Shoe company Rayfish Footwear allows customers to "grow" their own sneakers using real genetically engineered stingrays.
In a process known as bio-customisation buyers are able to make use of the company's research into identifying the genes responsible for colour and pattern and select their preferred pattern and colour. The corresponding supergene cluster is then implanted into a foetal ray. The stingray them matures into a living, transgenic creature which expresses the selected design on its skin.
According to Rayfish's FAQ, that stingray is raised in aquaculture tanks in Thailand and provided with "a nutrient-rich diet and carefully controlled lighting system". In this environment the creatures generally reach "shoe-size" in six to eight months.
The stingray is then killed (although the website doesn't explicitly mention the 'k' word) and its hide is dried and stretched, forming a bumpy leather-type fabric known as shagreen. The company operates a "one fish, one shoe" policy, so each pair of sneakers will originate from a pair of specially-bred stingrays and sport individual variations on the requested pattern.
The website lists current production costs for a pair of the Rayfish sneakers at $14,800-$16,200 - "This price includes custom genetic manipulation, growing your shoes to maturity, and shipping them to any address on the planet" - although once regular production begins later in 2012 that cost looks likely to fall to around $1,800.
It's a fascinating idea, scientifically speaking, but one which also raises a lot of issues in terms of ethics and consumer culture - we've seen the company referred to as "ethically diabolical" and "the most deplorable company in the world" online.
In the interests of full disclosure, we had a discussion in the office and none of us were comfortable with the idea. We tried to pinpoint exactly why we felt so uneasy and the biggest problems for us are the bio-customisation and the made-to-order aspect. Those were the points where it seemed the stingray was most in danger of being thought of as simply a product and not a living thing.
We've contacted Rayfish to ask for their response to the concerns so we'll update the story when we hear back.
We received the following email from a Rayfish spokesperson explaining their reaction to the criticism:
"The online comments have left us a bit surprised here at Rayfish Footwear. It seems many consumers are unfamiliar with the use of stingray leather in fashion. We do wonder if our critics have ever eaten fish or worn cow leather.
"Regarding the genetic customization of animals, I would hope that our critics are aware that dogs, cats, and essentially all other domestic animals have been bred solely for our pleasure. Our humanely raised rays lead objectively better lives than pigs or cows raised in "factory farms." I emphasize again that Rayfish Footwear opposes the harvesting of rays from wild and is dedicated to ocean preservation.
"On the positive side, it has also been very rewarding to learn that many people have embraced our concept and participated in the design contest. Overall, public response has given us valuable information on the perception of our bio-customization technique. This is one of the reasons why we did the soft-launch of our business before going into full production."
And with that, would you wear a pair?
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