Take what’s on the market. Now.
This was the urgent message from the 10th edition of the Sustainable Angles Future Fabrics Expo held in London at the end of June. It was the first in-person trade fair in the sector for a few years and was a long-awaited opportunity to mix once more with the movers, shakers, and vision-makers shaping the lifestyle and fashion industry.
I’ve attended this show in past years when the key message was perhaps less compelling. In the layout of the exhibition, the central ‘Innovation’ section sits front and centre and is generally where the most exciting experiments and inventions are showcased. This is where you’ll find work-in-progress ideas from new generations of creative solution finders. In past events, textile exhibitors tended to show a small range of developments with limited information on minimum order quantities — MOQs, to use the industry term — and availability. These have often felt like a fantasy, frankly, too far away from a minimum viable product to make an impact.
Seeing tangible progress in innovation
But this event was different. Finally we’re seeing tangible progress and maturity in sustainable fabric innovation alongside a sense of momentum and urgency. Over the past two years, chemists, scientists, geeks, and designers have used their time well. They have pushed boundaries to bring viable sustainable materials and commercial biotech solutions to market.
Using mycelium in shoes and packaging
While all these innovations are looking for further research support and funding to scale up, some ideas have gained traction to the point where demand is already outstripping supply. Take Forager, for example, a new brand of ground-breaking products made from mycelium, the threadlike roots of fungus. Forager grows this naturally biodegradable biomaterial for use in a wide range of applications from foam shoe soles to lightweight packing materials. They have already started a collaboration with computer manufacturer Dell looking to solve packaging and product protection issues more sustainably. The goal is that their lightweight and impact-resistant mycelium-based solutions might one day replace expanded polystyrene foam (EPS). This is big news. If this solution can scale, it could make a significant dent in the staggering 2.3 million tonnes of EPS that ends up in landfills every year worldwide.
It was evident throughout the exhibition that much of the breakthrough biotech was coming from companies based in the USA. My hunch is that the difference has to do with investment culture. But funding is urgently needed to scale innovations from idea to product around the globe.
Recent research from McKinsey, Scaling textile recycling in Europe: turning waste into value, underlined the critical importance of funding sustainable fabric innovation and highlighted the many business opportunities that arise when countries invest in recuperating and recycling valuable textile resources. Progress is happening: the current EU collection infrastructure rescued one-third of the 7.5 million tonnes of textile waste produced by its 27 members countries in 2020. But more must be done — and quickly — to develop and implement recycling technology. To fund a projected 250 fibre-to-fibre recycling facilities across the EU would require an estimated €6 billion investment. However, the return on this investment is a potential 18-26% recovery rate on textiles and a new export product of high value to apparel manufacturers seeking sustainable materials.
What this year’s Future Fabrics exhibition showed was that many sustainable fabric solutions are already here. It’s up to governments, investors, brands, and consumers to back these fantastic ideas that are ready for the market now.
Otherwise great ideas will remain just that.