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Material Innovation: What to Watch

Fashion and textiles’ fiber and material building blocks are anything but static. New market demands and consumer needs continually propel investment in research and development to improve on existing ingredients and production processes. From sustainability solutions to performance properties, here are what eight industry insiders see as the biggest breakthroughs of the last year and the innovations poised to move the needle in the future.

“As consumers become more educated on the origins of their clothing—for example, nylon’s roots in fossil fuels—they’re demanding transparency, traceability and responsible sourcing in fashion. As a result, we’ve seen major brands like Lululemon turn to renewably-sourced ingredients—replacing fossil-derived nylon with plant-based alternatives in future products, reducing the material’s carbon footprint. The industry should keep a close eye on tech solutions including sustainably sourced alternatives that are increasingly becoming commercially available.”

—Lisa Kennedy, senior director business development, Geno

Lisa Kennedy Courtesy

“We’re seeing lots of new versions of polyamide (nylon) on the horizon. For both sustainability and supply chain and price reasons, this is of interest, however there are a few technical hurdles yet to be solved in bulk production. Our brand uses a lot of nylon for its durability and tenacity, so this is of great interest to us.”

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—Alex Lauver, director of commercial innovation, Outdoor Research

Alex Lauver
Alex Lauver Courtesy

“With health and well-being becoming a priority for people since the pandemic, I was impressed with the brands who created materials designed to protect us better from disease and helped improve our day-to-day lives through technologies like temperature regulation, which allows for a better night’s sleep. I’m looking forward to seeing new innovations in this space, which can further support issues in both physical and mental health.”

—Ben Felton, chief strategy officer, Material Exchange

Ben Felton Courtesy

“A huge breakthrough is Natural Fiber Welding’s advances in the materials space in regards to scalability. With over 100 billion pounds of polyester plastic being used for textiles each year, NFW’s nutrient approach to materials offers a scalable solution to the plastic crisis. NFW has worked hard to build technologies that are compatible with already existing large-scale equipment and make our growth both capital efficient and disruptive. Scaling sustainably enables NFW and brand partners to fulfill the ultimate mission of delivering sustained positive global impact that greatly reduces emissions, eliminates toxic waste and that naturally enables product circularity.”

—Dr. Luke Haverhals, founder and CEO, Natural Fiber Welding

Dr. Luke Haverhals Courtesy

“At Bestseller, we’re working with so many innovators around textile-to-textile [recycling], such as Infinna from Infinited, NuCycl from Evernu, Cycora by Ambercycle and more. We’re on an exciting path towards commercial scale. I see this as a breakthrough. We are curious about the potential of PHA/PBS as a bio-based version of polyester and plastic. With the correct feedstock and implemented into the right circular classification, they represent a potential solution to replace conventional polyester. We’re also excited about Ecovative’s Forager pure mycelium.”

—Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, innovation manager, Bestseller

Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen Courtesy

“The biggest breakthrough in material innovation continues to come from bio-based antimicrobial, cooling and far-infrared technologies. This, paired with more sustainable fabrics such as food chain byproduct materials—pineapple, milk, soy, etc.—help fill the wants of the consumer, who is actively looking for ways to contribute to their sustainability efforts without compromising comfort. We are continually watching the development and accessibility of these fabrics and technologies and look to add to our product line once available.”

—Beth Mack, chief merchandising and marketing officer, Downlite

Beth Mack Courtesy

“As over 84 percent of footwear and apparel still goes straight into a landfill and we progress from ‘peak oil’ to ‘peak plastics,’ the most impactful material breakthrough we see is the explosion of solutions in the biopolymer space. Methane capture and sequestration, plant-based PHA/PHB to fiber development, LDPE (low-density polyethylene) upstreaming to high-value TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), the commercial application of PEF (polyethylene furanoate) to fiber, and the tremendous work on plant-based bio BDO (butanediol) to replace foam polymers, all lead the way to industry-changing chemistry development that will also change—and improve—life on planet earth.”

—Barry McGeough, global vice president of innovation, Wolverine Worldwide

Barry McGeough Courtesy

“This year, reducing carbon footprint from transportation is one of our core priorities. While sustainable biomaterials are a great way to lower our dependency on fossil resources from a product perspective, regionalization of production and distribution is a key area of improvement to progress towards carbon neutrality. Our new operation in Italy is bringing us a step further on sustainability that also enables us to optimize delivery and production lead times to support a fast-paced industry.”

—Adrian Lopez Velarde, co-founder, Desserto

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