The materials that make up our clothes are an integral part of the discussion around how to make the fashion industry more sustainable. Production of animal and petroleum derived materials can be hugely problematic, driving climate change, environmental degradation and animal cruelty. We need a holistic set of sustainable, next-generation alternatives, that don’t compromise on aesthetics and performance, to play a key role in the future of sustainable fashion. This article will explore the current state of material innovation, and why many consumers still can’t get their hands on products made from the latest sustainable materials.
The technology surrounding material production and recycling is advancing rapidly, with a broad ecosystem of innovators working to address this urgent need with biomaterials. Supply Compass defines a biomaterial as any substance — synthetic or natural — that is based on nature and interacts with biological systems for creation. From recycled fabrics and closed loop production, to organic cotton and novel plant-based fibers, the solutions seem to be abundant, with the technology ready and waiting to be rolled out on a mass scale.
Reading global headlines revealing groundbreaking new materials and shining the spotlight on the technologies enabling them, it would be reasonable to assume the fashion industry is making great strides in sustainability. On top of this, Material Innovation Initiative found that $2.3 billion USD has been invested in next-gen materials since 2015, with investment more than doubling from 2020 to 2021. Surely it won’t be long before mushroom leather bags and spider silk outerwear are available for the everyday consumer to buy. Right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. While we know it’s possible to bring these materials to market as evidenced by a few brands we’ll touch on later, the vast majority of material innovators are still in the early stages of development and are a long way away from large-scale production, and therefore mass adoption by mainstream brands. With consumers clearly signaling their desire for sustainable products, why aren’t brands doing more to move the industry forward? In a word, scale.
Investment & Infrastructure
Producing biomaterials is a complex process. Even after years of research and development behind them, innovators have a long road ahead to achieve large-scale production. Several factors contribute to this. A frequent challenge in biomaterial commercialization is the financing of expensive capital projects, which can cost millions of dollars. The investment risk is high, since the technology is novel, and the result is that many promising biomaterial technologies only exist at pilot scale. However, trailblazers in the space prove it’s possible to raise millions in investment, and interest in this area is steadily growing, with Material Innovation Initiative estimating that the global wholesale market size for next-gen materials will reach 2.2 billion USD in 2026.
Then there’s infrastructure. The global fashion industry was built on fossil fuels, which means this is what the current apparel industry’s infrastructure supports. The shift to next-generation materials, which often have a complex manufacturing process, will require heavy investment by brands, and asks them to leave their old, expensive infrastructure in the past. Alex Kalin PhD, Senior Materials Scientist at Bucha Bio, a startup creating cutting-edge biomaterials, illustrated this point when we chatted to him about the challenges of developing new, plant-based materials. “Molecules found in nature behave differently from those created in a refinery – where a traditional plastic will melt, a tree doesn’t. It’s a challenge to reformat plant-based materials for traditional manufacturing methods, but one with immense environmental reward.”
Demand & Performance
Closely related, and arguably the biggest hurdle for biomaterials, is the ability to meet brand supply demands. For the textile manufacturers supplying the world’s biggest brands with materials, scale is being able to produce hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of square meters annually. And this is to meet the demand of large brands, who produce millions of products every year.
In addition, new materials must meet the performance standards brands are accustomed to. Joey Pringle, founder of Veshin Factory–a fashion and accessories manufacturer working with some of the most innovative Earth-friendlier materials in production–told us, “Performance can be an issue. The industry is still very skeptical of how long new materials can last. For example, when we measure sustainability in terms of durability, nothing can compete with leather as it’s proven to last a very long time. Brands are hesitant to manufacture finished goods with these materials as they do not know the longevity of the product.”
And what about consumer cost? Adoption of a new material is usually the result of technical or cost advantage, which is difficult to achieve when you’re up against highly-developed and large-scale incumbent technologies. New innovations have a high price tag at first, reflective of the years of investment in research & development and new infrastructure, combined with a process that has yet to be optimized for scale. But just as with other technologies, economies of scale will eventually bring prices down. Until then, some of the cost has to be transferred to consumers.
Consumers claim they want sustainable products, but it’s unclear whether they are willing to pay the higher price tag, and these materials are currently too expensive to compete in a mass market where they could replace a less sustainable item. Many of the early innovators in this space have exclusive partnerships with luxury brands who have targeted materials such as silk and leather, since these have the potential to achieve a premium price.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Despite these barriers, there are countless innovators working hard behind the scenes to develop new, sustainable materials and bring them to market. Algiknit creates degradable yarns from kelp, which is a rapidly replenishing and abundant type of seaweed that grows ten times faster than bamboo and acts as a carbon sink, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. Japan-based Spiber famously created the fibers for the Moon Parka, an outdoor jacket produced by The North Face Japan and the first prototype to be made on a standard manufacturing line with recombinant protein fibers. Bolt Threads, founded in 2009, makes genetically-engineered fabric grown via fermentation.
Now an established innovator of biomaterials, Bolt Threads formed a consortium called Mylo Unleather, along with iconic brands adidas, Kering, lululemon, and Stella McCartney in 2020. This promising partnership aims to invest in meaningful material innovation with Mylo, a leather made from infinitely renewable mycelium, and start bringing it to market. We asked Jamie Bainbridge, VP of Product Development at leading biomaterial maker Bolt Threads, for his take on speed of the transition to Earth-friendlier materials.
“In order to produce Mylo at a large scale, we needed to build a responsible supply chain from the ground up; one that can produce millions of square feet of commercial-quality Mylo at a price that is competitive with traditional animal-derived leather. By prioritizing science-based partnerships between brands, and investing heavily in materials that are better for our planet, fashion brands can play a significant role in speeding up the transition to alternative materials—therefore making it easier for pieces made with materials like our Mylo to scale and achieve price parity with traditional leather goods.”
The good news is there are a few trailblazing brands with products utilizing biomaterials already on the market. Footwear brand Allbirds strives to make some of the world’s most sustainable shoes, using laces made from recycled plastic bottles and insoles produced using castor bean oil. Comfort (and science) first brand PANGAIA describes itself as a collective of scientists, technologists and designers working towards an Earth-positive future. PANGAIA offers one of the biggest ranges of biobased, recycled and plant-based fiber loungewear on the market.
The innovators and brands who already exist in this space prove that part of the solution to an unsustainable industry is already here. Despite the challenges discussed, accelerating brand commitments to sustainability, increasing consumer concern about the environment, and the ability of biomaterials to help companies meet their targets, all mean it’s only a matter of time before the next generation of materials are adopted by the worlds’ biggest brands and affordable options are available for all consumers.
As upstream innovation eventually meets downstream demand, the potential positive impact on the planet will be huge.