How Sustainable Are Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:17 Minutes

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Spider silk is generally considered to be one of the strongest materials made in nature. Its extreme resilience inspired the creation of Qmonos, an artificial spider silk fiber—and, later on, Brewed Protein, a protein polymer suitable for apparel material that was developed to make up for Qmonos’ shrinking issues—both by the Japanese company Spiber. These nature-inspired materials have gathered much attention regarding their (supposedly) lower environmental impacts. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics?

Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are generally considered sustainable. Manufacturing Qmonos/Brewed Protein uses plant-based feedstocks from fast-growing crops with carbon sequestration potential. Also, Qmonos/Brewed Protein yarns are inherently strong and fully biodegradable. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics used for apparel. Then, we will evaluate the sustainability, potential, and shortfalls of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable clothing items made with Qmonos/Brewed Protein yarns.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

Please note: This article opts to use the term “Qmonos/Brewed Protein” to discuss both of the Spiber company’s main fabric outputs in a more streamlined way. For clarity, “Qmonos” is Spiber’s initial fabric on the market, but due to a shrinkage effect when in contact with water, the company developed a revised version of the fabric known as “Brewed Protein” to combat this issue. Brewed Protein will be discussed separately where relevant.

Qmonos/Brewed Protein are artificial textile materials made in a fermentation process using microorganisms. The fermentation feedstock is renewable plant-based ingredients, and the output is biodegradable, indicating the materials’ overall sustainability. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Qmonos is the initial synthetic spider silk fiber produced by Spiber, a Japanese startup founded in 2007. Brewed Protein is the later version of this nature-inspired material developed by the same company. 

To understand the sustainability of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothing items and accessories made with Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabricsSourcing plant-based feedstocks to make Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. Plants are renewable resources, as opposed to fossil resources, which are the feedstock for many other synthetic fibers. Also, the company sources its plant-based feedstocks from nearby growers who implement sustainable agricultural practices, which improve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 
Manufacturing of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabricsManufacturing Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally unsustainable. This is because of the high energy requirement of the large-scale microbial fermentation process. Treating wastewater also requires electricity. 
Transporting of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabricsTransporting Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with Qmonos/Brewed Protein fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics typically travel from fields (where sugarcane or corn plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabricsUsing Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is designed to have the superior strength of spider silk, which means clothing items made with the fabric can last a long time before a replacement is needed. 
End-of-life of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabricsThe end-of-life stage for Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. This is because the unfinished Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are fully biodegradable. 

Overall, we can say Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are generally sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular clothing item, whether a T-shirt or sports jacket, depends on more specific factors, including: 

  • the finishing practices
  • the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
  • the distance and mode of transportation 

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

Sourcing plant-based feedstocks to make Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. Plants are renewable resources, as opposed to fossil resources, which are the feedstock for many other synthetic fibers. Also, the company sources its plant-based feedstocks from nearby growers who implement sustainable agricultural practices, which improve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

The raw materials to make Qmonos/Brewed Protein fibers are the protein polymers made by microbes designed to imitate the silk proteins produced by spiders

These proteins are produced in a microbial fermentation process in which microbes are fed nutrients, e.g., sugars from plant-based feedstock, which then make the protein polymers. 

In the following section, we will discuss the plant-based feedstocks, specifically sugarcane and corn, sourced to make the current Brewed Protein fibers and their sustainability of growing those crops. 

Side note: Qmonos is the original protein fiber made by Spiber to replicate spider silk. It is not exactly the same material as Brewed Protein, because the technology has been altered since to improve certain properties of the material. Yet, it followed a similar process relying on sustainable biomass rather than fossil fuels and animal derivatives. So, to simplify the next section, we will focus on the current Brewed Protein polymers and discuss the relevant data available on Spiber’s website. 

How Does Sourcing Raw Materials for Brewed Protein Fabrics Impact the Environment

Sourcing sugarcane or corn as a feedstock to make Brewed Protein polymers is generally sustainable. This is thanks to the sugarcane and corn crops being highly productive in making sugars—the feeds used in Brewed Protein’s fermentation process. Besides mitigating the climate crisis by sequestering carbon dioxide, these feedstocks are sourced near manufacturing sites and exclusively from growers who implement sustainable agricultural practices. 

Sugarcane and Corn Are Highly Productive Sugar Crops 

Sugarcane and corn are both highly efficient photosynthesizers thanks to their C4 photosynthetic pathway. This means that these species effectively convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic compounds, such as sugars. And they do this better than most other plants, making them ideal crops for feedstock in Brewed Protein’s microbial fermentation process. 

Carbon Sequestration During Feedstock Crop Cultivation Has Positive Global Warming Impact 

As sugarcane or corn plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. In doing so, they act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis

Plant-Based Feedstocks Are Sourced From Sustainable Agricultural Practices 

Spiber sources its key raw materials in areas close to its manufacturing sites: corn in the US and sugar cane in Thailand. 

Also, the company selects growers that follow voluntary sustainability standards (VVS) and/or regenerative agricultural practices. These farming practices improve water quality and biodiversity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about various farming practices? Check it out in the following article: “Vertical Farming vs Traditional Farming: What’s the Difference?

There are two important notes regarding sourcing plant-based feedstock as key raw materials to start a manufacturing process. They include: 

  • growing plants (as in this case of sourcing for Brewed Protein fabrics, for example), which generally has lower environmental impacts than raising animals (as, for example, in the case of sourcing for wool fabrics) or processing petrochemicals (as, for example, in the case of sourcing for polyester fabrics). 
  • using edible biomass—which, in this case, are sugarcane and corn—as manufacturing feedstock competes directly with food resources while bearing all the trade-offs related to industrial agriculture, including increased land use, eutrophication, and soil depletion. Consequently, sourcing raw materials from crop residues instead of the crop’s edible biomass (the so-called first-generation biofuels) would, in theory, lower the environmental impacts and avoid food competition. 

In other words, sourcing for Brewed Protein fabrics is relatively low-impact, especially in comparison with animal-derived or plastic-based fabrics. Yet, avoiding first-generation biofuels and opting for agricultural and/or industrial waste can make the sourcing stage more sustainable. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Brewed Protein Fabrics Usually Sourced From

The key raw materials for Brewed Protein are sourced from growers near the company’s manufacturing sites: corn in the US and sugar cane in Thailand

According to Spiber’s sustainability report, the company commits to sourcing from places with high standards for labor, well-being, and sustainable agricultural practices. 

In Thailand, where Spiber uses sugarcane feedstock to make Brewed Protein polymers, they procure the biomass from suppliers certified by Bonsucro, a fast-growing VSS provider. Here are some indicators for practicing sustainable cultivation under the Bonsucro certification system: 

  • no cultivation on land with high conservation value,
  • limitations on the application of agrochemicals, 
  • efficient fertilizer application,
  • efficient water usage, and
  • soil carbon improvements. 

Spiber’s US manufacturing location, on the other hand, sources corn from nearby growers who implement regenerative agriculture practices, including cover crops and reduced tillage. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

Manufacturing Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally unsustainable. This is because of the high energy requirement of the large-scale microbial fermentation process. Treating wastewater also requires electricity. 

How Sustainably Are Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical manufacturing process of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics includes these steps: 

  1. Produce feedstock from plant-based biomass: This is when the nutrients (e.g., sugars) from the raw materials (sugarcane or corn) are extracted.
  2. Produce Qmonos/Brewed Protein polymers in a microbial fermentation process: Next, the extracted nutrients are fed to microbes in a fermentation vessel, which is a temperature-controlled and oxygen-filled environment. These microbes have been designed with synthesized DNA so that they can multiply and produce lots of spider-silk-like protein polymers. 
  3. Process protein polymers into yarns: The polymers are harvested and spun into yarns in a synthetic spinning process, much like in polyester or nylon manufacturing.

Note that these polymers can also be used for other products, for example, plant-based, fermentation-enabled, and cell-based meat

  1. Finish the fabrics: The yarns undergo further processes that turn them into textile materials, often involving dyeing, weaving, or knitting. 
Manufacturing Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

The main sustainability issue in the manufacturing stage of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is the high energy requirement, especially involving the polymer-producing fermentation process, the yarn-producing processing, and the wastewater treatment process. 

  • Large-scale fermentation processes often have a high power requirement due to cooling and aerating the fermenter. Other related energy needs are for downstream processing (distillation, drying, and so on). 
  • Yarn-producing processes are generally done using machines that need to be powered.
  • Treatment of wastewater also requires electricity. 

High energy usage in manufacturing can disastrously impact the environment because it leads to elevated carbon emissions when energy generation depends heavily on fossil fuels. 

Using Synthetic Dyes in Finishing Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics Affects Their Sustainability 

Generally, there are two groups of fabric dyes: natural and synthetic. 

When fabric manufacturers dye their fabrics with synthetic dyes, it can lead to a high water footprint and environmental pollution. 

The good news is that Spiber plans to implement dope-dyed fibers on a large commercial scale, made by mixing dye into the Brewed Protein polymer solution before spinning into colored threads. This means that Brewed Protein yarns will be available pre-colored, sidestepping the wasteful traditional fiber dyeing process

Dope dyeing is a more recent dyeing method with relatively lower environmental impacts than synthetic dyeing, largely thanks to negating dye loss into effluents and ending the need for after-treatments and additional rinsing

According to a cradle-to-gate comparative life-cycle assessment carried out by Spiber and EarthShift Global, Brewed Protein fiber has much lower environmental impacts compared to two animal-derived fibers: cashmere and merino wool. The study covers four impact categories: greenhouse emissions, eutrophication, land use, and water use. The specific comparisons are as follows:

  • Brewed Protein fiber production emits 37 kg CO₂ eq, equivalent to 21% and 75% of the GHG emissions from Mongolian cashmere and Australian merino wool production, respectively.
  • The eutrophication impact of Brewed Protein fiber production is 0.1 kg phosphate eq, equivalent to 17% and 35% of the eutrophication impact of the production of Mongolian cashmere and Australian merino wool, respectively.
  • Brewed Protein fiber production creates 97% and 86% less land-use-related harm than Mongolian cashmere and Australian merino wool production, respectively.
  • Brewed Protein fiber production uses 94% and 86% less water than Mongolian cashmere and Australian merino wool production, respectively.

Where Is Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Qmonos/Brewed Protein polymers are produced in Thailand and the US

The main sustainability issue with these manufacturing locations is their dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. Only 7.11% of the primary energy in Thailand comes from renewable sources. The renewable energy share in the US is higher (10.66%), yet it is relatively low, compared with, for example, many European countries. 

Renewable energy (including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) potentially reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

Transporting Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with Qmonos/Brewed Protein fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics typically travel from fields (where sugarcane or corn plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

For example, in the life-cycle of Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothes, transportation typically occurs: 

  • from fields where sugarcane or corn plants are grown to the Qmonos/Brewed Protein polymers, fibers, and fabrics manufacturing location(s),
  • from the Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers and/or physical shops, 
  • from sorting centers and/or physical shops to the consumer’s home, and
  • from the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling and/or disposal.
Traveling Distances of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for semi-synthetic, plant-based fabrics like Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that crop cultivation, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

Here are two example scenarios for transporting Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics: 

  • Farmers grow sugarcane in Thailand to be trucked to Spiber’s Thailand manufacturing location. Once the Qmonos/Brewed Protein fibers are produced, they are sent to Vietnam for garment making. Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothing items are then sold to US and European consumers. 
  • Corn is harvested from fields in the US and transported to Spiber’s manufacturing location in the country to feed in the fermentation process that makes Qmonos/Brewed Protein polymers. Polymers are transported to Mexico and turned into yarns and clothes. Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothes are then sold primarily to the US market.

You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • large container ships 
  • planes 
  • freight trains 
  • long-distance trucks 
  • short-distance delivering vans 

There are also various types of transportation vehicles used that have different carbon footprint impacts: 

As a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering Qmonos/Brewed Proteins clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

Using Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is designed to have the superior strength of spider silk, which means clothing items made with the fabric can last a long time before a replacement is needed. 

Spider silk is a very strong fiber—as strong as steel. This property is inherent in Brewed Protein fiber, making it a durable material. Using a strong and durable material like Brewed Protein fabric is sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, there is no need for more resources to make a new one). 

Because Qmonos/Brewed Protein is made by microbes using plant-based feedstock, clothes made with this material don’t shed microplastics into the environment while being used and washed, like in the case of items made with acrylic or nylon

The washing, drying, and ironing requirements for Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics vary depending on the manufacturing techniques and the presence of other fibers. However, modifying some laundering habits would generally reduce the environmental impacts of using Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothes and household items. Possible changes include:

  • wash Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics less often, 
  • switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers, 
  • do cold washes with appropriate detergents, and
  • use energy-efficient washing machines. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. This is because the unfinished Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are fully biodegradable. 

Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are made with protein polymers made by engineered microorganisms. According to Spiber, the company behind these innovative polymers, Brewed Protein fabrics disintegrate completely in soil. On top of that, unprocessed Brewed Proteins yarn can biodegrade within 30 days in seawater. In contrast, it takes hundreds of years for most synthetic-based textiles to start breaking down, whether on land or in water. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

Spiber—the company behind Qmonos/Brewed Protein—is shifting toward circular feedstocks. For example, cellulose contained in agricultural wastes such as sugarcane bagasse or corn stover and industrial discarded textiles can be broken down into nutrients that can be upcycled and fed into Brewed Protein’s fermentation process. 

How Can You Buy Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics More Sustainably

Qmonos/Brewed Protein polymers are innovative materials that don’t quite fit into the current sustainability certification systems. However, you can look into the brands that use these materials and see if they have the certifications signaling efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy. These include: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, Qmonos/Brewed Protein fibers are generally sustainable. These materials are relatively new, yet a few brands have started incorporating Qmonos/Brewed Protein yarns into their clothing lines

We compiled a list of environmentally-conscious brands using Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics to assist you with the efforts. This list is in alphabetical order. 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces the Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages the Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like hemp or hemp. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, hemp or hemp; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are generally sustainable materials. The fibers are made in a microbial fermentation process using plant-based feedstocks, and the output—Qmonos/Brewed Protein yarn—is a biodegradable material that can disintegrate in both soil and salt water. 

To make using Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics even more sustainable, follow these steps:

  1. Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled Qmonos/Brewed Protein products.
  2. While using Qmonos/Brewed Protein clothing items, maximize the number of wears between washes, and keep them as long as possible.
  3. At the end-of-life of your Qmonos/Brewed Protein products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of

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