The Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize committee selected eight finalists for its polybag innovation competition.
With plastic pollution a perpetual problem, the competition — a joint effort spearheaded by Tom Ford, oceans cleanup nonprofit Lonely Whale, and with collaborators like Nike, aims to unite and scale fully biodegradable, non-plastic solutions for polybags by 2025.
Finalists’ creations span thin-film alternatives made from everything from pea protein to seaweed and organic waste. The competition was first unveiled in November 2020 and will see its final culmination, with winners chosen, in spring 2023.
“What we accomplish together through this competition will catalyze global change across continents, countries and industries, which is urgently needed to address plastic pollution,” designer Tom Ford said. “If the ocean is polluted and in danger, then so is the planet and so are we. The impact these brilliant minds and their creations will have on our planet is monumental, bringing us their innovative solutions to making the environment a safer place for generations to come.”
Start-ups include Genecis, a Canadian biotech company that reprograms bacteria from organic waste; Kelpi, a U.K.-based biotech company powered by seaweed; Lwanda Biotech, a Kenya-based social enterprise tackling community-level plastic pollution and agricultural waste; Marea, an Icelandic start-up leveraging local algae streams; Notpla, a London-based start-up that renders seaweed into a natural-membrane packaging; Sway, an American firm creating a seaweed-based, carbon-negative material; Xampla, a University of Cambridge spinout inspired by the strength of spider silk, turning plant proteins, like peas, into high-performance plastic-alternative materials, and Zerocircle, India-based company making wildlife and ocean-safe packaging materials from locally cultivated seaweed.
Take Lwanda Biotech as an example. The start-up — which is in a prototype phase — uses readily available agricultural crop waste feedstock and also amplifies gender equity.
“The first goal we hope to accomplish upon advancing in this competition is to recruit more women all along the product’s value chain as a first step toward our goals of increasing our production outputs while creating decent, well-paying jobs for women and the trickle-down effect that single act has on lifting women and their livelihoods out of poverty,” said Faith Obange, the company’s chief executive officer.
Neha Jain, founder and director of Zerocircle, and another finalist explained the necessity of approval from fashion to move these innovative solutions forward.
“Apart from being a compostable material, seaweed is exceptionally versatile. Fashion and material science have always had a strong, symbiotic relationship, and because of this, we feel the fashion industry will be able to truly challenge us with its requirements,” she said. “Validation from the global fashion community will be a powerful reinforcement at a very formative stage. It will be as much our testing ground, as it will be the catalyst of the many great possibilities in Zerocircle’s evolution.”
Judges for the competition include Don Cheadle, Stella McCartney, Susan Rockefeller, Livia Firth, Trudie Styler, Melati Wijsen, Danni Washington, Saskia van Gendt, Audrey Choi, Steven Kolb, Ellen Jackowski and Liz Rodgers.
Expressing excitement in the project, Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, believes “actual sea change will come from scaling innovative solutions to plastic alternatives such as the ingenious ideas supported by the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize.”
Dr. Dune Ives, CEO of Lonely Whale, told WWD the judges have been very “hands-on” throughout the finalist selection process.
Speaking on the over-reliance on plastic in fashion — including 180 billion polybags used annually — according to estimates cited by nonprofit Fashion for Good, the global Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize is focused solely on, according to Ives, “truly biologically degradable plastic alternatives,” and those suitable for scale.
There’s no shortage of innovation.
Three years ago, Fashion for Good launched its own circular polybag pilot that corralled learnings from Adidas, PVH and Kering. The competition explored solutions for recycling and recyclability of polybags but got delayed once the pandemic hit.
In August 2021, retailers including Walmart and CVS forked over $15 million in a directive for reusable bags called “Beyond the Bag” that later saw testing in select stores.
While commercial viability is the aim, scientific rigor is the challenge ahead.
Criteria for the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize was based on potential scalability, working prototypes and environmental and social criteria informed by technical advisers: meaning solutions are biologically degradable at end-of-life, have sustainable production methods, meet industry performance standards and are cost competitive to existing plastic-based options. The New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia and The Seattle Aquarium are among the performance testing partners.
All of the finalists will now enter a yearlong material testing phase sponsored by Nike to get their innovations up to speed and market-ready by 2025. Brands such as J. Crew, Princess Polly, Tom Ford Beauty, Veronica Beard, Vuori, Rhone and more commit to testing the finalists’ solutions in their supply chains.