Lab-grown luxuries: cruelty-free silk, diamonds, and leather offer an ethical alternative

Every year, an estimated 150m carats of diamonds are extracted from the Earth. It’s an industry that has been tainted by its links to blood diamonds, war, exploitation and severe environmental impact, as immortalized by the 2006 film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yet diamonds remain one of the most sought-after items on the luxury market. The sector was worth an estimated $80 billion in 2016, according to De Beers, with nearly half of the world’s demand coming from the US. 

But some startups are developing ethical alternatives. In 2015, DiCaprio announced he was investing in Silicon Valley’s Diamond Foundry, which grows the gemstones in labs. Made from carbon, synthetic diamonds (or CVD diamonds, which stands for chemical vapor deposition) are chemically identical to the real thing, but can be produced in a matter of weeks. Diamonds have been grown in labs for industrial use since the 1950s, but it’s only in the last few years that the technology has existed to produce large and pure enough stones that can be used for jewelry. Demand is subsequently skyrocketing – in the US and elsewhere. 

“Probably 90% of what we retail is CVD diamonds,” Diane Nightingale says.

She co-founded Nightingale, a bespoke jewelers, with husband Stephen in the UK in 2013. Nightingale says that in the jewelry sector it takes a long time for UK habits to change

“but between years one and two, we probably saw sales [of CVD diamonds] increase by 100%. The high street jewelers are wary of them so far, but our younger customers have really embraced [the concept].”

It’s a disruption the traditional diamond sector is not welcoming with open arms. De Beers has reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars to develop technology that can identify man-made stones that look authentic. 

But the fashion sector seems more open to ethical alternatives to luxurious materials. Stella McCartney recently announced a collaboration with Californian company Bolt Threads, which has developed a protein-based polymer that can be spun into spider silk, as part of a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition in New York.

Bolt Threads co-founder Dan Widmaier started the business with two fellow PhD graduates who had been working on solving the “spider silk problem” for many years. On an environmental level, silk is also usually produced by boiling silk worms alive inside their cocoons and has been found to be the second-worst material in terms of environmental impact, just behind leather. 

Bolt Threads recently announced a partnership with Mountain Meadow Wool Mill, blending micro silk with US wool, and has opened a factory capable of producing 10 tonnes of its own material a year, equating to 100,000 shirts. Widmaier admits this isn’t enough, and that it has some way to go before it hits the 80 billion new garments a year the world now consumes. But he acknowledges how far they’ve come.

“Back in the beginning, my lab was a 10-foot by 10-foot room, full of a bunch of free-range spiders the size of a teacup saucer, and me working on engineering the biology of a yeast to try to make their silk. What drives us is the idea that there are some really big problems on this planet that need to be solved. And we’re going to try and do our part to solve as much as we can.”

Also part of a growing sector that combines biology, technology and fashion, known as bio-fabrication, is Modern Meadow. It creates leather, after producing collagen from genetically engineered yeast. It’s a second biotechnology company for founder Andras Forgacs, who started San Diego business Organovo in 2007 to pioneer the bio-printing of human tissue for medical use. In 2011, Forgacs started to get calls from leather companies. 

“They said, ‘we heard you can make skin, have you thought about making leather?’” he says. “It was a compelling opportunity for us – leather is a $100 billion raw material market. The industry is very interested and very open. But the timeframe for developing these technologies is long.”

The business hopes to reveal its full bio-fabricated leather range – named Zoa – in 2018. Because of the pollution and animal rights abuses associated with tanning – an estimated 430m cows would need to be slaughtered to keep up with leather demand by 2025 – a genuine lab-grown alternative to leather is interesting. Renée Cuoco, manager of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, says the interest, acknowledgement and understanding about the issue has been significant, particularly among new designers. 

“I’m not surprised to see luxury brands are interested in this sort of innovation,” she adds. “There’s a certain risk element when it comes to animal cruelty … It’s quite difficult to ensure bad practices aren’t happening throughout the supply chain.” 

But Cuoco urges caution, saying there is more work to be done beyond technological advances in the luxury sector.

“We want to pay more attention to the environmental, social and cultural values of the industry, not just the financial value. So long as the industry is predicated on speed and growth, those innovations won’t have the true impact we need them to.”