Next-generation materials, alternatives to animal-based materials and synthetics, which are often simply dubbed “next-gen,” are on the rise in the fashion industry. And experts say demand is only increasing.
According to nonprofit Material Innovation Initiative’s annual state of the industry report released in March, a steady $2.3 billion has been invested in next-gen materials since 2015. Plus, nearly $1 billion of that came just last year.
Nicole Rawling, Material Innovation Initiative’s chief executive officer, who joined Fairchild Media’s recent Sustainability Forum, said the largest focus has been on alternatives to animal-based leather, but added that scientists, entrepreneurs and investors need to also start thinking about material components like binding, coating agents and end of life strategies.
Dr. Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Pangaia, footwear designer Nicholas Kirkwood and Billy McCall, CEO and founder of Kintra Fibers Inc., were all on hand to discuss the importance of investigating new materials.
Featuring a range of sustainable bio-based resources such as its Flwrdwn, down-fill made using wildflowers, biopolymer and aerogel, Parkes said of Pangaia, “We are really focused on thinking about a return to natural systems, a bio economy where there’s natural processes that are balanced and circular.”
Parkes also noted mycelium, algae and seaweed as leading material targets. “[With algae,] you can do everything from the cellulose base of getting alternatives to cotton, but also having things like lipids, which can resemble more like plastics and synthetics.”
Pangaia is working on a collaboration with material science company Kintra Fibers that is recreating bio-based and biodegradable synthetic from scratch by redesigning the molecular structure to help eliminate microplastic pollution.
For McCall, collaboration is key as he works with brands to design for the value chain.
“We have to start designing for end of life before we even start making the material,” he said. “So is it compostable? Does it fit into chemical recycling schemes, which seem to be the future? A lot of brands and entities are collaborating on taking garment waste and chemically recycling to get virgin monomers again, and going straight back to the beginning. So it’s really exciting to work with brands.”
On the luxury front, a shift in production is underway with the likes of Gucci and Hermès using next-gen materials. However, many are just scratching the surface, and Kirkwood, who started on his journey to create a more sustainable shoe four years ago, said the industry needs a “radical rethink of designing shoes for an afterlife.”
“[Designers] are perpetuated to [create and produce], we just need more, new and everything. And ultimately, with the speed of that development, you can’t refine the product enough to be to be able to solve many of these issues,” he said.
So how do you get the fashion industry to make such drastic changes? Rawling said it starts with the consumer.
“In our analysis, we actually see that the consumers are demanding it. In China, which is expected to be about 44 percent of the global fashion revenue in the next few years, 90 percent would prefer a next-gen leather over an animal-based leather,” she said.
The panelists agreed that with innovation comes the need for education, too. Kirkwood said while he believes animal leather will eventually be replaced, his concern is that it can’t be replaced by plastic.
“I can’t just talk about an apple leather and have it covered in plastic. It’s really misleading. And sometimes that plastic is equal amounts as it is biomass,” he said. “There needs to be better wording and actual labeling on product, almost like the food industry.”