May 28, 2024
by Karl Smith
The Next-Gen Material Innovation News You Need to Know This Month
by Karl Smith
May 28, 2024

Over the last few months we’ve given a lot of airtime to material innovation – perhaps even more then we’ve afforded to footwear or to fashion. That may be frustrating if you’re mostly here for “sustainable” or “vegan” sneaker updates – we get that. But, nonetheless, the fact is – without that material progress – there’d be nothing for us to report on anyway; it may not feed into the hype cycle or be quite as sexy as the fully-realized form but, at the DNA level, these materials are the foundation of all forward-thinking products.

All of which is to say, you might not “technically” be here to hear about funding news and next-gen material development, but – in a way – if you’re at all interested in what an Earth-friendlier footwear, fashion or design product looks like in 2024, if you care at all what goes in to what you wear, this is the kind of thing you need to know.

And so, once again, here we are with a list of updates from the material world – from big-name brand collaborations to manufacturing expansion, a step forward for mycelium to a cash injection for a major recycling operation, and legislation that could well help tip the balance in favor of progress.

Syre Generates $100 Million USD to Expand Into, Well, Everywhere

If you’ve any interest in keeping up with material innovation whatsoever then you’re probably well aware of Renewcell’s collapse earlier this year. You’ll probably also be aware that H&M had an investment in and commitment to buy the Swedish textile-to-textile innovator’s CIRCULOSE® material. You might also know that, after Renewcell went under following a period of poor uptake, H&M put that money into a new venture: Syre. Which does exactly the same thing.

That investment had us asking some serious questions about the Swedish corporation’s intentions and about what, exactly, would stop the same thing happening again with Syre. And, while we’ve not had entirely satisfactory answers to the first point, news of $100 million USD in funding could at least provide some clarification as to the second.

With the money set to fund a new plant in the United States – a venture set to be operational before the end of the year – Syre is clearly making the astute decision to position itself closer to one of its biggest potential markets, rather than isolating itself in Scandinavia, as well as reportedly eyeing follow-up facilities in Vietnam and Spain, effectively giving the innovator access to the global fashion and textile market.

Polybion Is Taking Fruit Waste Worldwide

When it comes to creating “new” materials, the most innovative next-gen products tend to be those that work with what we already have. Case in point: Polybion’s fruit-waste based Celium – a material that doesn’t rely on cultivating new crops but on the leftovers, the discards, taking with one hand and giving with the other instead of thoughtlessly adding to the ever-growing pile.

Where such bio-based materials often fall down, however, being as they’re not so much whipped up out of thin air – or even grown, in the first instance, at will in a laboratory environment – is in terms of scale. News that the Celium leather alternative is bucking that trend, then, should be greeted with appreciation.

Now available globally, a new facility allows Polybion to produce over 1,000,000 square feet of Celium per year, entirely in house – a feat which not only allows the innovator to bring previously-trialled concepts, such as its collaboration with Ganni, to a wider audience, but also effectively sets the standard for similar materials and shows that scale is far from a pipe dream.

Veshin Factory Votes With Its Feet and Moves Into Brazil

Veshin Factory may not be a “material innovator” in the strictest sense of the word – they do not, after all, produce their own material – but to say that Veshin Factory isn’t an innovator in its own right would be pushing the bounds of credulity. As a fully-vegan, next-gen manufacturer, Veshin provides low-impact products on a private- and white-label basis to some of the biggest fashion houses and brands in the world; its ongoing partnership with Natural Fiber Welding has plastic-free accessories being pushed out on a global scale, quietly moving the needle on what “high end” means in the fashion world.

To hear that Veshin is not only expanding its operations geographically – opening a new plant in Brazil – but also in terms of its offering, branching out into Earth-friendlier footwear, is a breath of fresh air; it’s all well and good, after all, for next-gen innovators to produce these game-changing materials, but it’s another thing entirely to get them into circulation in a meaningful way. Veshin has been a crucial player in making that happen on the bags and accessories front, if it can have anything like the same success with footwear then that’s a serious shift in the status quo.

Karl Lagerfeld’s Legacy Continues Its Shift Toward Conscious Fashion

First things first: when you think of Karl Lagerfeld – if you think of Karl Lagerfeld at all – chances are that it isn’t because you’re thinking about progressive fashion. And that’s fair enough: while there is a little more to it than this, the German designer’s legacy hinges on a staunch, vehemently old-school defence of animal fur as the height of luxury.

Since Lagerfeld’s death in 2019, however, the legacy of his name has been morphing into something more forward-thinking and, dare we say, more conscious. In fact, collections released in collaboration with actress and model Amber Valletta back in 2021 and 2022 focused not only on lower-impact materials as a design element, but were also vocal about Earth and Ocean environmental advocacy in a broader sense.

This latest effort, then, using Natural Fiber Welding’s plastic-free Mirum material, feels like a natural next step for the brand’s post-eponym stage. Crafting bags which, at one point, would have been made from animal-based leather without a second thought, from a next-gen product like Mirum shows a genuine investment in making progressive choices.

While it would have been easy for the Lagerfeld brand to make these accessories from polyurethane or similar – to label them as “vegan” and win over some of its detractors that way – to run with something as future-facing as Mirum feels like a conscious choice in every sense of the word – a decision to not only change things for the better for the brand itself but, also, to use the Lagerfeld name in order to move that needle across the industry.

Maybe someone ought to tell them about BioFluff.

Hyosung Is Ditching Fossil Fuels and Embracing the Bio-Based

Seoul-based Hyosung is a mover and shaker in the material innovation world. Like some of the biggest movers and shakes in any industry, though, it’s likely you’ve never heard the name. That, however, may be about to change.

Having invested $1 billion USD in a new Bio-BDO (Butanediol) factory in Vietnam – a facility capable of processing 50,000 tons with plans already in the making to expand output to 200,000 tons – the South Korean outfit is putting serious weight behind bio-materials and making a clear show of rejecting fossil-based materials.

Again, if you’re not familiar with Hyosung, you might wonder what this means in terms of impact. The answer, of course, is that while we don’t know exactly, the possible applications are immense: already claiming the title of the world’s largest spandex/elastane brand with its 30% bio-based creora® material, the creation of a dedicated and fully bio-based facility could see that material reach its full potential as a low-impact replacement to highly-detrimental products currently in mass circulation.

In short: it’s a big deal.

Resortecs and Decathlon Take Elastane Out of the Earth-Friendlier Equation

Decathlon is an interesting case. Rarely does a store that sells more or less everything you could want – even with a category niche – do so with an eye on sustainability; when it comes to an Earth-friendlier ethos, more often than not the “less is more” mantra holds true. Never the less, if a giant “everything store” like Walmart can work with a next-gen outfit like Rubi Labs, there’s surely no good reason that the French sporting goods retailer can’t also make strides toward change.

With that in mind, it’s very much worth putting skepticism aside: what Decathlon is doing with Resortecs is genuinely game-changing. It’s no secret, after all, that sportswear tends to fall short when it comes to using lower-impact materials and swimwear – despite an impressive intervention from Mara Hoffman – is still lagging behind its peers thanks to a high concentration of inseparable elastane.

But, thanks to this pan-European collaboration, that might be about to change. With Decathlon’s freshly-developed Negombo material – essentially an elastane-free elastic – making up the bulk of these swimsuits, only elastic bands are required to hold the garment together. And, while that’s still a problem, this is where Resortecs comes in, with the Belgian recycling operator using its thermal disassembly processes to separate the elastic from the yarn and make the collaborative swimsuits into a fully-recyclable product.

Of course, like many such efforts, it requires a certain amount of audience participation and that will always raise questions when it comes to efficacy. Still, in an area desperately in need of serious improvement, this feels like the start of serious forward motion.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Wants to ReModel Fashion

While Global Fashion Agenda’s yearly Global Fashion Summit has left some asking questions about why, exactly, they’re still asking the same questions fifteen years later, there are plenty of things we’re now talking about for the first time after this year’s event. And a fresh intervention from anti-waste organization The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) certainly falls into that category.

Following on from the Jeans Redesign project which ran from 2019 to 2023, The Fashion ReModel initiative aims to promote circularity in fashion, opening up opportunities in rental, repair and resale, with a view to ending the perpetuation of overconsumption as the status quo business model.

It’s a lofty goal, obviously, but EMF has managed to unite some of the industry’s biggest names under the ReModel umbrella, citing Arc’teryx, numerous H&M-owned outfits, Zalando, Reformation and even Primark. No surprise, really, given that the Foundation has identified a possible 23% market share for circular models representing a potential $700 billion USD by 2030 – the kinds of numbers that get big-name brands interested in more or less anything you have to say.

Still, just because money gets people talking, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a conversation worth having.

Sometimes the Most Necessary Innovation Is Legislation

Still, with all of this in mind – all these advance, all these opportunities, all these steps in the right direction – sometimes what it takes to instigate real change is change itself. In this case, a change in the law that puts the onus on brands to clean up their supply chain in ethical and environmental terms or else face – and this is something which companies seem never to have heard of before – the consequences of their actions and inactions.

Finally approved by the EU, the CSDDD (Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive) has now been signed off by 27 member states, effectively stopping brands in Europe from passing the buck when it comes to Human Rights abuses and abuse of the Earth.

Sometimes, when you’re tired of asking, you just have to take away the option.