FashMash Pioneers: Bioengineering a Better World with Bolt Threads
On April 16th, FashMash founders Rosanna Falconer and Rachel Arthur hosted their third FashMash Pioneers talk, with CEO and co-founder of Bolt Threads, Dan Widmaier.
Partnering with Isobar, FashMash Pioneers is an annual programme of monthly talks in which the world’s brightest minds dissect the future of technology.
Bolt Threads, a pioneering start-up based in the US, is rising to the sustainability challenge facing the fashion sector by cultivating natural proteins, such as spider silk, to craft new materials for use in garment manufacture.
Three key themes emerged from the discussion.
A Material Revolution
Cotton, polyester and leather: you’ll find one or more of them in almost every item of clothing in your wardrobe but how many of us stop to consider the environmental problems linked to their manufacture?
It’s with this thought in mind that Widmaier and his Bolt Threads team are trying to inspire a material revolution, with sustainability at its core.
Widmaier explained to FashMash attendees that four billion years of life on earth has been a great petri dish experiment for finding new, sustainable and truly unique materials.
“We think there is a future for not just one or two materials but for many,” he theorised. “What if every year you had amazing new materials that blew consumers’ minds?”
The idea that nature is the world’s best designer is held true by everyone that works at Bolt Threads.
This philosophy has led them to develop Mylo – a leather-like material made from mycelium, created from the root structure of mushrooms.
The team will release a handbag in June that’s made entirely of the synthetic leather. There’s also a collaboration with Stella McCartney in the works, following the launch of a Microsilk gold dress last year.
Sustainability, a Brand Differentiator
“For the people at Bolt, sustainability is the thing that drives us,” shared Widmaier.
It’s an ethos that has yet to find buy-in across the entire fashion industry, yet there are promising signs that brands and retailers are starting to get to grips with the notion of sustainability as a business imperative.
This change in attitude is reflective of an increase in public concern over environmental and social issues. A backlash against plastic consumption, along with US president Donald Trump’s plan to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, are two factors currently driving consumer awareness of sustainability to new heights.
“I think sometime in the next 50 years, sustainability will go from a nice to have to a need to have [for brands and retailers],” predicted Widmaier.
Bioengineering Natural Materials at Scale
Cultivating new and natural materials might seem like the answer to fashion’s sustainability challenge, but there are barriers to scaling the technology.
Widmaier’s inclination in regard to scaling is to at least double the number of items manufactured each time a product is launched. He understands, however, that scaling exponentially reduces the company’s ability to perform experiments, and therefore innovate, and so believes a balance must be struck between the two.
In Widmaier words: “The scale up may be harder than the invention”.
For brands and retailers that want to become more sustainable, there is an inherent cost in getting started. Widmaier said this is the answer “nobody wants to hear”, but added that businesses have to accept the fact and trust that “brands that are authentically sustainable – who are not just greenwashing – are going to see massive benefits over time”.
“Authenticity,” he asserted, “is the currency of the 21st century”.
The next FashMash Pioneers talk takes place on the evening of 23rd May, with the Managing Director of Farfetch, the store of the future, Sandrine Deveaux taking the stage.