Jun 05, 2023
by Karl Smith
Algae to Oyster Shells, Minerals to Moisture Wicking: 8 Sustainable Material Innovations to Know
by Karl Smith
Jun 05, 2023

When Madonna said “We are living in a material world” back in 1984, she was – and still is – dead right. When Aqua, in their infamous 1997 single “Barbie Girl,” said “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” however, they were about as wrong as it gets.

Which, basically, is a longwinded and somewhat obscure way of saying that materials matter. They matter the future of the fashion, footwear and design industries, and they matter to the future of this planet. It’s also a roundabout way of saying that solutions to outdated and harmful plastic-based products are a big part of that.

With that in mind, what follows is a list of recent developments – innovations with the potential to change material reality as we know it – or, at least, certainly the potential to disrupt the fashion and production industry status quo.

From garments dyed with minerals to material made from banana leaves – ocean waste sneakers to moisture-wicking algae – these next-gen innovations are what you should be watching right now to make sure you know what’s coming next.


Let’s start with something contentious. Now, this isn’t the forum for any “do bivalves feel pain?” philosophizing, so rather than getting into the weeds on whether oysters are somehow vegan – I mean, they’re not are they? – let’s put forward something less divisive: oyster shells are no good to anyone once they’re empty. Or, at least, not to the oysters themselves.

Enter Eugène Riconneaus, his ER (SOULIER) project and its BETA_0A sneaker. Crafted from marine litter and detritus (fishing nets, seaweed, algae, etc.) and wastage from seafood farms (oyster shells, sole and skate wings) the BETA_0A is a sustainable footwear offering created from cast-offs.

While it’s possible to compare the harvesting of oyster shells and fish parts to leather as a byproduct of the meat industry, it is a disingenuous comparison: the impact, scale, and – regardless of your thoughts on bivalve sentience – levels of cruelty aren’t even close enough to measure.

“Sea based activities represent 50% of the ocean pollution. I see this material as ready-made to give a proposition to others and influence action for the ocean. The idea is to create the demand that appreciates and cherishes marine litter products: from fishnets, plastics to oyster farms’ waste and algae.” – Eugène Riconneaus

Mineral Dye from Satisfy Running

As far as performance technology and aesthetics go, there’s a reason Paris-based Satisfy has become a go-to for aesthete runners everywhere.

While the brand’s sustainability efforts aren’t always on par with other forward-thinking elements – Satisfy uses some recycled materials, natural fibers and enhanced durability efforts to stave off waste but also has little aversion to plastics – its continued material experimentation does often yield positive results.

Mineral Dying, for example, is a low-impact process which involves extracting the pigment of – well, you guessed it – naturally-occurring minerals and applying it by hand to fabrics.

Adapting what’s known to be one of the more harmful (but less often discussed) elements of fashion production, Satisfy’s slowed-down Mineral Dye program creates unique pieces as a byproduct of Earth-friendlier thinking. It’s a win/win, really.

BIO-VERA™ from Modern Meadow

Modern Meadow is a serial innovator, working to constantly produce planet-friendlier solutions to some of the fashion industry’s most pressing issues. It’s BIO-TEX™ fabricated textile has been understandably adopted by some of the biggest names in fashion while its low-waste, BIO-FREED™ dyeing process is making sustainable waves on production side. Now, BIO-VERA™ can be added to that illustrious list.

Modern Meadow’s answer to conventional animal leather and plastic-based alternative leather options, BIO-VERA™ claims “90% sustainable content prior to finishing” and – in a direct challenge to the animal-baster materials industry – to be “stronger than leather” with all of the same aesthetic and tactile qualities. According to Modern Meadow, BIO-VERA™ also ages naturally and – most important of all – is already available at scale, making it a ready-made solution for brands and producers who are ready to take the next step forward.

“By harnessing the power of biotechnology, Modern Meadow has developed a material system that exhibits the same qualities and characteristics as conventional leather without relying on animal inputs.” – Catherine Roggero-Lovisi, CEO of Modern Meadow

Petroleum-Free Wicking Technology from Checkerspot

Speaking of performance technology, what we have here is – apparently – a first of its kind: sports apparel with a 100% petroleum-free wicking finish, derived from algae.

Created by material innovation specialists Checkerspot, the bio-based technology is packaged in with the launch of the Phase Series from its in-house brand WNDR® Alpine.

Working with Swiss chemists Beyond Surface Technologies, Checkerspot has built upon the same microalgae-derived materials used in WNDR®’s skis and snowboards to develop miDori® bioWick WA – a wicking finish free from petrochemicals and which boasts an 80% lower carbon footprint.

All of which, it claims, is achieved without any loss in the performance department.

Protein-Fiber Bio-Yarn from Werewool

While the results here are somewhat less imminent, a sucessful new round of funding means that Werewool – a company dedicated to the research, development, and production of sustainable performance fibers – can advance its efforts in creating low-waste, low-impact and high-durability materials.

With one of many projects being the creation of fibers “designed to have features such as color and stretch built [in] on the DNA level,” Werewool looks to cut out not only harmful end-product materials but also heavy-polluting, chemical-dependent processes like dying.

Having secured $3.7m USD in seed funding – an effort led by Material Impact and Sofinnova Partners – Werewool’s mission to “support a circular fashion industry by providing textile manufacturers with a fiber source that can be returned to the earth as nutrients at the end of their useful life” gets a little closer to scalable reality.

Corn-based Lycra from (you guessed it) The Lycra Company

When someone says that Lycra is corny, they’re probably thinking about aerobics and leg-warmers and (thankfully) long-forgotten trends. Chances are, they’re not speaking literally. With this latest development, though, those odds could be about to change.

Partnering with material innovation company QIRA and using its namesake material, the LYCRA Company has “developed the world’s first large-scale commercial production of bio-derived spandex.” Using grown-in-America corn as its base, the adoption of QIRA means that “70% of LYCRA fibre content will derive from annually renewable feedstock.”

Given that, traditionally speaking, spandex is made from “at least 85 percent polyurethane by weight” and, by the end of 2021, production was at 971.5 kilotonnes per year, that’s a huge step forward for a plastic-free world.

BREWED PROTEIN™ FIBER from Goldwin and Spiber

When a publication like the Business of Fashion asks a question like “Will Fashion’s Next Generation of Materials Be Brewed Like Beer?“, you know they’re not just doing it for laughs. This, allusions to the silly juice aside, is very much serious business.

Working in research, development, and production collaboration, Japanese bio-tech company and sportswear brand Goldwin have moved from small-scale releases to full-on, scaled-up creations with household names: The North Face, Goldwin, nanamica, The North Face Purple Label, and Woolrich have simultaneously revealed Brewed Protein™️ products to the mass consumer market.

If you’re wondering what all that means in practice, Goldwin describes the next-gen material development as “a biopolymer whose plant-based microbial fermentation process makes it well-positioned to deliver significant contributions to animal and plastic-free initiatives.” Which, in basic terms, means that BREWED PROTEIN™ is a lab-cooked but natural product, free from animal cruelty or polluting petrochemicals.

Bananatex® for Stella McCartney

If you’re a frequent visitor to these pages – or familiar with the materials industry in some other way – then you’ve probably heard of PIÑATEX. You’d be hard-pressed not to have done, really – Ananas Anam‘s pineapple-based leather alternative, which has found its way into everything from Saucony sneakers to Eames chairs.

But, as the saying (almost goes), pineapples are not the only fruit.

Made from the Abacá banana plant – which is self-sufficient, requiring no pesticides, fertilizer or extra water – Bananatex® is a testament to the growing redundancy of environmentally disastrous, synthetic materials. The Cradle to Cradle Certified® Gold product is open source and legitimately circular, contributing to reforestation and improved biodiversity in the Philippine highlands.

No wonder, then, that a next-gen material magpie like Stella McCartney has seen fit to use Bananatex® as the base for a reworked version of its signature tote. (Itself, of course, “responsibly finished with recycled and recyclable materials.”)