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Sustainable fashion materials in 2050: a business challenge based on trust

By Anna Roos van Wijngaarden


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The Material Symposium of Fashion for Good Credits: Fashion for Good

Fashion for Good opened its doors last week to a selection of innovators to present their materials to over 150 visitors. Collectively, they are set to drastically make the textile and fashion industry more sustainable - with equivalent qualities, at a competitive price, and at scale. It was an occasion that had to happen at some point from the innovation platform of 183 startups and scale-ups.

Expectations were high in the main hall of the monumental building of Fashion for Good's museum on Amsterdam's Rokin street. On the schedule was a 'symposium', an official meeting for researchers to present their projects and exchange knowledge. The organisation also brought a commercial spin to the event by inviting the press, brand partners such as PVH and stakeholders like ZDHC and OCA. All attending were to address the footprint of textile products, which is largely determined by material choices, and as such, the symposium acted as a stage to present sustainable alternatives.

This event followed closed symposias by Fashion for Good on sorting (in Amsterdam in 2022) and processing (during ITMA in 2023), with this materials edition being evidently for the press. Director Katrin Ley started on a fair note: "Many innovators in the room recently appeared in the media due to major highs and lows." Those involved raised questions about the realistic future scenarios of sustainable fashion, and as such the symposium aimed to provide insight into this through five panels and an exhibition.

Katrin Ley, director of Fashion for Good Credits: Fashion for Good

High demand for sustainable materials

The symposium was kicked off by innovation director of Fashion for Good Georgia Park with a 'Raw Material Innovation Roadmap': an overview of what is needed to scale up sustainable materials for textiles and fashion. "Materials can make or break a brand and they are crucial in the journey to net zero.The good news is that brands also see this and are making commitments. The demand is there," Park stated. Sustainable innovation must come from existing materials [16 percent of the 2050 CO2 reduction target], like certified cotton, and new 'Next Gen Materials' [13 percent], such as fibre-to-fibre recycling.

This does not mean that these materials will soon be produced, processed and purchased. Currently, the 'Next Gen' materials category accounts for less than 1 percent of global fibre production. From its own analyses, Fashion for Good concluded that this could grow to 13 percent, with a capacity of 18.6 million tonnes. This can be achieved by scaling up alternative natural fibres and low-impact manmade cellulosics (MMCFs), animal fibres and (plastic-free) leather alternatives, advanced mechanical and chemical recycling, and biosynthetics.

Park added: "The road to scaling up impactful materials is not easy in the current macroeconomic climate, where funding is limited. 'Business as usual' does not work for new materials innovations." She described the path to 2030 as a shared responsibility for innovators, industry and the system [policymakers].

Renewable carbon

Synthetic fibres form the backbone of the textile and fashion industry with an estimated 65 percent share. The bulk comes from petroleum and only a small proportion is recycled PET (11 percent), recycled polyamide (PA) (0.1 percent) or biosynthetic (0.1 percent). As sustainable goals approach, the demand for carbon for textiles will only increase. This is why the transition from fossil-based to bio-based, CO2-based and recycled synthetic fibres is so important. It is with that conclusion that Michael Carus, CEO of the Nova Institute and founder of the 65-member Renewable Carbon project, opened his talk. In Nova's 2050 scenario, fossil-based synthetic fibres are completely off the table.

The outlook for bio-based polymers is promising, with an average annual growth rate of 17 percent between 2018-2028 (driven mainly by innovation from Asia), although fashion is not the driving industry. These are highly diverse polymers that, as Adidas' innovation director James Tarrier argued, will not all make it. "There will be winners and losers," he said. Biodegradable textile fibres such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) are being closely watched, due to growing concerns about microplastics. Biosynthetics held a special place in the symposium. They are made with biomass or processes carried out by micro-organisms and can replace non-renewable polymers such as nylon, polyester and polyurethane (PU).

Biopolymers alone are not enough for the carbon transition. Carus was "100 percent sure" that CO2-based textiles will be a big part of the solution, and recycled fibres should be the biggest category. The world's largest chemical producer BASF is also heading towards this. Whether there will be enough feedstock left for the fashion industry remains to be seen, said spokesperson Tobias Bastian Schwab, who was a virtual member of the panel. "Collection systems are vastly underdeveloped and other industries, such as packaging and mobility, come first," he noted.

Nor should we expect too much from the ideal closed loop recycling, argued Carus of the Nova Institute. Biopolymers are currently still highly fragmented (the presentation included 17 types) and effective recycling requires large amounts of feedstock. A more realistic scenario is that waste streams will come from other industries.

A panel talk at Fashion for Good. Credits: Fashion for Good

Challenges in infrastructure, assessing the performance of the new fibres, chain integration, commercialisation and lack of standards are discussed. Finally, the carbon transition for textile fibres faces an educational problem. One polymer is not the other, even if that suggestion was made. Schwab took issue with petrochemicals in that context: "Distributors like BASF determine the real footprint. The reality is that fashion industry buys up to 95 per cent of its fossil-based fibres from China, where they have a different energy mix and chemistry, so the footprint is up to triple." By getting that base right, the industry can become considerably more sustainable.

Finally, Carus pointed out the importance of verifiable, honest carbon claims. The PEF methodology, the European Union's standard for determining a product's carbon footprint, does not recognise the uptake of CO2 by plants, for example. On the other hand, an update in life cycle analysis (LCA) databases leads to bio-based variants coming out better than fossil classics PE, PP and PET. It shows that rapid impact is possible if knobs are turned at the system level, just as an UPV or French tax on fast fashion promise to do.

The renewable carbon chapter of the event concluded with the slogan of sustainable fashion panels: education is key. Projects between brands and suppliers are necessary to appreciate the performance of new fibres. Adidas' Tarrier said he was busy working with the innovation team to understand the new fibres. "Otherwise, the challenges we know from polyester will repeat themselves. There is too much pressure on the margins to make mistakes," he noted.


To illustrate the potential of untapped natural materials, participants of the 'Untapped Agricultural Waste' project were highlighted: manufacturer Shahi Exports and materials innovator Shikha Shah. Together, they produced linen-like fabrics with remnants of the banana, orange and (for oil cultivated) hemp plant, in mono varieties and mixed with lyocell or cotton, for instance. The garments made with these met performance requirements and impact of the production process, measured in greenhouse gases (GHGs), blue water consumption and eutrophication potential, was positive.

Agricultural residues like rice husk and wheat straw are plentiful worldwide. The infrastructure to make textile fibres from them is still waiting, yet Shahi said that it had found a model that could work on a large scale. Spokesperson Gauri Sharma added: "After harvesting, we let farmers from around the world collect their residues. We process that biomass [through an acclimatisation process] into a cotton-like structure. In four years, we have gone from pilot to an industrial facility, which has been operational for 16 months." Early collaboration with brands is crucial to scale up this kind of solution. "Together, we can make a projection of the fibre in the future material mix. You'd be surprised how quickly a chain reacts to that. As soon as there is a moonshot or commitment, the right expertise presents itself."

As 'agriwaste' does not fit into existing recycling standards, the partners developed a Residue Management Standard in collaboration with the Control Union. Sharma continued: "Initially it was for ourselves, but we want to make it available to the industry as well."

Evocative at Fashion for Good's Material Symposium Credits: Fashion for Good

Leather alternatives

Many of the materials in the spotlight today are unknown to consumers. This is not the case for the leather alternatives. Desserto, Mylo, Pinatex, Vegea, Reishi, Treekind and Mirum sound like brands and that is how they position themselves in brand collaborations. On the panel was Ecovative co-founder Gavin McIntyre, who proudly spoke about the progress of the company's mycelium products. "In one year, our team managed to triple the strength. All our processes, from growing mycelium [in a vertical farm] to finishing take place within a 200-kilometre radius," McIntyre noted.

FashionUnited also spoke to Mira Nameth, founder of Biophilica. The company developed leather-like material TreeKind, made from park and garden waste, and an accompanying bio-based adhesive (glue between TreeKind and the substrate). In a wear test, TreeKind came out better than animal leather, and successful collaborations with watch brand ID, BEEN London, Bestseller, several grants and investments have allowed the company to rapidly scale up from lab to demo line production. Nameth commented: "We want to show that these materials perform the same or even better. Like Ecovative, we use what is already available by putting our [drop-in] formula into PU and PVC lines. We have run trials in Europe and are expanding to Asia this year. Our demo line mimics industrial lines, so if we can solve our challenges we are close to a scalable line."

Fashion for Good partner PVH, which has invested in both leather alternatives, also took part in the conversation. Margherita Guaschino, product innovation manager, admitted: "Manufacturers are somewhat reluctant to work with these new materials." This is precisely why collaboration with brands is important, Nameth argued, "to capture requirements and lessons learned. You can test all day, but that is not the same as making your products in a factory. The route to market is crucial."

Guaschino also stressed the need to align standards and certifications that can support claims, such as that a material is biodegradable. "Otherwise, the materials cannot be considered commercial solutions," she added.

Advanced recycling

Recycling is shaping the future materials matrix. Collaborations between established brands such as Gap and Inditex (Ambercyle) and H&M (Syre) and innovators themselves (PurFi and Arvind) suggest that there is momentum - both from startups and established companies, in chemical and mechanical engineering. "The capacity to recycle is emerging," argued innovation director Priyanka Khanna, "we need the industry now." She referred to the 'race for feedstock': the competition for high-quality, recyclable material and the delivery of "harmonised" waste streams to recyclers. In the initial phase, the focus will still be on pre-consumer waste, but after 2030, post-consumer recycling will have to increase with seven-mile boots to meet demand and tackle the industry's carbon and waste problem.

The symposium coincided with the end of Fashion for Good's New Cotton Project, which regenerated textile waste into "new cotton" with Infinited Fiber Company's technology. CCO Kirsi Roine reflected: "Companies need to realise that we [recyclers] are not creating a monster - that, on the contrary, there is a lot of flexibility in recycling. That's why we talk not only to sustainability departments, but also to innovation, procurement and sales." Roine advised brands to engage with recyclers early, so they can integrate well as recycling systems come to scale. The launch of 'hyperscale' recycler Syre shows the potential of such a first mover strategy: through that seven-year partnership, H&M Group can change the direction of textile-to-textile recycling to its liking.

CTO of CuRe Technology Marco Brons saw that many brands are not prepared for the recycling rat race: "The linear system is disappearing. As a brand, if you have a [for a recycler] disturbing material in your chain, you will soon just get it back." CuRe is therefore working with companies like Adidas to research the (chemical) composition of materials and determine exactly how products can be recycled.

Spinnova at Fashion for Good's Material Symposium Credits: Fashion for Good

Future-proof finance

These are challenging times for sustainable innovators looking to raise capital. The bankruptcy of Renewcell and the production halt of leather alternative Mylo are signs of the financial risks, even after proving the formula.

The elephant in the room was not mentioned during the symposium, until Canopy consultant Valerie Langer stepped up: who is investing in infrastructure? Venture capital investors bet on high risk, but expect short-term hefty results. Equity investors have a longer view, but don't like risk. Infrastructure innovations are right in the uncomfortable middle. The lack of patient, risk-taking investors was also the linchpin in Renewcell's bankruptcy. Langer saw the solution in joint ventures like Syre, as she told FashionUnited afterward: "Go to an established party with deep pockets that can say, 'I'm not far enough into this technology. Come alongside me and build it for me'."

Regeneration.VC partner Martijn Cardozo stressed the importance of scalability for investors - another lesson from the Renewcell case. He spoke highly of the investment in Nature Coatings, producer of sustainable "carbon black". "There is a huge market: everything around you that is black and currently polluting," he stated. Most potential, Cardozo said, is in drop-in innovations. "Integrate your start-up into the value chain and make sure it is a painkiller for brands, not a vitamin. Leverage existing distribution channels and actively reduce risk as you grow and need more capital." Making the fashion industry more sustainable is business-as-usual, but the big steps are taken on trust.

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.

Fashion For Good
Sustainable Fashion