This blog post is based on my Master’s thesis research conducted at Aalto University, Finland. During the study, I interviewed 17 experts in innovation, materials and sustainability across 16 brands on their current and future material strategies from an environmental sustainability perspective.
‘Sustainable materials and products’ are the new black in fashion. Commitment is high with fashion brands from large to small and new to iconic, all are focusing on improving their sustainability like never before.
When it comes to environmental sustainability in the fashion textile space, raw materials have been one of, if not the, most significant focus areas. Generally speaking, the industry has used the same raw materials for generations: t. Their environmental burdens that these materials bear are major contributors to global climate change, natural resource depletion, and biodiversity loss – to name a few among a long list of concerning effects. Therefore, there’s a dire need for the next generation of textile materials, and that calls for innovation.
“Going for all of these challenges, we need actually innovation.” - An interviewee
In their interviews, the fashion brand representatives echoed sustainable innovation as one of their top focus areas for the coming years. It’s evident that innovation is key to enabling the transition away from the conventional textile materials and their negative externalities. But what should this innovation look like? And what are the most sought after improvements to the status quo? Here are the main objectives of material innovation I uncovered, primarily categorised by the preferred characteristics of newly developed materials and their associated technologies.
First and foremost, future textile materials should be circular. Essentially, the materials – and the products in which they are used – can be circulated back into usable raw materials through human-engineered processes. This will allow the recreation of new products of similar value without loss of valuable natural resources. Such circularity would enable the efficient use of natural resources, reducing resource volumes and intensity, greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of natural habitats of plants and animals..
Second, next generation materials should be based on renewable inputs – meaning raw materials and energy that can't run out - to prevent from tipping the thresholds of the environment. By using natural renewable materials as feedstock we can make textiles biodegradable. This will ensure that any microfibres shed or products improperly disposed, disintegrate into the natural ecosystem without a trace*. However, that all biobased materials are not automatically biodegradable, for instance if the renewable material is processed with some chemical modification. That is why the role of sustainable innovation is again crucial. In addition to the raw material perspective, by using renewable energy throughout material life cycles we can significantly reduce the climate change impact of the clothes we wear.
Third, ideally next generation material technologies should also allow multiple feedstock materials as inputs. Feedstock flexibility reduces dependency on a specific natural resource by enabling both scalability across the globe and promotion of biodiversity. It also often enables the use of wastes and side-stream raw materials. In addition to flexibility, production processes and technologies should be clean and efficient – in that no unwanted effluents or pollutants are released, and that production is run in a closed loop with minimal waste generation, respectively.
Lastly, in order for the novel material innovations to create significant impact, the technologies should be highly scalable. In other words, the technologies and production of these more environmentally sustainable materials should be easy to multiply, so the positive impact could be scaled as fast as possible. Often scale brings economic benefits, which can further increase the validity of these novel innovations.
The research shows that brands are highly committed to supporting science-based solutions in the above areas that promote sustainability transition of fashion - which can be pursued and accelerated through joint development projects, investments, and first product launches. . By continuing to scale our production, we at Spinnova are providing fashion and other textile brands the opportunity to live up to their promises, andpromises and make the wardrobes of each and everyoneevery one of us, a little easier on the planet. And that’s what keeps driving us to do our best.
Product Management Specialist
*However, all biobased materials are not automatically biodegradable, for instance if the renewable material is processed with some chemical modification. That is why the role of sustainable innovation is again crucial.