Jul 06, 2023
by James Roberts
Will Consumers Really Pay More for Material Progress?
by James Roberts
Jul 06, 2023

It’s one thing feeling like change is coming. It’s another thing knowing it. Or, at least, that’s the claim made by the latest next-gen materials assessment carried out by the Material Innovation Initiative (MII) and North Mountain Consulting Group.

The study surveyed over 1,000 people in the US and, if their opinions are anything to go by, we should feel hopeful about the general direction of travel: 92 percent of participants said they were “at least somewhat open to purchasing next-gen materials,” whilst 78 percent are willing to pay “the same or more” for next-gen materials compared to conventional options. Face value: that’s a whole lot of people with a whole lot of buying power. And that, in the markets at least, is where change comes from.

Ever-cautious of data that looks this good, we spoke to experienced experts in the next-gen industry to get the insider angle and find out what this all really means for companies working on the ground and the broader picture moving forward.

But before we dive in, let’s go back to basics. The report defines next-gen materials as “sustainable alternatives” to animal products and synthetics (such as acrylic, polyester and polyurethane). Basically, they’re the materials we love to see listed on a product description: recycled, plant-based and built to last.

In terms of what next-gen materials early adopters are interested in buying, leather alternatives come out top. Followed by down, then wool, silk and finally fur. It’s strange to see fur so far down the list but perhaps that’s because its share of the market is smaller than leather or wool.

This preference for leather alternatives is reflected in the news we report on most. There is, as you may know, a plethora of plant-based leathers on the market now. Fungi, pineapple and cacti are all proving themselves to be noble pioneers in this new frontier, gracing the footwear of brands like Nike and Rombaut, and the accessories of Ganni and Stella McCartney.

Even Zara has been using Piñatex, the leather-alternative made from pineapple, in a capsule made from sneakers, sandals and accessories. Zara is listed as one of the most commonly purchased brands by the sample set in the survey, alongside Target, Nike, adidas, The North Face and Patagonia. And while we can’t speak for everyone’s beloved Target, we have reported on the others and their sustainable efforts over recent years.

41 percent were “very/extremely likely to purchase.” What that number says to us is that the appetite is out there. If more and more people are willing to spend extra on next-gen and eco-friendly materials, brands should take that as incentive to invest more in those materials.

But how true is this? Cost is always an obstacle for consumers. And while 29 percent said they’d pay more, 49 percent said they’d pay the same and 22 percent said they’d pay less.

One brand that understands the problem of price is Kintra Fibers. The purchasing power of consumers drives innovation and change. It’s what drove the materials science company to a bio-based and biodegradable polyester that is made on existing polyester production equipment.

“Through our partnerships with top apparel brands, we’re prototyping our material to meet industry demands while prioritizing price, performance, and the planet,” Alissa Sandra Baier-Lentz, co-founder and COO, told us. “By aligning these key factors in the consumer purchase decision, new materials like Kintra are redefining what is considered the industry standard and transforming the market’s expectations.”

Nicole Rawling, MII CEO and co-founder, agrees: “If next-gen materials become widely available and affordable options within the US market, we expect next-gen materials to become widely adopted by consumers.”

But the question of cost isn’t so black and white in everyone’s eyes.

Speaking to to Hannes Schönegger, CEO of the Swiss bag and accessories brand Qwstion and and co-founder of the plant-fiber brand Bananatex®, he suggests the results show proof of consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for Earth-friendly products. As he (rightly) points out, because “most of the materials we use today are actually way too cheap, their real costs will have to be paid by next generations [for example, getting rid of microplastics, solving landfill issues, capturing carbon etc]. We need to close that gap and get to a point where cost equals price. Truly circular material solutions will always be higher priced because of that.”

Not so easy when consumers in countries like the UK and US are struggling to pay for necessities at the moment. Edoardo Iannuzzi, founder of Earth-friendly sneaker makers ACBC, says the price point problem is perhaps worse than this assessment leads us to believe. The price is always the kicker: “Even with careful consumers that claim advocacy for sustainability, if they can choose between two products — one more sustainable [and] very expensive, and one less sustainable [and] very cheap — they will choose [based on] price. We have data to support this theory unfortunately. The real story is less attractive but truth is truth.”

Another obstacle is consumer understanding. “Consumers who are less interested in next-gen and prefer animal-based materials appear to be motivated primarily by their inexperience with the material and concerns over quality,” Rawling says. “This shows a need for material companies and brands to ensure their products meet consumer performance and quality expectations to ensure long-term adoption.”

The two obstacles, of course, go hand-in-hand. The only way for consumers to experience and therefore understand the quality of next-gen products, is to buy them. And that’ll only happen when the price is right.

Let’s not forget who commissioned this assessment. The MII, in its own words, “works to cultivate a global market for next-gen materials across the fashion, automotive, and home goods industries.” It will, then, want to project a positive outlook for investors and innovators alike. While we don’t doubt the data in this survey (it can, afterall, be used to paint all sorts of pictures), it’s worth taking a step back and reminding ourselves of the mission: the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for a significant percentage of global carbon emissions. Not to mention the waste produced that pollutes the Global South and the microplastics that flood the oceans.

So, yes, change is coming. It is, in many places, already here. But if we want to make next-gen products the norm, we need to win over the 8 percent who currently say they’re “not likely at all” to buy them. That’s where the focus should be, not just on the people who already shop Earth-friendly.

If you’re into the numbers and want to see a further breakdown of the survey, you can dive into all the details here.