Looking to the Future
Looking to the Future
〜Development of the Structural Protein “Brewed Protein”〜
At present, the majority of sports apparel items available on the market are produced using synthetic polymers such as polyester or nylon. Many of these materials are made from petroleum, a resource created over hundreds of millions of years as organic matter is exposed to high pressure and heat underground. In the last few hundred years—a mere blink of the eye in terms of the Earth’s history—mankind has removed vast quantities of petroleum from the ground for consumption, resulting in a variety of pressing environmental issues. These include sudden changes in weather and temperature patterns caused by the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, as well as increasing levels of pollution in both the air and the sea.
The market costs for many products which use petroleum-derived materials do not take into account the environmental and social costs of their use. Accordingly, we believe that it is the duty of the present generation to shift away from a short-term, consumerist economic model based on the use of petroleum resources, and to move towards a sustainable, long-term economic model based on the use of renewable and recyclable resources. Through the joint research and development initiative between Goldwin and Spiber, we are striving to re-evaluate our way of thinking about the relationship between nature and mankind. By considering how to balance functionality with environmental considerations, and by examining the role of products and the economy, we hope to arrive at a solution for creating sports apparel items which can support a lifestyle in harmony with nature. In doing so, we believe we can make a considerable contribution to the development of a sustainable world. It is this belief that drives our continued effort towards this goal.
Goldwin and Spiber’s collaboration began in 2015, sparked by a shared passion for addressing global-scale environmental problems. The joint research and development initiative between the two companies began with a focus on replicating spider silk, a natural structural protein material, for use in apparel products. One of the largest challenges in utilizing fibroin—the protein found in natural spider silk—for an application such as the outer shell layer of the MOON PARKA is the fact that natural spider silk exhibits a property called ‘supercontraction.’ For example, the extremely tough dragline silk that spiders rely on as their lifeline is known to contract by up to ~50% in length when exposed to water. The protein material which Spiber initially developed, QMONOS (based on the Japanese word kumonosu, meaning ‘spider web’), is taken from the fibroin proteins found in dragline silk, and accordingly inherited this supercontraction property. As we considered how best to prepare our materials for use in end products, we concluded that it would be difficult to reduce this water-induced supercontraction effect to levels capable of meeting GOLDWIN’s exacting quality standards. Accordingly, we went back to the drawing board, beginning with a fresh analysis of the genes involved in natural fibroin production. This approach allowed us to isolate and remove the amino acid layout responsible for the supercontraction effect. Additionally, we also used this opportunity to implement further modifications to the amino acid sequence which resulted in drastic increases in microbial productivity. Repeating this process of molecular optimization—which mimics the process of natural evolution—while passing our improved materials through our proprietary spinning, weaving, and processing technologies, resulted in the creation of a new protein textile material which was capable of maintaining its dimensions even when wet. Having cleared GOLDWIN’s standards for both durability and stability, the MOON PARKA product development journey was finally complete. The new material used in the jacket’s shell layer has come a long way from the initial synthetic proteins based on natural spider silk.
The amino acid sequence and material processing used for the MOON PARKA’s material differ from those used in the Planetary Equilibrium Tee, announced in June 2019 as the first product released under THE NORTH FACE Sp. project. Accordingly, these two materials vary considerably in terms of physical properties and performance, and serve to demonstrate the primary strengths of protein materials: diversity matched by the capacity to be tailored for specific end-use applications. Rather than focusing on a reference to one specific material type, the “Brewed Protein” name for our new materials pays homage to Spiber’s proprietary production technology.
Brewed Protein™ Features & Potential
Brewed Protein materials are the protein fibers, films, and other types of materials manufactured using Spiber’s proprietary fermentation (brewing) process. Brewed Protein materials show great potential for use in a wide range of industries. With a production process that utilizes plant-derived sugars as primary raw ingredients, Brewed Protein materials are well placed to address increasing market pressure for animal-free, microplastic-free alternatives in the apparel industry. The unique, customizable nature of Brewed Protein materials also shows potential to fulfill growing demand in the automotive and aerospace industries for lighter-weight materials. Through an evolutionary and iterative optimization process which begins at the molecular level, Brewed Protein materials can be tailored to suit the needs of each specific application.
Spiber is currently engaged in numerous initiatives to scale up production of its polymers, with construction of its first overseas plant currently underway in Thailand. Once completed, the plant is anticipated to be the largest structural protein mass-production facility in the world. In October 2020, Spiber also announced a partnership with Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, the world’s premier agricultural origination and processing company, towards mass-production of Brewed Protein™ polymers in the US.
The Planetary Equilibrium Tee: Spiber’s first-ever Brewed Protein™ product
Released by THE NORTH FACE in August 2019, the Planetary Equilibrium Tee was the first item ever sold featuring Spiber’s revolutionary new Brewed Protein™ materials. The name of the T-shirt refers to the balance that exists among the living matter in the earth’s biosphere, and also serves as a reminder of the mission that drives Spiber’s research and development initiatives—addressing environmental issues on a global scale.
The Planetary Equilibrium Tee envisions a more progressive approach to clothing, featuring a blend of plant-based cellulose (cotton) and Spiber’s microbially-produced protein materials (Brewed Protein™). The 82.5 to 17.5 plant-to-protein ratio recreates the current balance of the Earth’s biomass in a form that can be felt on the skin. In addition to symbolizing the proportion of plant to microbial life found on Earth, the shirt demonstrates the potential for an entirely animal-free manufacturing process. By harnessing Earth’s natural resources—cellulose from plants, and proteins from microbes—in the same ratio they are found in the biosphere, our vision with this project was to mimic as closely as possible the balance of nature.
Brewed Protein™ x Sports Apparel: A World of Potential
As of 2020, the primary bottleneck for the release of more products featuring Spiber’s revolutionary new materials is the limited production capacity of Brewed Protein™ polymers. Once Spiber’s Thailand plant begins commercial operations in 2021, production is expected to increase to several hundred times the company’s current capabilities, resulting in improved production stability and lower prices, and providing the resources for pursuing a wider range of R&D initiatives.
At present, 13% of Goldwin’s sales come from clothing items specifically designed to have low environmental impact. In the near future, we anticipate being able to pivot away from a reliance on petrochemical materials by instead utilizing Brewed Protein™ in each of the components that go into our garments, such as inner/outer layers, down, and fasteners. Furthermore, once we develop systems that will give us the ability to turn these products back into raw materials for use in new pieces of clothing, we will be one important step closer to realizing a future in which new sports apparel items are produced through entirely sustainable methods.
As lovers of all things sports, we at Goldwin remain as passionate as ever about our mission to deliver high-performance, sustainable apparel that our customers can use and enjoy in the midst of humanity’s most precious resource—nature.