How apparel can be hazardous to your health, the need for more cross-disciplinary biotech initiatives and the importance of relatable storytelling were among the topics discussed during Monday’s inaugural BioFashionTech Summit at the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Conn.
Democratic Congresswoman Anne Hughes helped kick off the event, which featured an assortment of engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, retailers and fashion executives. Elastin made from the adductor muscles of oysters and the prospect of using corn crops as alternatives to denim were among the forward-thinking ideas that were being explored during last weekend’s Bio Challenge, according to David S. Kong, director of the MIT Media Lab Community Biotechnology Initiative. Aside from being a research scientist, Kong is a synthetic biologist, community organizer, musician, artist and photographer. His varied pursuits epitomized the summit’s multipronged approach and intent in gathering different mind-sets to strive toward a unified approach.
Organizers noted how within one year, Gen Z will outstrip Millennials as the most populous generation, comprising 32 percent of the population. Millennials and Gen Z are branded as mission-driven and impact-oriented.
Eileen Fisher’s sustainable materials and transparency manager Megan Meiklejohn singled out soil health as the most urgent issue. The event’s lead discussion about “The State of the Planet” with geomorphologist author “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil back to Life” David Montgomery and his biologist wife Anne Bikle, author of “The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Half of Nature” was inspirational and foundational, she said.
“If we’re not paying attention to the soil, we’re done,” Meiklejohn said. “There is this crisis that we have to address by supporting farmers that are providing us with healthy food and fiber is the key. A lot of that is through supporting animals. I do think this plant-based agenda and message can be really dangerous. There are a lot of companies that are using that to talk about their raw materials being corn, sugar — that goes back to the monoculture crop. That is not building topsoil, that is not sequestering carbon.
From her perspective, supporting ranchers, who use holistic management practices for their animals, is probably the best option for large-scale carbon sequestration. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere. “It’s supposed to be stable in the soil and there is too much carbon in the water so we have this imbalance. We need our businesses to work in a way that we’re supporting correcting that balance. Take the carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, which is accelerated when you have animals on the land that are grazed appropriately and get the carbon back to a stable point in the soil,” Meiklejohn said.
Gregory Altman is cofounder and chief executive officer of Evolved by Nature which has patents covering a wide variety of silk molecular compositions and continues to develop and commercialize new applications for natural silk with a team of scientists and engineers. He and Rebecca Lacouture teamed up to use their expertise in biotechnology and biomedicine to focus on silk chemistry. At their first company, they developed the first FDA-approved silk-based medical device for soft tissue reconstruction. Earlier this month Chanel took a minority stake in the company, as part of its strategy to invest in green technology.
He said, “From a fashion audience perspective, I am continually astounded about the lack of awareness in terms of what is actually on the clothing that we are wearing and designing. That is the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome in terms of harmfulness. We’re worried about our soil, our environment, our water and ultimately all of those impact our health. When you think about the hidden use of chemistry that is what concerns me the most.”
Consumers tend to be aware that a fiber is polyester or synthetic-based, or from an animal or a plant, he said. “We have very little awareness from a fashion perspective about what is actually on our clothing. In some instances, it’s the chemistry that is used to make our clothing [whether that is] wrinkle resistant, or water and stain repellent. That is the most pressing issue. The more that we can bring enlightenment to that issue and challenge, the more people will focus on it and then we can make a change. You can’t swap out a fiber if you’re going to use the same finishing chemistry that pollutes our water.”
His interest stemmed from the realization that 98 percent of the people living in the U.S. have these finishing agents in their blood, he said. “We don’t have a full understanding of the repercussion of health on this society. That’s what got me really excited about this area and this market,” Altman said.
He added, “I loved orthopedics and plastic surgery. It took 15 years to make one product that would affect the health of 100,000 patients. That was exciting, but I didn’t have that many more 15-year stints. So, we asked, ‘How can we have the biggest impact on health with this one life that we live?” That’s what got us into consumer goods and consumer chemistry. We found our way into fashion. Maybe it was meant to happen but it wasn’t planned at all.”
A few of the bioengineers, entrepreneurs, academics, scientists and fashion executives spoke of the importance and advantages of cross-disciplinary work. The Custom Collaborative nonprofit supports low-income and immigrant communities to work in fashion design, manufacturing and entrepreneurship. Participants go through a 14-week training program at the group’s Harlem facility and a business incubator will launch in the next month to help graduates as they launch their own brands. Mara Hoffman will host a graduation event for the latest group of graduates Thursday at her studio.
Tessa Callaghan cofounder and director of innovations at AlgiKnit, which specializes in creating durable yet rapidly degradable yarns, has been approached by a significant number of brands looking for sustainable bio-based textile alternatives. Focused on a closed loop product lifecycle, the New York-based company uses materials with a markedly lower environmental footprint than conventional textiles such as kelp-derived yarns. As for what is needed for more companies to seek out ecological biomaterials, she said, “Realistically, so much of it is economics, education and that top-down push. Until brands are demanding these changes from their manufacturers, suppliers and everything that comes below them, nothing is going to happen,” she said. “People are talking about brands and consumers, but the people who are actually doing the changes are manufacturers. The people who are knitting, weaving and spinning fibers — they don’t want to change their systems or they don’t have the capacity. So, it’s really that top-down demand.”
Remake founder Ayesha Barenblat is trying to spark a conscious consumer movement to turn fashion into a force for good. The first step to amping up environmental biomaterials is “storytelling that is not wonky,” she said. “When we do testing with our community of Millennials and Gen Z about what messaging is working, the thing that really strikes a nerve is human health.”
Noting how there is a lot of discussion and consideration about food systems and what you ingest, she asked, “But what about what you put on your body — with the skin being the largest organ.”
What also resonates with these shoppers is connecting the fashion system to the women’s empowerment movement. “We often forget from the dye houses to cut-and-sewn facilities, women are predominantly working in these supply chains. The impact on their health is very clear from cancer rates…” Barenblat said.
Playing off the slogan, ”Wear your values,” the nonprofit aims to remind women that they should care about the health implications of what happens to the maker of their clothes. They should also consider what happens when they wear a lot of synthetics without thinking about how the garments were made, Barenblat said. Her 12-sided business card highlights why fast fashion should be boycotted, lists some of the worst offenders and better brands, and fashion’s ties to women’s empowerment. “To the everyday girl who just wants convenience and is used to the Amazon Prime world — one click and your Halloween costume is there and another click and your ugly Christmas party sweater is there — we have to reshape behavior,” she said.
To build community, Remake now has a nationwide network of ambassadors beyond Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Riffing on the Tupperware lady model, they discuss how to hold clothing swap parties, how to discuss rentals and how to find little vintage consignment stores “in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or that would alienate people,” Barenblat said. “This is also a conversation about affordability. Sustainable fashion currently is more expensive. Having that kind of empathy — when inequity in this country is growing so much — is important, too.”