Circumfaunal Fashion: How Innovation leads us into the Future of Materials

In the last century our understanding of animals and nature has changed drastically. Where once we saw an inexhaustible stockpile of resources, we now know that nature has limits and that animals are so much more than fiber-factories.

It’s obvious the fashion industry has to change. And it will — just like food — through innovation. Let’s find out more.

Circumfauna: The Future of Fashion Materials – Joshua Katcher for Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media
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June 2, 2021

Words – Joshua Katcher
Illustrations – Philipp Reul
Collages – Eric Mirbach

The Year is 2044…

… and you’ve stepped into a massive fiber production factory. There is a large wall on wheels. It’s alive and growing, but it isn’t conscious. There’s no brain, nervous system or vital organs aside from skin. It’s a skin wall and the flesh is wrapped around a flat rectangular scaffolding like a stretched artist’s canvas. Large bags of perfectly balanced fluid are hydroponically misted onto the skin’s under side.

“These wool-walls are growing the hair of the extinct wooly mammoth.”

There are hundreds of them tucked into rows. Each one is full of follicles (more than can be counted) and they’re pushing hair out slowly and soundly. The species of hair for some is a thick, curly wool in pale pink. These wool-walls will be sheared and baled, and continue to grow.

Others are a designer’s proprietary blend of vicuña, horse and the extinct wooly mammoth. The hairs are long, smooth and thick. The genes have been edited so that the fur is an iridescent ruby red that glimmers like gold when angled in light. When the hair is at the desired length, the pelt is removed from the frame and it’s tanned, cut, and sewn into a coat.

Circumfauna: The Future of Fashion Materials – Joshua Katcher for Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

Biosynthesized Fibers and 3D-printed Feathers

You walk into another room. There are enormous vats of liquid keratin — the same protein of which tiger claws, peacock plumes and ram’s fleece have been crafted by evolution. The keratin is being produced by engineered yeast cells. This looks more like a brewery than a textile mill, but fibers are being biosynthesized here and have customizations like bioluminescence and thicknesses and textures at which nature would never have arrived. Bacteria infuse bold colors into the keratin protein. Then the protein will go through a microtube extrusion process and the final fibers will be spun, spooled, woven, felted, braided, knitted and more. The design outcomes are infinite.

You step into an elevator and descend to the basement. The doors open and reveal an Olympic-size pool of fluid growing leather from cells in wild, scaled textures, amphibious patterns and vibrant colors. These skins are infused with fragrances from long-extinct flowers.

Nearby, 3D bio printers meticulously construct supernatural, airy feathers or churn out bags, boots, belts and more using slurries of biosynthesized leather, cellulose, mycelium, keratin and silk. 

A Future Fashion Supply Chain without Animals

There are no worms boiled inside their cocoons. No sheep pinned down and bloodied by mulseing or rushed shearing. No minks gnawing their teeth to stubs on wire cages or foxes languishing with infections before being anally electrocuted on fur farms. No angora rabbits tied down and screaming as fistfuls of fur are ripped from their bodies or fetal karakul lambs cut out from their pregnant mothers and skinned to make astrakhan.

There is no demand for the chiru, Tibetan mountain goat or cashmere that drives sensitive species toward extinction and sensitive grasslands toward ruin. There are no coyotes trapped and shot or bludgeoned for trim or snakes being inflated to death with an air compressor or hose to stretch skins and profits.

“In this future, we are finding our way around the limits and impacts of using animal’s bodies as fiber factories.”

No crocodiles with a metal rod dug down their spinal columns to paralyze them from struggling when they’re skinned. No animals bred by the billions, castrated, having their tails cut off with a hot blade or ears punched with a tag, crowded into factory farms or confined to tiny cages while sucking up vast resources and releasing methane into the atmosphere, eutrophying aquatic systems with their waste, clearing ancient forests to make room for grazing or trampling large swaths of land into dead dust.

There are no animals here in this future fashion supply chain, yet the celebration of animal aesthetics and animal biology is front and center: that’s right, slowly but surely material innovation is inspired by animal bodies but removes them altogether for a cruelty-free future.

We are finding our way around the limits and impacts of using animals’ bodies as fiber factories.

Fashion is becoming circumfaunal.

Circumfauna: The Future of Fashion Materials – Joshua Katcher for Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

In the present time…

… the problem with animal fibers used in fashion isn’t the performance properties or the aesthetics.

While some argue that convincing fauxs can harm animals by creating demand, it’s much easier to change materials at a systems-level than to change people’s aesthetic inclinations. Over millions of years human beings have come to celebrate and emulate animal aesthetics in all their glory. But the scale, disconnect and conditions in which animals are commodified, tortured and killed for their body parts is no longer justifiable and will soon be obsolete as more and more of us demand it and innovate solutions.

“The scale and disconnect in which animals are commodified, tortured and killed for their body parts is no longer justifiable.”

When we create animal fibers without any sentient beings attached to them, we arrive at this next industrial revolution that centers biology, sustainability, ethics and technology.

This future isn’t that far off. Companies all over the world are already reimagining the way we make everything through cellular agriculture, cell-free and synthetic biology.

These visionary innovations are not just “alternatives”. They will be superior in design customization, performance and beauty. Eventually, the limit will only be our imaginations. As our societies evolve so does our understanding of what defines “good” design. Today, the beauty of a fashion object should be matched by the beauty of how it was made. In other words, the products of trapping, confining and killing animals can no longer be seen as beautiful because the process is so ugly.

The Global Search for a Vegan Fashion Future

… Ecopel is crafting future-furs from recycled ocean plastic or coconut oil, and they’re on the verge of launching a top-secret sustainable faux with a major label that they can’t yet share.

In London, the company FUROID is growing actual fur pelts and wool in a laboratory without any animals involved in the process. In the United States, Bolt Threads is coaxing mycelium into their mushroom-leather product Mylo which appeared in the MET Museum’s Is Fashion Modern? show as a gorgeous bag and synthesizing their protein-based Mycrosilk without any spiders or worms involved.

In New Jersey, Modern Meadow is perfecting their product Zoa – which is leather grown from cells.

Across the globe companies like Provenance, Geltor, Amsilk, Spiber, and Vitro Labs are all working on biological protein fiber technology using emerging systems like cellular agriculture and biofabrication.

Conferences like Biofabricate bring “designers and scientists, artists and engineers, global brands and startups, investors and policy makers, trend-forecasters and media” together to explore what they refer to as “A New Material Age”. The New Harvest conference is “building the field of cellular agriculture”.

The revolutionary thing about synthetic biology, cellular agriculture and biofabrication is that it cuts out that first, hugely impactful step of having to dedicate fragile resources like land, water and fuel. Consider the resources required every year to process one billion sheep for wool, 7.7 million tons of leather and hides, or 87 million mink pelts.

Who wouldn’t want to find a way to completely eliminate these first, most harmful and costly steps?

Circumfauna: The Future of Fashion Materials – Joshua Katcher for Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

An Awe-Inspiring Wave of Innovation

All together the innovations are an awe-inspiring window into the future that will someday soon replace the cruelties all too common in animal supply chains.

This wave of innovation makes me optimistic. Some may argue that it’s difficult to be optimistic knowing everything we know now, from the staggering ecological crises caused by animal agriculture to the cruelties exposed in countless undercover investigations.

Just this past August, the United Nations once again reminded us that cutting out meat would be one of the most important things we can do for the environment that “will reduce climate change by saving millions of square miles of land from being degraded by farming”. [1] But because fashion is rarely taken seriously, they fail to mention cutting out the primary economic drivers of the slaughter industries: leather and wool. With a billion animals per year killed for leather and a billion sheep on the planet used for wool, the need to seriously address livestock fiber production is critical, especially in an industry where the heavily marketed mythology of wool, fur and leather being “natural” and “eco friendly” continues to prevail despite the data. The focus mostly seems to be on polyester.

“Faux furs outperform animal furs in regard to environmental impacts and health hazards.”

No matter what the fur industry may say about faux fur, the best faux furs still outperform animal furs in regard to environmental impacts and health hazards. Scientific data supports this, as outlined in the CE Delft Study. Even the World Bank listed fur-dressing as one of the five worst global toxic-metal polluters. Meanwhile, the most cutting edge faux furs, like EcoPel’s recycled polyester fur reduces greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal fur production by 71% while their bio-based fur that use things like coconut oil offer a 63% reduction, according to the Faux Fur Institute. And leather is singled out as the worst material for the environment in the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report from Copenhagen Fashion Summit / Boston Consulting Group and Kering’s own Environmental Profit & Loss tool.

Learning from Past Mistakes

This of course does not mean that plastics aren’t a problem (they are), but it requires we at least acknowledge the bigger problems of livestock fibers and put a stop to insidious, well-funded misinformation. For example, ads promoting fur are currently running in US fashion magazines that have already been shut down by French and Dutch advertising standards authorities for false and misleading “natural”, “sustainable” and “ethical” claims.

In the last century our understanding of animals and nature has changed drastically. Where once we saw an inexhaustible stockpile of resources, we now know that nature has limits and that animals are so much more than fiber-factories. When fur farming started at the turn of the twentieth century — it was a plan to reap profits amid a landscape of dwindling wildlife in which furbearing animals (as well as birds and so-called “pests”) were being hunted to extinction–a blow that the toolache wallaby, sea mink, Arabian ostrich, Falkland Islands wolf, Tasmanian tiger, quagga, passenger pigeon, carolina parakeet, and huia did not escape — and so many other species never recovered from.

We can learn a lot from the past missteps of our society’s appetite for animal skins, even when the market says otherwise. A view of animals as mere products is becoming more and more fringe because it flies in the face of science.

Researchers are documenting nonhuman animals’ advanced emotional and social complexities, and what’s clear is how much we’ve underestimated their capacity to suffer and to value their own lives. We must pursue our current relationship with animals through the lens of justice.

“We must pursue our current relationship with animals through the lense of justice.”

So what does that mean for the animal fiber industries that are unwilling or slow to change? They represent an outdated worldview that is stuck in a medieval understanding of nature and animals. In this age of transparency and rapidly evolving understanding of nonhuman animals, a fashion object can not be beautiful if it’s made in a horribly ugly way.

It isn’t possible for example, to confine wild animals to small wire cages for their entire lives, depriving them of every natural instinct; to run, play, dig, hunt, explore and kill them using horrendous yet “industry-standard” methods like anal electrocution or gassing and still have a coat or collar that we call “beautiful”.

As consumer awareness grows, designers will inevitably make superior and ever-increasingly customizable design decisions that are less harmful to animals and the environment.

This is the momentum of an advancing society; beauty that is matched by efficiency, functionality and an inspiring set of ethics. There is so much opportunity in this emerging space, and we have this moment to begin revitalizing the way we make everything in fashion.

[1] thetimes.co.uk/article/eat-less-meat-to-save-the-earth-urges-un-pzvtqmp28

Joshua Katcher is a fashion entrepreneur, author, educator and vegan cheesemonger. Read more from him on his blog thediscerningbrute.com.

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