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How Brands Are Tapping Materials R&D for a Healthier Future

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“At the end of the day everyone wants the Holy Grail: a renewable, compostable, high-performing, pleasing material, at the cheap price of petrochemical synthetics,” said Suzanne Lee, CEO of Biofabricate.

The race for sustainable materials is well underway. Yet who knew that both low-tech inputs (mushroom-based leather and coconut fibers) and high-tech textiles (created with ionized silver), would be on the lips of the fashionistas cheering on the contestants?

Considering 70 percent of the industry’s carbon footprint is in raw materials processing and manufacturing, this R&D takes on a new urgency. The fashion industry has shifted into overdrive, with scientists and brands forming unique partnerships that create less hazardous textiles, more innovative ways to turn them into functional—yet always fashionable— items, and greener ways to dispose of them.

Thankfully, the fashion industry—and consumer—has embraced this Brave New World of material sciences, filled with products that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

This “Yes We Can!” spirit isn’t just energizing development and innovation of new materials, but the recycling of existing ones. “This year, circular products and solutions have taken center stage as the newest breakthrough in sustainability goals,” said Eddie Ingle, CEO, Unifi, whose textile take-back programs have created circular economy solutions that capture and recycle textile waste back into first-quality goods to be broken down and recycled again.

Meanwhile, outdoor apparel company Vaude uses a newly implemented molecular recycling platform to uptake waste tires as a feedstock to create durable outdoor clothing. “[This paves] the way for a circular textile chain using biosynthetics and new molecular recycling technologies to lower our dependency on fossil resources and shifting to renewable carbon,” said Renee Bethmann, innovation manager.

The pandemic also turned everyone’s attention to wellness, with consumer’s learning first-hand that what they wear can keep them healthier. To that end, textile companies have been developing products that ward off viruses and bacteria, be it Net Zero PPE or antimicrobial technology, the latter having the added sustainability benefit of requiring fewer washings.

“Unlocking the limitless possibilities of permanent hygiene and proactively improving the health and safety of the public is at the heart of Livinguard’s mission,” said Sanjeev Swamy, founder and CEO of biotechnology company Livinguard, whose patented invention created a new self-disinfecting textile category whereby the textile kills bacteria on contact, is washable and reusable.

Such innovations have applications beyond fashion as well. Lainiere Health & Wellness, a division of Chargeurs, has been named the International Luxury Hotel Association’s official antimicrobial fabric partner. Products made with Lainiere Performance Silver include face masks and gloves for guests and staff, laundry and valet bags, and food and beverage uniform staples such as chef’s coats, aprons, pants and toques. With Covid’s Delta variant ticking up, such innovations might take on a new urgency.

One of the most exciting aspects of this race for innovation is that companies are sharing their findings for the greater good, with different factions setting aside their exclusivity and coming together with shared solutions.

“We felt it was important to share with the industry what we’ve learned and what we’ve created,” said Patrice Louvet, CEO and president of Ralph Lauren, which is open-sourcing the first phase of a new platform that it says will revolutionize the way the fashion industry dyes cotton. “Our hope and expectation is we will see broad adoption, so that all together as an industry we can transform water stewardship wherever we operate. And that this also serves as a catalyst for more innovation like this that positively impacts both our industry and the planet.”

Coming from the company that is outfitting Team USA at the Olympics, this team spirit is inspiring.

Material Innovation Report

Download the report to learn:

  • How Nike and Adidas are leading the footwear industry in waste solutions
  • What vegan material alternatives are replacing traditional leather
  • What crucial steps need to be taken to improve how we measure and report raw material impacts
  • How Earth Day capsule collections might actually work against sustainable efforts
  • Whether hemp will eclipse cotton as fashion’s favorite fiber
  • If plastic bags can be recycled into performance fabric
  • How Ralph Lauren is open-sourcing cotton dyeing platform Color on Demand.

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