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"We need these innovators and they need us": Highlights from the 2023 Material Innovation Conference

By Gabriella Onessimo


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Credits: Material Innovation Initiative

The Material Innovation Conference is an annual summit held virtually that invites textile industry figureheads from big business to startups to explore and assess the past, present, and future growth of sustainably-driven innovations.

Organised in part by Material Innovation Initiative co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Nicole Rawling, numerous discussions delved into the introduction and discernable lifespan of next-generation materials to market—addressing investment cost, audience reception, and the required actions for successful implementation.

Defining next-generation materials

A next-generation material is defined by Rawling to be one that is “environmentally preferable and cruelty-free,” avoiding the harm of animals and working to improve environmental impact from a 360 view.

Rawling’s overview of the industry encompassed steps that businesses should be taking now to both adhere to environmentally-focused standards and meet the desires of their consumers. Drawing from the Material Innovation Initiative May 2023 US Consumer Research report, “consumers are giving every indication they want next-gen materials,” said Rawling, explaining that 90 percent of surveyors were open to purchasing such materials, while 41 percent were extremely likely to purchase.

As consumers shift values in what they want from fashion, 78 percent were willing to pay the same price or more as conventional materials, noting that there is a “demand for materials but not enough supply”. Though it’s worth noting that in the case of surveys like this, saying and doing are two different things.

How companies are working with next-generation materials

“Moving the Needle: How to Get Next-Gen Materials to Market”, led by Business of Fashion Chief Sustainability Correspondent Sarah Kent, saw a panel of textile innovators and sustainability heads at brands like Ganni and New Balance shed light on what goes into incorporating more sustainable materials from a micro and macro standpoint.

“However transformative a technology may be, getting that tech from labs to market is complicated, time consuming and costly; it requires companies to work in ways they are not used to,” said Kent. As companies have a long-established backlog of trusted textile suppliers, bringing startups to the forefront can be a costly process that requires a separate set of steps—but one that helps turn the wheel of change.

Christine Hall, Senior Designer at New Balance, discussed the company’s approach to incorporating smaller innovators into their well-oiled machine, while also acknowledging the challenges of doing so. A six-year collaborator of co-panelist Alan Lugo of bio-material manufacturer Natural Fiber Welding, Hall illustrated an example of their mutually dependent relationship, where both parties “help develop those materials together as a partner while making change at scale”.

Natural Fiber Welding focuses on creating plastic-free performance materials, including Mirium®, a plant-based leather, and Tunera™, a pioneering bioneutral foam.

Working through challenges from both angles

Though the collaboration has been successful for specific collections, bringing in next-generation materials in replacement of existing ones is a particular issue. Challenged with matching cost and performance, “bringing on a new partner like this is a big deal for us,” said Hall. “If the cost was comparable, it’d be a no-brainer to a certain extent…The value of that is in part evaluated on a historical bias that doesn’t help the material get sold in. There needs to be just something special beyond what we’ve built our products on”.

Benefits of being a smaller business

Lauren Bartley, Sustainability Director at Ganni, shares some of Hall’s difficulties but with the help of a smaller brand edge. “We’re in a fortunate position where we can work with the innovators and pilot something on a very small scale,” said Bartley.

Working with as few as 30-60 pieces at a time, Ganni’s cost concerns are more easily circumvented. According to Bartley, bringing on a new textile entails a test drop followed up by an analysis of community response, as the “immediate feedback helps reinforce the conversation internally that this is a worthwhile investment that will pay off over time”, overall allowing the brand to follow a tailored, quality-over-quantity approach.

All in all, Bartley explains that the relationship between textile innovators and fashion brands is a necessary symbiosis. “It is very collaborative because we both need each other. We need these innovators and they need us,” said Bartley.

Navigating cost

Onur Eren, co-founder of biomaterials company Gozen Bioworks, shared his perspective on the startup side. His company focuses on high performing bio-leather using bacterial-based technology, and as any startup, it largely relies on investment for growth.

A key move to get investing brands on board is their acceptance of the inevitability of cost, which can be mitigated in a variety of ways throughout collaboration as Eren contends with finding shared cost solutions from prototyping to finish.

“We believe that both sides should simply take action toward the same point,” said Eren. For example, if startups are providing material for prototypes, it could be at a discounted rate for brands’ usage. “This is a way to go together, therefore the cost shouldn’t be a blocker for both parties to navigate”.

How innovators are working through waste

At the “Next-Generation Materials End of Life: Closing the Loop” panel, speakers echoed the experience of the above panellists while also offering a pragmatic view of next steps.

With Techstyler founder and Forbes Sustainability Contributor Brooke Roberts-Islam at the core of the discussion, Roberts-Islam explained that the facilitation of next-generation materials asks for the creation of “new materials from the ingredients we have out there”.

Part of a force that propels industry transformation, Teresa Krug of Circ is one of many innovators that stumble upon challenges from scale and investment fronts. Circ reuses existing molecules to avoid the use of virgin sources, with a signature technology that recycles polycotton into reusable fibres.

In a recent collaboration with Zara, Circ’s process created new recycled polyester and lyocell fabrics from breaking down the retailer’s mixed textile waste. From reusing water to implementing environmentally-friendly chemistry within the system, Circ upholds the overall goal of designing for a closed loop system. “There is so much poly cotton waste out there,” said Krug. “As you’re trying to design new materials, you have to make sure you then recapture and recycle, so that you haven’t made a problem worse”.

Approaching the creation of circular materials

For sustainable material manufacturers, commercialising these solutions to get companies on board can be done by leveraging education and follow-through in order to gain the necessary support to operate. And it takes time.

At Circ, a holistic view of how companies can utilise solutions is the viable first step in building a partnership. “We would love to see everything as cost-effectively renewable and recyclable as fast as we can,” said Krug. “But you have to start with who we’re working with that has the same values and commitment to using sustainable materials,” he added, highlighting the inherently collaborative nature of creating solutions that fulfil circular needs.

“You have to have a really rich language to understand all the segregation of the supply chain,” said Dr. Yuly Fuentes-Medel, an advisor at Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that focuses on circular innovations. “In order to rethink and reimagine these materials, it’s understanding the value of what we’re creating.”

For Fuentes-Medel, deepening the understanding of how to build a circular economy comes with present action. “This idea that you will build materials that will quickly drop into the supply chain—it’s an intermediate step of what will happen in the future…We have to work with the machinery we have today.”

Material Innovation Initiative
Next gen materials