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What Drives Material Innovation During Covid-19? Protection and Performance

The pandemic is putting pressure on the apparel industry across the supply chain. But rather than stall material innovation, the global health crisis is pushing research and development into new areas of health consciousness.

Many of the recent technical advances in textiles center on reducing fashion’s environmental footprint through the use of recycled raw materials and the creation of biodegradable textiles. Sustainability remains a top priority, however, in light of COVID-19, there is now a new focus on fabrics that could protect consumers from virus transmission.

Sourcing Journal’s Material Innovation 2020 report delves into the innovations happening at the fiber level, and takes a look at where the priorities for development lie in the next year. Top of mind for both consumers and fiber makers is protective properties, which provide a feeling of safety in uncertain times.

“Envisioning a changed society once we get back to our ‘new normal,’ consumers will likely have an increased desire for complete confidence in what they put on their bodies,” said Stephen Kerns, Schoeller’s North American president, in the report. “Whether passing through highly-trafficked outdoor spaces, taking a subway or taxi, on a plane or in a restaurant, people will likely want to wear garments that will not retain contaminants.”

In response to this need for protection, advances in performance wear are being adapted for medical uses. For instance, anti-microbial fabrics that are often used to prevent odor and bacterial growth in active apparel are gaining interest for personal protective equipment, bandages and even everyday attire, despite the current lack of evidence for their efficacy against viruses. In fact, a recent Fortune Business Insights study projects a compound annual growth rate for antimicrobial textiles of 5 percent from 2020 to 2027, reaching almost $14 billion.

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Meanwhile, advanced powerful yet breathable weatherproofing is gaining new interest for medical gowns, expanding the use case for this technology.

In addition to fashion borrowing from performance wear, medical fabrications such as nonwoven textiles and fiber treatments are expected to make their way into consumer closets. Textiles popular in first responder uniforms, such as canvas, may also be adopted for commercial fashion.

Even before the crisis, companies had health on their minds. Earlier this year, research uncovered a material that can sense fluctuations in body temperature, which could have applications in wearables for athletes and at-risk patients. The body’s natural physiology is also the basis for a startup’s temperature-regulating fabric innovation.

Activewear and athleisure have become the uniform of 2020, courtesy of shelter-in-place orders. As consumers head outdoors to get out of the house, innovations to help wearers battle the elements and remain comfortable and safe through a workout could encourage them to invest in apparel again.

“Retailers are increasingly looking for technological advances to differentiate their products and entice customers to spend, especially in the post-COVID environment,” said Mary-Cathryn Kolb, CEO and co-founder of brrrº, in the report. “Fabric performance is at the top of that list, and consumers are willing to pay a premium for it.”

Eco-friendly innovation

Even during the coronavirus, companies continue to release new materials and technologies that put the environment front and center.

Recycled plastics are making their way into activewear and outerwear. Even hangtags are getting a circular update, with recycled plastic fasteners. Firms are also developing recycling processes that can handle more complex and varied forms of plastic. New chemical techniques are capable of creating recycled materials that are comparable to those made with virgin inputs, meaning that quality does not need to be sacrificed to reduce waste. Additionally, this unlocks the ability to repeatedly recycle materials, creating a potentially endless loop.

Other efforts towards circularity are centered on biodegradability, ensuring that the post-consumer lives of garments, footwear or home textiles have a lessened impact on the environment. This includes faux fur made out of corn-based polymers and faux leather fashioned from fungi. Companies are also paying attention to byproducts of laundering, making textiles that are less apt to shed harmful microfibers in the wash.

“We’ve been playing a low-cost game for the last 20 years by throwing things away and then trying to make products cheaper only to throw them away,” said Stacy Flynn, CEO of Evrnu. “This cycle cannot sustain our industry or our planet.”

Learn more about the newest material innovations and how COVID-19 will impact performance apparel trends. Download Sourcing Journal’s Material Innovation 2020 Report here.