Fur has proven to be among the most difficult textiles to imitate synthetically. Now, Dutch company Geneus Biotech has grown the real thing. Under the brand name FUROIDTM, it has produced a 2cm by 2 cm swatch prototype of the world’s first lab-grown mink fur. Founder Henri Kunz says that the tech is ready to be scaled for pads measuring up to 3 metres wide.
FUROIDTM‘s process begins with a healthy living animal. Its body cells are biopsied and engineered into ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ (iPSc), artificial versions of natural stem cells. These are then crafted into a white, tissue-like substrate. Once bioprinted with hair follicles in droplet form, it comes to resemble the porous skin of living animals. Eventually, fur from the animal that supplied the cells emerges from the organoid’s follicle-pocked surface. Although FUROID’s prototype is mink, the method can recreate any type of hair by sampling cells from the appropriate species. The company is now in the process of creating its first wool prototype.
Like all synbio technologies, FUROID’s method mimics nature then tinkers with it for an enhanced product. Almost all features of the fur, including hair density and growth length, can be pre-set by altering the cells in the substrate or follicles. This bio-programming approach to customisation not only saves time but also holds sustainability advantages. Environmentally damaging post-processing such as tanning, a necessity in traditional as well as bio- and oil-based fur production, is eliminated. Dyeing can also be integrated into the bio-manufacturing process. The bioprinter can dispense pigmented liquid follicles in such precise formations that the print approaches the realism of photographic imagery. ‘You can bioprint really crazy patterns – zebra, tiger on mink fur, or whatever you like’, says Kunz.
Although the Covid years delayed FUROID’s rollout, they gave the company an extended opportunity to refine their techniques through patient iterations. Working with biological materials is unpredictable and obtaining the desired results relies on continuous trial, error, and adjustment. FUROID co-founder Henri Kunz would inspect batches by staining cells for visibility and checking for dozens of biomarkers that indicate whether the material behaves like slaughtered fur. Although regulatory requirements for tissue engineered textiles are far less demanding than for food or medical equivalents, FUROID’s material must still convince a discerning fashion market that it looks, feels, and behaves like the organic product.
The turn against fur
Over the last twenty years, animal fur has become one of the most heated consumer ethics battlegrounds, with celebrities Sophia Loren and Stella McCartney lending their names to the cause against animal cruelty in fashion. Over the 2010s, some luxury brands like Burberry and Gucci responded by phasing out animal fur from their collections. Their alternative, however, was almost as controversial. Many opted for oil-based plastic fur fibres, a dupe that falls far short of the sumptuous textures and insulating properties offered by animal piles. Oil-based synthetics didn’t just offend the aesthetic sensibilities of fashion purists, however. Environmentalists also rejected the move, accusing the fashion industry of replacing animal cruelty with environmental harm.
Anguished consumer debates ensued over the relative sustainability benefits of plastic fakes versus slaughtered originals produced through intensive farming. The dilemma eased when plant-based fur arrived, yet these have also gained a reputation for comparing unfavourably to natural materials. The difficulty of replicating hair through mechanical methods owes to the complexity of the material, which is made up of around 150 proteins assembled into distinctive nano- and micro-metre structures.
The virtues of cellular fur
For years, it seemed the limitations of synthetic fur technology would press consumers into an inevitable choice between aesthetics, animal ethics, or sustainability. Using the power of synbio, FUROID’s innovation promises to deliver all three.
Combining stem tissue engineering with gene editing and bioprinting, FUROID’s patent-pending bio-alchemy breaks from existing approaches to cruelty-free fashion.
Save for human intervention in its growth process, its product is no imitation in any substantive sense. The material is so close to the fur taken by slaughter that the company has already planned a system to digitally track the cell-lines they use in manufacturing. This is the only way to ensure illegally poached fur does not circulate on the market under the guise of being lab-produced dupes.
Animal ethics inspired Kunz’ innovation and remains a principle that guides the bio-manufacturing process. FUROID’s biopsy process is subject to the intricate welfare protocols that flow from stringent European laws around using animals in science. FUROID can only take cell samples from a group of housed mink allocated to the company. Access to them is supervised by an official veterinarian. The rest of the time, the minks are closely monitored for health and quality of life. When their career as cell-line starters come to an end, the mink must be rehomed as pets.
On top of offering a physically indistinguishable product with superior ethical credentials, cellular fur could also eliminate the resource wastage inherent to farmed-raised resources. Animals require water, food, and space to maintain themselves as whole organisms. Producing 1 kg of slaughtered fur requires more than 11 individual animals. To put it another way, 1 kg of mink requires 563 kg of feed, consisting of 360 kg chicken offal, 158 kg fish offal and 45 kg wheat. In cellular farming, however, there is no living body to sustain. Inputs feed solely into forming the target resource – in FUROID’s case, fur.
Mink farming also far outstrips other textiles for GHG emissions, producing around 145 kg of carbon per kg of product. At a time of spiralling food and energy prices, devoting this amount of bioresources to luxury clothing becomes increasingly difficult to justify. Kunz is waiting to scale production before conducting an accurate life cycle assessment for his technique. However, it is likely that cellular fur farming will have greater scope to achieve a lower carbon footprint than agricultural methods of production.
Disruption and continuity
Artificial replicas of biological products tend to display telltale marks of its human origins. Expert evaluators can detect these differences, however subtle, especially when equipped with scientific tools. Now, synthetic biology can reproduce biological resources right down to their physical structures, molecular components, and genetic markers. Its products are no longer ‘unnatural’ in any straightforward sense.
The semantic difficulties posed by this confound even Kunz himself. FUROID furs are not ‘clones’ in a technical sense, since they use cells and genetic material from different animals. The term ‘next gen’ is problematic for Kunz too. “It is misleading because it is associated with too much processing, too much artificial intervention. We struggle a bit with the definitions.” He believes that cell-based biomaterials would be a more accurate descriptor of what they have achieved.
Biotech’s category-scrambling capabilities also pose challenges for market valuation. For centuries, clothing made from animal fur were marks of wealth and status. FUROID’s innovation raises questions about how to preserve market value for a once-scarce natural commodity where technical advances allow us to replicate relevant physical detail at scale and low cost – an issue raised more broadly by the rapid recent advance and commercialisation of tissue engineering technologies.
Although FUROID has potentially far-reaching implications for the fur and textiles markets, Co-founder Henri Kunz leans towards preserving continuity with the traditional industry. Historically, the market value of high-end fur is decided at key industry auctions where buyers like luxury houses make bids on bulk lots. Kunz wants to see his bio-fur sold in the same manner. He is determined not to turn fur into a mass commodity, pointing out that this only worsen the fashion industry’s problem with over-production and waste.
Kunz’ company is keen to build transitional bridges between the old industry in other ways. He has cultivated ties with the fur breeders, sellers, and artisans in developing his product, describing them as being forthcoming with their help and advice. In his mind, those personally involved in the fur industry should not be the target of anti-fur campaigners. For one, he says, fur industry insiders themselves acknowledge that their business is living on borrowed time.
Forecasts for the fur market
In 2020, the global fur industry was still worth $25.1 billion, with brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Dior continuing to sell the product. When millions of farmed mink were culled in Spain and Denmark due to viral outbreaks in 2020, these fashion houses turned instead to fox and cinchilla fur. Canada, Poland, America, and Greece now look set to make up the mink supply shortfall.
Yet, in the Western world at least, the market for real fur is on the decline. While the global mink fur industry was weakened by the pandemic, production and prices had already been declining since 2015. The trend is even more acute on the demand side. Eco-conscious millennial consumers, the demographic that fashion houses have been targeting with their policies on cruelty-free sourcing, will represent around 50 percent of the luxury market by 2025. In 2020, a survey conducted by Human Society International and YouGov found that 72 percent of British people support a complete ban on the import and sale of animal fur in the UK. In the same year, British Vogue endorsed the cultural seachange by calling on fashion to ‘disown’ the material.
The luxury fashion industry has the financial leeway to work with alternative materials that may initially come at a high market price but offer sustainability and ethical benefits. FUROID is naturally keen to supply this high-end market. Coupled with the long-term shift towards low-impact textiles, their product is likely to receive a warm reception from an industry already moving towards vegan substitutes.