S & S Decoded: Fabric Innovation – the Future of Fashion

At A Glance

As we enter the climate decade, sustainability is becoming a licence to operate within the fashion industry. It’s go green or go home if you want to achieve long term growth and demonstrate true environmental and societal commitments.

Intrinsic to the evolution of the fashion landscape is the innovation of fabrics, materials and textiles to address the importance of the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan.

Through regenerative agriculture, bio fabrication, biotechnology and e-textiles, brands will embrace the materials revolution to adopt cradle to cradle design approaches and reach their climate commitments. Scientific developments have paved the way for sustainable substitutes that reimagine the possibilities of garments for luxury and mass market retailers.

In the coming years, we will witness an uptake for fabric innovation, from fruit fibres, algae kelp to cactus or collagen leather, the future has never looked more promising. This S & S Decoded explores the need for fabric innovation to address sustainability challenges, the current appetite amongst the industry as well as deconstructing technical processes. It presents compelling case studies and a brief overview of how newly constructed textiles are advancing wearable technology to align with our digital lifestyles. Finally, it analyses the future of this arena and the potential to trigger opportunities amongst the leading industry players to catalyse radical transformation.

In Focus

Why Do We Need Fabric Innovation?

Several reasons exist as to why the fashion industry desperately needs a materials revolution. First and foremost, textile designs that embrace circularity combat environmental obstacles such as the shedding of microplastics, harmful chemicals leaking into fresh water sources as well as the damaging nature of petroleum-based substances. Creating new fabrics that harness cradle to cradle design tackles the unrecyclable nature of many man-made fabrics that cannot effectively be repurposed or broken down after the consumer use phase in its life cycle. Few materials are compatible with recycling facilities that could effectively deconstruct the garment for future use.

Re-thinking material structures is also required to address the evolution of style that we have seen in recent seasons where many fashion house collections have integrated silky silhouettes and linen pieces into their range. As we will later explore, many of these new materials are able to provide a quality and unusual textile to construct these designs.

Ultimately, by inventing new fabrics and processes, the fashion industry can mitigate its waste, water consumption and energy intensive manufacturing.

For further insight into the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, click here.

The Current Material Landscape

The current drivers for fabric innovation are threefold. The shift in consumer sentiment towards conscious purchases driven by a heightened awareness of the climate emergency and societal pitfalls in supply chains is one. Shoppers are demonstrating a willingness to spend more on sustainable brands and conduct in-depth research prior to check out which encourages the uptake of sustainable materials.

Secondly, the increased institutional regulation within the textiles space. This includes the European Union’s Circular Economy Package that presents ambitious targets for recycling waste. On this tangent, investment by these bodies has spurred further growth, for example, the European Union has begun financing research into textile recycling via their Trash2Cash project. This involves 17 partners and 10 countries to review efficiency in the recycling and separating of mixed fibres. The final major factor is attributed to the accelerated investment in research and development. This has been conducted at an industry wide level by those in search of low impact alternatives and methods to reinvent traditional design fibres. The 2020 State of Fashion Report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey provides data that presents a fundamental shift.

As demonstrated in the graph, the McKinsey research reveals that companies across the globe are set to file eight times as many fibre innovation patent applications in 2019 versus 2013.

Their survey results exhibit a blossoming commitment to fabric innovation. It was reported that 45% of the companies interviewed are keen to integrate more innovative bio-based materials into their collections. Encouragingly 67% of sourcing executives noted that the use of innovative, sustainable materials will be important to their company in the future.

It is worth mentioning, commitments to fabric innovation are not confined to small industry players, but also those with big stakes in the market. For example, H & M and Inditex have incorporated Tencel Lyocell into their repertoire to enhance their offering for style, sustainability and functionality.

Popularity of cellulosic markets driven by the surge in popularity of activewear and street style garments has seen an increase in the demand for Lyocell. According to Common Objective, the sell through of this material has risen to 20-40% and can largely be attributed to the marketing of fibres, the increased understanding of sustainable criteria as well as designers demands for silkier aesthetic textiles.

The re-imaging of fashion materials in 2020 is enhanced by the integration of upcycling culture within the industry and consumers’ lifestyles to ameliorate the environmental fall out of fashion.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the global fashion industry produces 53 million tonnes of fibre annually. Over 70% of which ends up in landfills or is incinerated and a mere 1% is repurposed to construct new garments.

Therefore, through the introduction of biotechnology and bio regeneration, ­organisations can harmonize with circular systems that break down materials that no longer serve their purpose in order to be reused in their entirety, deriving value from waste. Adopting new methods will re-configure and simplify the way clothes are designed rendering virgin materials as obsolete.

Fabric Innovation Processes

Having analysed the current trajectory of the fabric innovation landscape, we must demystify the key processes that make these materials so sustainable.

i.Bio fabrication & Biotechnology

Bio fabrication focuses on fabrics that can be cultivated and grown in a handful of days. They reduce impacts throughout their lifecycle whether this is through zero water usage or waste in general. Their primary focus is on cellulose and silks that replicate nature by working with materials such as oil seed hemp, food waste, fruit fibres and sugar cane bark. Bio fabrication has previously used bio polymers sourced from fish scale waste. A key advantage of growing these materials from scratch is that they can be engineered and manipulated to fit the form of a design’s shape. Thereby reducing the waste and orthodox textile offcuts often created through the fashion manufacturing process.

ii.Regenerative Agriculture

As with furthering sustainability in the food sector, regenerative agriculture is at the heart of developing planet friendly fashion. Regenerative agriculture is holistic in nature and assimilates a conservation and rehabilitation approach to farming systems. It centres specifically around soil health, low utilisation growth, increasing biodiversity, prescriptive grazing and building resilience to climate change.

There are a myriad of benefits for organisations wanting to explore regenerative agriculture. For example, it is vital for preserving healthy land and reducing scope 1 – 3 emissions within the products footprint. Regenerative processes have benefits for soil such as increasing their water retention capacity and ability to sequest carbon.

Fashion organisations are increasingly using regenerative fibres within their collections. These are crop fibres, grown on farms using minimal carbon and holistic farming practices designed to restore degraded land.

As bio fabrication addresses textile waste, regenerative systems alleviate many challenges of agricultural waste as they find value in crop residue by repurposing it as we have seen with the innovation of Orange Fibre.

An element of incorporating regenerative agriculture into fabric innovation that I find most intriguing is the localised and regionalised crop variations that will give way to a diverse range of materials. As crops depend on the given climate conditions, it nurtures the opportunity for a broad variety of sustainable substitutes for retailers to use.

These cultivating processes demonstrate the commitment of companies to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; in particular Goal 2 and Goal 12 focusing on sustainable agriculture and sustainable consumption/production patterns respectively.  

Bananatex in production in the Philippines

Fabric Innovation at Work – Examples

These case studies illustrate that the possibilities are limitless when it comes to fabric innovation. I would encourage you to research into events such as the Future Fabrics Expo hosted by the Sustainable Angle that work to promote these sustainable and commercial solutions to procurers and designers.

The below list are some of my favourite in no particular order:

  • Orange Fibre – create sustainable textiles from citrus juice by-products
  • Econyl  – transform regenerated nylon waste into yarn for new products
  • Piñatex  – sustainable natural textile made from waste pineapple leaf fibre
  • Bananatex – the world’s first durable, waterproof fabric made purely from banana plants
  • Algi Knit – uses biopolymers derived from kelp to make yarn
  • Pangaia – direct to consumer focuses on bio-based, recycled fibres and materials made from recycled plastic bottles
  • Bolt Threads – a material solutions company  that have created: Microsilk – spun from the same proteins as a spider’s web by using biology, fermentation and traditional textile production AND Mylo – a material that is made from mycelium, the network of thread like cells that make up mushrooms
  • Modern Meadow – specialising in biofabrication. Have created Zoa™ – a lab-grown bioleather from animal-free proteins. They edit the DNA of yeast cells to produce collagen and other proteins. Collagen is the main protein in skin and leather. Through material science, these proteins can then be made into sheets or rolls where material can mirror calf or exotic skins.
  • desserto – a vegan leather made from cactus, partially biodegradable, free from chemicals/PVCs, no water irrigation system, grown on an organic farm, strong durable material which is able to handle temperatures well
  • Agra Loop Bio Fibre  – transforms food crop waste into high-value natural fibre products in a cost competitive and scalable way, providing sustainable and regenerative benefits (think oil seed flax/hemp, pineapple leaves, cane, rice straw, banana trees)
  • Barktex – made from traditionally manufactured bark cloth
  • Through a variety of textile, wood, leather and polymer technology, it undergoes a metamorphosis
  • Vin + Omi – September 2019 collection utilised nettles, weeds, surplus hazel and willow from the Highgrove home of the Prince of Wales
  • Vollebak – pioneering with futuristic technology. They have created a t shirt with plant and algae which is fully biodegradable in 12 weeks. Also released the first ever Graphene jacket. Their collection includes solar charged jackets grown in forests and bioreactors that turns into worm food, and a black squid jacket which mimics the adaptive camouflage of the squid by reflecting every colour in the visible spectrum.

Redefining Wearable Technology

The intelligent pooling of materials is simultaneously sustainably and solution driven. Digitalised lifestyles have created a desire for functional clothing that enhances our connectivity. As we enter the next phase of internet usage; the internet of things – a handful of companies are developing fibres that contain chips.

Technological innovations act as an instrument to advance the possibilities of fabric. At a basic level, 3D printing offers a refreshed method for embellishing garments. Research is currently being conducted into how 3D printing can generate materials that harvest and store electricity as well as fulfilling fashion demands.

Sportswear has traditionally been the space that has fostered the most innovation within the clothing market. E-textiles prove there is continuing momentum in this arena as a futuristic next generation of sportswear could embrace wearable technology. For example, Japanese smart apparel company Xenoma have developed an ‘E-skin’ that monitors your fitness and health with Printed Circuit Fabric technology capable of analysing your movements and tracking cardio vascular activity.

Possibilities are also demonstrated by the Google and Saint Lauren collaboration in 2018 with their Jacquard backpack. Here, the strap of the bag had a computer connected to the users phone where hand motions would enable the sharing of news, weather, selfies and ability to drop location pins and control music.

These inventions are supported by the statistic that the global smart-textile market is expected to grow from $93 billion to $475 billion by 2025 (this includes fashion but also medical/military) as sited by BOF and McKinsey.

The Future

At the heart of building a stable foundation for fabric innovation is industry collaboration of all stakeholders. The merging of investors and innovators by fashion accelerators such as Fashion for Good enable science-based start-ups to gain momentum and scale up their ideas. You can read more on the power of fashion accelerators here.

Stella McCartney has pioneered runway design through her use of econyl, re-engineered cashmere, faux fur alternatives and vegetarian leathers. Her appointment as sustainability and special advisor to LVMH’s Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault holds much promise for other fashion houses within the conglomerate’s portfolio which will then trickle down into other market segments.  

Vertical integration will be another key trend in elevating sustainable fabric design. Chanel’s investment into ‘Evolved by Nature’ to create a sustainable silk unique to the maison is evidence of this.

Partnerships will lead the development of material inventions. For example, H & M is working alongside the Hong Kong Research Institution of Textiles and Apparel on the development of a hydrothermal recycling plant to recycle fibre blends.

Progress within the next decade will also depend on scaled up institutional collaboration and encouragement. The European Union is set offer €21 million of funding to support sustainable bio-based textiles and circular business models which is reassuring. Stateside, the Defence Based Fibres and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute is researching new technology to impregnant fibres and yarns with LEDs, solar cells and integrated circuits.

In the next decade, recycled materials will move to centre stage as the industry begins to clean up. For example, Resyc leather who make materials through a process of the smart recycling of natural leather fibres. These come from traceable pre consumer leather wastage of domestic gardening gloves factories.

Retailers will continue to position collections with recycled material to appear sustainable. However, it should be noted recycled is not mutually exclusive with being environmentally sound. Shoppers should be wary of greenwashing in this arena as there is a lack of infrastructure and systems to adequately separate the recycled yarns. Thus, if it isn’t 100% recyclable it poses further challenges in the disposal phase – this emphasises the need for investment in this arena. Recycled polyester jeans are still an energy intensive process, they still shed microfibres and often more so than original regular denim. I would recommend reading Common Objective’s analysis on the true impact of recycled polyester here.

Finally, focus will shift to include components of garments and how they can create sustainable value, think trims, sseams, buttons, zips et al.  

Final Thoughts

Fabric innovation will flourish with the correct investment and education from fashion organisations. To build at scale and disperse this material revolution across all market segments, it requires collaboration from stakeholders across the value chain. From science-based start-ups, regenerative farmers and fibre companies to manufacturers and brands, a broadened commitment will enable fabric innovation and technology to further the sustainability agenda.

With special thanks to Common Objective for an insightful webinar on this topic. 

If you are interested in this topic, be sure to read my spotlight features on Econyl and Orange Fibre.

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