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How material innovation can change the fashion industry

By Robyn Turk

Mar 1, 2021

The fashion industry is aware of the problems caused by some of the most commonly used fabrics and fibers - particularly those derived from animals. Groups such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States have campaigned against animal-based materials for decades, promoting several brands and retailers to boycott harmful fabrics such as fur and exotic skins. However the ecological issues relating to animal-based materials are not restricted to those used in luxury fashion.

According to data from the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, animal materials make up four of the five worst materials for the environment as the processes of turning animal byproducts into fabrics require a significant amount of energy and harmful chemicals. Not to mention the fact that cruelty is inherent in any animal-based agriculture.

The solution lies within technological innovation

“Innovation is exciting because it gives us an enormous amount of opportunity,” Nicole Rawling, executive director of the Material Innovation Initiative, told FashionUnited. “There’s really no limit on how much positive impact we can have on the issues facing brands at the moment.”

The Material Innovation Initiative works to connect brands with alternative materials that may eliminate the need for animal-based fabrics.

“Traditional materials are not used because they’re the best for performance or aesthetics,” Rawling explained. “We’ve been using leather, wool and silk for thousands of years, and they started as by-products of food and we used them because they were available and cheap, and we could turn them into clothing. With innovation, we can exceed those biological constraints of the animal. We can increase the performance of our materials.”

Material innovation is an essential area of focus for any brand interested in making changes to better the environment. Up to 80 percent of a brand’s environmental footprint comes from the raw materials used in its production, according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index.

“If I could give some advice to brands, it is that precision fermentation is going to be the process to watch in the long term,” Rawling said.

Precision fermentation is a process of creating alternative materials, such as a manufactured leather or silk, by inserting an animal-based protein into a bacteria or yeast. The protein then multiplies very quickly at low cost. This process allows brands to utilize real replicas of a material rather than finding a different alternative, yet it is cruelty-free to animals and better on the environment in terms of energy and chemical usage.

Rawling added that, “Precision fermentation allows us to use the same building blocks as traditional silk or as a leather, but allows a huge potential to change the material beyond the biological constraints of the animal. You could potentially make the material even stronger.”

For example, precision fermentation would allow a manufacturer to create a sheet of leather that fits the specific needs of a particular order, thus reducing waste and cost to a brand.

Consumers want material innovation, and brands must deliver

The Material Innovation Initiative supports businesses looking to make changes in the materials they use. Using funding from philanthropy and business partners, the Initiative accelerates the development of high performance, animal-free materials that meet sustainable goals. Rawling explained that, “it is really hard to convince consumers to change,” despite the fact that “ more that consumers - especially the younger generations, Gen Z and Millennials - want to give their money to brands who have similar values to themselves.”

The Initiative conducted studies in the U.S. and China to gauge consumer attitudes towards the use of technology in their clothing, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that 76 percent of American consumers and 80 percent of Chinese consumers would purchase leather grown from cells in a factory. In fact, 55 percent of consumers in the U.S. and 66 percent of consumers in China would prefer a leather alternative to natural leather.

Still, the majority consumers do not make the sustainable decision when making a choice to purchase. Pricing and ease of use remain top priorities for most. So Rawley’s solution is to put the responsibility on the brands, in a way that doesn’t sacrifice performance, aesthetics or profit. “We’re using science and technology to create new innovation that will solve the needs of both brands and consumers. That’s what innovation does,” Rawley said.

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