology watchdog ETC Group and natural textile collaborative Fibershed. It details how proposed use of “biosynthetic” fabrics could disrupt supply chains globally and displace genuinely natural fiber production. In particular, it examines the false promises and unproven claims that are accompanying so-called “spider silk” as well as DuPont’s bioengineered Sorona fabric.
“The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South depend on farming natural fibers for textiles – it’s such livelihoods that these Bay Area biotech bros are targeting when they boast they want to ‘disrupt’ apparel,” explains Neth Daño, Philippines-based Co-Executive Director of ETC Group. “Many farmers play a key role in protecting regional ecosystems. If their economic lives are disrupted, we’re not just losing a chance to create better fiber systems, but potentially creating land use changes and ripple effects of poverty and ecological crisis that reach far beyond farmers.”
Despite being self-styled as a ‘green’ option, biosynthetic fibers made by companies such as Emeryville-based Bolt Threads Inc. depend on industrial feedstocks like sugar, which is linked to deforestation and diminishing labor conditions. California farmers are also speaking out about how the investment hype in this biotech textiles sector may be harming the emerging market for natural fibres – a truly labor-friendly and sustainable supply chain for fabrics.
“We can produce products in a way that not only sustains but also rehabilitates natural ecosystems,” said Ariel Greenwood, a rancher based in Sonoma County, California. “Synthetic biology takes market share away from products grown in a natural ecosystem, and that’s a missed opportunity to direct existing demand toward products that actually benefit both land and people."
“As a sheep rancher who stewards an oak woodland landscape, I can see how our food, fiber, fuel, and medicine can be produced with a positive impact on the terrain,” said Marie Hoff of Full Circle Wool in Mendocino, California. “Agriculture is far from perfect, and we need a lot of investment to make regenerative agriculture the norm – that’s the key to humanity's success, not new, unregulated synthetic materials."
If investor-driven biosynthetics scale up, the threats could rapidly go global as producer nations face competition for natural fibers such as silk.
"Industrial food and industrial fashion have destroyed lives and livelihoods and polluted soils and oceans,” said renowned Indian food and farm activist Vandana Shiva of Navdanya International, responding to the findings of the report. ”Over two decades, I have witnessed and studied the crisis for Indian farmers triggered by genetically engineered Bt cotton which was introduced on the promise of pest control and reduction of pesticides, but has created an epidemic of pest attacks, pesticide deaths and farmers suicides.”
Shiva continued, “As this report shows, extreme genetic engineering in the form of synthetic biology is now being introduced in the textile sector. Its promises – as with the case of Bt cotton – are exaggerated, its costs and risks are hidden. And all this is being done in the name of ‘nature’ and ‘natural fiber.’”
Beyond supply chain disruptions, the “Genetically Engineered Clothes” report calls attention to the potential for new forms of biowaste created by the microorganisms engineered to produce the new materials. So-called “B-waste,” the byproduct of organisms that have never been released into the environment, may be difficult to dispose of safely and creates risks of new microorganisms spreading through the water and air.
The report particularly points up the confusions and contradictions of Patagonia, a brand trying to establish itself as an organic leader while simultaneously lending its green credentials to a biotech startup. The authoring organizations are joined by other environmental, farming and social justice groups who are together urging Patagonia and other investors to walk away from genetic engineering and switch their focus to socially-just and truly sustainable natural sources of fiber grown by farmers.
"Genetically engineered fiber production is risky, unnecessary and could perpetuate unsustainable pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture," said Dana Perls, senior Food and Technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "Instead, we should support proven and truly sustainable solutions including natural fibers produced by regenerative and organic farmers."
“The cost of genetically engineered “spider silk” and other false synthetic biology products in the apparel industry will be borne by the poor farmers and artisans – mainly women – in India, Thailand, and China.” explained Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute and an expert on development, human rights and agriculture issues. “It is very surprising that a company like Patagonia, renowned for its commitment to sustainability, will opt for a route where the poorest in poor countries bear the punitive costs of its choice.”