By Emily Cai
28 March, 2022
BUCHA BIO is at the forefront of the rapidly growing biomaterials industry. But, what is a biomaterial? This futuristic term conjures images of diaphanous gowns made of algae and sneakers spun from spider silk — in practice, “biomaterial” has been used to label anything from sugar-derived nylon to material that can be used as an alternative to leather composed of bacterial nanocellulose. While “biomaterial” evokes sustainable and innovative connotations, the term’s vagueness complicates any ability to assess the real environmental impacts.
So, what is a biomaterial?
The term loosely refers to a material with a biological association at any point in its production process. This blanket definition lacks any specificity about the material’s fabrication process, bio content, feedstocks, or byproducts.
This ambiguity of “biomaterial” can lead to problems such as overstated environmental and social benefits and consumer confusion. To alleviate these problems, nonprofits Fashion for Good and Biofabricate are working to create a detailed and standardized definition of the term. Through publishing a guide compiled from dozens of industry experts’ interviews, the nonprofits begin to break down “biomaterial” and how it is being used in the fashion industry.
“Biobased” materials refer to products that at some point use living matter — biomass — in their production. This biomass can be incorporated as an ingredient in the final material or used to create the new material. This is still broad, including everything from cotton to biosynthetics, all with varying amounts of bio-content.
There is no clear consensus across the industry as to how much bio-content is an acceptable amount for the material to be considered “biobased” — though some experts believe that it should be a minimum of 50%. Currently a material with 5% bio-content and material with 50% bio-content can be called “biobased”. The USDA BioPreferred Program is setting standards for biobased certification — requiring clothing and footwear to contain a minimum of 25% to be labeled a Certified Biobased Product.
While “biobased” sounds more specific and regulated, the market-ready material can be combined with other plastics or solvents, meaning it will have a lower biobased content percentage than the starting component breakdown.
Side note, BUCHA BIO’S SHORAI™ takes the guesswork out of biobased percentages as it is 100% biobased and never mixed with petrochemical-derived components. ;)
To go a level more specific, we have the term “biosynthetic”. To define this, it is first helpful to understand what a “synthetic” is. Synthetic material in the fashion and textile industry refers to any man-made material with fossil fuel origins. For example, fibers such as polyester and nylon, and materials such as polyurethane-based faux leather, are made of petrochemical-derived polymers.
“ Biosynthetics”, therefore, are man-made materials with biological origins created as alternatives to conventional synthetic materials. Chemical equivalents of nylon or polyester can be produced by synthesizing sugar or using bacteria.
While BUCHA BIO is not creating specifically to replace synthetic materials, our products can be used as unique alternatives across the fashion, auto, and lifestyle industries.
Biofabricated materials are the new kid on the biomaterial block. This category refers to materials grown and produced by living organisms. These living organisms, including bacteria, mycelium, and algae, form a “cell factory” used in the production process. Rather than being ingredients in the final product, the use of these living organisms is the technology that produces the final material.
This last sub-category of biomaterials is what BUCHA BIO’S proprietary bacterial nanocellulose technology falls under. Bacteria are used to link sugar molecules together to create strings of fibers. The naturally-occurring bacteria are not present in the final material but are harnessed to imbue strength and structure within this entirely biobased material.
While many biofabricated materials still use additional solvents or chemicals in post-processing to achieve a specific hand feel or color, BUCHA BIO uses entirely biobased reagents and algae-based dyes to achieve our specifications. The entire process from the sugar inputs, the production process using bacteria, and the finishing process using bio-based reagents are sourced from nature.
What is next?
BUCHA BIO is at the forefront of a biomaterial revolution that is only just beginning to break into commercial use in the fashion and textile industry. According to a 2020 McKinsey & Company report surveying consumer sentiment across Europe, 67% of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor. 57% of these consumers have made significant lifestyle changes to lessen their own environmental footprint. As more fashion brands realize the importance of taking a stance for the environment, biomaterials are taking the spotlight as a solution to address these growing sustainability problems.
To meet fashion’s demand, an increasing number of biomaterials are emerging in the market. That means brands and consumers will require a more specific understanding of what differentiates each material. BUCHA BIO invites other material innovators to join the conversation on defining this new biomaterial landscape.
Emily Cai is a contributing fashion sustainability writer at Bucha Bio and a materials designer at Reebok