Strong and Sustainable: Here’s How This Start-up is Reinventing Textiles
From spider to Spiber, this startup is rolling out a new kind of textile—one that aims to address environmental concerns and fast fashion.
Many modern-day inventions take inspiration from animals. Take for example airplanes, which were created based on the semantics of birds. Or perhaps the anti-fouling properties of submarines, which were created based on how sharks seemed to always stay clean despite the prevalence of barnacles and algae in the ocean.
In that same vein, a Japanese startup—dubbed Spiber—is looking at the unique qualities of spider silk as inspiration for a new kind of textile.
From Spider to Spiber
Five times stronger than steel, spider silk’s attributes have been recognized by not only the Ancient Greeks but also by scientists. From medicine to engineering, it is now being rediscovered—this time, for fashion.
According to Kenji Higashi, head of business development at Spiber, they started out by making a replica of spider silk in the lab. But since then, it has expanded its repertoire to include sustainable alternatives like wool, cashmere, and denim. What’s more, the biotech company’s trademarked fiber, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited edition collections with brands like Sacai, a Japanese streetwear label, and outdoor apparel specialists The North Face Japan.
Through this, Spiber hopes that its technology will help “solve some of the big global challenges that we’re facing”—that is, according to Higashi, as the company is currently increasing production and getting ready for a full commercial launch of its textiles.
How Spiber Fabric is Made
Spiders create webs by spinning liquid protein into silk, much like silkworms—though the latter make cocoons instead. But while silkworms have been bred for thousands of years to produce silk, it doesn’t work the same way for spiders, as they are cannibals.
It does, however, capture the same spirit: silk. Thus, Spiber’s founders Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara decided to create a synthetic material—much like spider silk—in molecular form. In 2004, the duo began experimenting as students of Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture. Soon after, they founded the company in 2007, where they, according to Higashi, studied “thousands of different spider species,” as well as other silk-producing species, and compiled a database of silk varieties.
According to Higashi, Spiber’s fibers are created by fermenting water, sugar, and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks—much like what is used in beer making—to produce protein polymers. The polymers are fed through a nozzle and spun into a fiber—or what is known as Brewed Protein. And having successfully produced a spider silk alternative, they soon developed a range of Brewed Protein fibers by altering the protein sequence.
The result? Different textiles like leather, silk, or spun yarn.
Sustainable and Environmentally-friendly
According to management consultants McKinsey & Company, fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world—producing around 2.1 billion metric tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) every year with 70% of that coming from production. Moreover, manufacturing textiles use large amounts of raw materials and water, which can be detrimental to the environment.
Spiber’s fibers, however, are biodegradable. Predicted to generate just one-fifth of the carbon emissions of animal-based fibers once they are in full-scale production—according to a life cycle analysis conducted by the company—these textiles are more environmentally-friendly and sustainable in nature.
But that isn’t enough for the company. Right now, Spiber uses sugarcane and corn for its fermentation process—which, according to Higashi, are crops that use large volumes of land and divert food resources. Thus, in a move to further reduce its environmental impact, Spiber is developing a process called “biosphere circulation,” where discarded garments (made from natural materials like cotton) will be converted into the sugars needed for fermentation.
Since around 40 million metric tons of textile waste is produced every year—with most of this going to landfills or incinerators—reusing these textiles could create a more sustainable alternative, says Higashi.
Spiber’s threads have traveled far, as it has collaborated with many known brands and designers. Aside from its collaboration with The North Face Japan and streetwear brand Sacai for a limited-edition T-shirt range, Spiber’s Brewed Protein has been used by Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato for some of his works—including a collection that was showcased at Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture, which featured a blue, shiny textile made from Brewed Protein fibers and silk.
Through finance firms, Carlyle and Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, as well as grants from government organizations and startup development funds, Spiber has raised around ¥100 billion (around PHP 41.018 billion). Through these funds, the company can expand beyond its pilot plant in Yamagata by opening a small plant in Thailand sometime this year and a larger facility in the US in partnership with food processing multinational Archer Daniels Midland Company next year.
This, according to Higashi, will allow Spiber to produce thousands of tons of Brewed Protein by the end of 2023. Likewise, this will help bring down the price of Brewed Protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end market.
“We have the means to create solutions to enable [a] more circular fashion,” says Higashi. “It’s our mission to bring those solutions to the world.”