Growing the future of textiles
The pandemic challenged consumers to align their purchasing power with their values. As the billionaires got richer and small businesses suffered, Instagram carousels (part friendly illustrations, part capitalist guilt) began circulating, encouraging consumers to redirect their funds back to purposeful business. The trend proved not dissimilar to the last financial crisis where 63% of certified B Corp businesses were more likely to survive than similar-sized brands (source: Fast Company). So, how did those optimistic Instagram carousels fare? Billionaires still got richer. But eventually, agile, conscientious businesses also started to see growth.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, global CO2 emissions dropped by 5.4% in 2020 (source: Nasa) and fake news about dolphins in Venice awakened the tree-hugger in all of us. While people started to demand more from brands, a particularly sharp side-eye was turned to fashion. With greenwashing causing vocal dissatisfaction at best and boycotting at worst, the realities of waste and carbon production in the fashion industry triggered wide-spread textile innovation.
Producing around 40 million tonnes of waste (source: BOF), the textile industry is one of the four major raw material consumers, following big players like food, housing and transport. Global governmental bodies are responding with initiatives like the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. With the industry facing regulated repercussions for unsustainable practices, big brands like Zara, Lululemon and Nike are bringing material innovation in-house. For Nike, material innovations have been central to the design process and most recently, have rethought not only what to make material from, but how to manufacture it. Nike’s new Forward material is created using a needle-punching technique that transforms recycled plastics into fibres and reduces the carbon footprint during the manufacturing process by 75% (source: Forbes). Fashion conglomerate LVMH, took an even more comprehensive approach by creating a New Materials Research Centre, expected to open in 2025. The centre will serve as a hub for scientists and start-ups to dream up new materials and biotechnologies for LVMH.
Of course, the creation of innovative materials isn’t new, the performance category has been exploring innovation in textiles for decades. Looking to the needs of the wearer to create forward-thinking applications, brands like Arc’tyrex leaned on revolutionary product GORE- TEX™ to reduce the weight and amplify the potential of performance gear.
Not only did a material like GORE-TEX™ illustrate listening to the needs of the body, but it also demonstrated how to respond to the elements — think an environmental chamber where every item is tested for how it responds to the coldest colds, windiest winds and hottest heats.
With the next-gen materials industry expected to reach $2.2 billion by 2026 (source: Material Innovation Initiative), brands across all categories of fashion are looking to get a piece of the ROI pie. Fashion brands are exploring everything from carbon capture to bio-positive materials. As consumers are looking to the future, they’re expecting brands to be thinking long-term, beyond recycled materials to creating products that are regenerative and even backyard compostable.
With 63% of North Americans claiming to see the impacts of climate change in their own communities (source: Pew Research Centre), the next-gen textile industry had to target one of the oldest and most coveted animal materials: leather. Not only is there an ethical consideration to leather production, but it also has devasting impacts to the ecosystem. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index holds bovine leather to have the largest cradle-to-gate environmental impact due to its 65 to 150 kg CO2 per square meter footprint, and in an industry producing 2 billion square meters per year — that’s one big footprint.
In looking to make animal-free versions of leather materials more sustainable, the richest ground for exploration has been looking underground. Mycelium has proven to be a viable regenerative material that is durable, anti-microbial and presents fast grow times. Not only is mycelium sustainable, but it is also creating some beautiful products. In 2021,Hermès collaborated with MycoWorks, a biotechnology company creating products from Fine Mycelium. In the collaboration, MycoWorks created a new material called Sylvania to re-skin Hermès’ iconic Victoria bag.
Bolt Threads, a material solutions company created their own version of mushroom leather called Mylo. The material has been adopted by lululemon to produce a woven yoga mat and Ganni announced their plan to use Mylo as their primary leather replacement. During the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, Ganni released the first products, wallets and bags, that utilise the Mylo material.
As the next-gen textile market grows, one of the key concerns is scalability. It’s one thing to create bespoke, luxury products and entirely another to produce for the mass market and disrupt fast fashion incumbents. But the market desire for innovative, plant-based materials is promising. A 2021 consumer research study released by the Market Innovation Initiative found that 94% of US respondents were at least somewhat likely to purchase next-gen materials. Nike’s Happy Pineapple sneaker collection illustrates that plant-based products will sell and even better, sell out. Made from Piñatex, a leather alternative made from the waste of pineapple leaves, Nike’s Happy Pineapple collection is an example of bringing innovation to scale.
Other brands are looking at how to manipulate the natural materials we’re already familiar with like cotton, to close the broken loop of large-scale categories like streetwear. Unless Collective is a plant-based streetwear brand where every element of a product is backyard compostable. Looking to natural materials like nuts, cellulose and water-soluble inks — every tag, thread and button can break down and contains zero plastic.
The innovation in the next-gen textile industry, along with consumer appetites for sustainable products have led to 60% of fashion executives investing or planning to invest in closed-loop recycling next year (source: BOF). As the industry braces for the future, products that are scalable and compatible with current manufacturing systems are providing a seamless bridge for mass-market fashion to approach closed-loop strategies.
However, the sustainable solutions for existing materials and the recreation of animal materials represent the early iterations of the next-gen textile market. As innovations in scalability and technology drive regenerative textiles into the future, changing trends and consumer behaviours will lead to a desire for newness. With future materials no longer being praised as novel for matching the quality of pre-existing textiles, how will designers, scientists and engineers transition from recreation to redefining the future of materials?