The last few years have seen a trend towards the progressive reduction of the use of plastic within the fashion industry with the aim of completely eliminating it from its production processes. Consequently, for businesses, introducing sustainable materials into their product offering is often at the core of their sustainability strategies. Yet, defining which materials are sustainable and which are not isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. The difference between “good” and “bad” materials is not clear, as all materials have their benefits and their drawbacks. Nevertheless, the objective of this article is to provide an overview of sustainable textile trends and next generation materials. Before going into the specificities, it is key to define what is a sustainable next-gen material.
According to the Material Innovation Initiative (MII) next gen materials are defined as “livestock-free direct replacements for conventional animal-based leather, silk, down, fur, wool and exotic skins... (that) use a variety of biomimicry approaches to replicate the aesthetics and performance of their animal-based counterparts”. Now the question that arises is no other than: where do those next-gen materials come from? How are these going to affect the conventional production processes used by most fashion brands? Is this going to have a strong effect on final prices and therefore consumers’ shopping patterns?
Next-gen materials come from a broad variety of sources, from the fungal species mycelium, to grape skins, pineapple leaves, and algae among others. Other companies are using bioengineering techniques to transform animal cells into lab-grown leathers, furs, as well as turning carbon emissions into carbon-negative textiles, which is the case of Rubi Laboratories.
These materials provide a glimpse into what fashion in the future may look like, however, many of these innovative materials are not perfect replacements for their traditional animal counterparts. Many of the plant-based leathers use petroleum-based resins and chemical binders, making them non-biodegradable. Furthermore, few of the aforementioned have reached a commercial scale of production, which prevents them from taking a larger market share. However, the overall carbon footprint of these materials is way lower than the traditional furs and leathers, so we encourage companies to keep doing research on the subject, hoping to achieve a plastic-free status in the fashion industry. Consumers have indicated clearly that they are ready to support this positive change, as such, brands should respond suitably. According to the MII, next-gen materials are expected to make up 3% of the materials market by 2026, or in other words, a market value of 2 billion euros.
Next-gen materials are still a minimal fraction of the market when compared to synthetic fibers, which account for more than half of the textile market. Polyester alone made up for 52% of the market in 2020. Synthetic fibers as well as the plastic used for packaging and transporting clothing are mainly derived from fossil fuels and consequently shed microplastics into the environment. In the past years, several initiatives have been adopted to shift the fashion industry from its reliance on fossil-fuel plastic. These initiatives include taxing the production of virgin plastics and disincentivizing the use of plastic waste like water bottles as a feedstock for polyester production. All in all, fashion brands should be feeling the pressure to find plastic-free alternatives.