This article appeared first in The State of Fashion 2020, an in-depth report on the global fashion industry, co-published by BoF and McKinsey & Company. To learn more and download a copy of the report, click here.
LONDON, United Kingdom — In the past, fibre technology and materials science were confined to specialists, sports and outdoor players, and the margins of the fashion industry. But no longer. Some of fashion’s biggest brands have joined the new “materials revolution,” characterised by rising investment, radical experimentation and a growing commitment to sustainability.
Today’s spirit of innovation is reflected in a growing lexicon of synthetic and re-engineered fibres. Bio-fabricated leather, biodegradable textiles, closed-loop recycling and e-textiles are buzzwords that are fast entering the manufacturing mainstream. Moreover, they are contributing to an enhanced design palette and a range of new commercial opportunities.
Companies around the world are set to file eight times as many fibre innovation patent applications in 2019 as they did in 2013, based on McKinsey analysis (see Exhibit 8). The sharp rise suggests fibre innovation is moving decisively from the margins to the mainstream. Industry insiders are also coming around to that view: 45 percent of apparel companies surveyed by McKinsey are looking to integrate more innovative bio-based materials and over 67 percent of sourcing executives state that the use of innovative sustainable materials will be important for their company.
Some broad areas of innovation are showing exceptional promise. Chip-containing fibres, for example, are gaining traction. Brands including New Balance, VF Corporation and 3M are experimenting with leather alternatives such as Piñatex, which is made of pineapple leaf fibres. These alternatives are attracting attention from companies including H&M, Hugo Boss and Chanel. Alongside these examples, a range of new ideas are being trialled that will push the envelope on both sustainability and functionality.
We see three key drivers of accelerating activity: shifting consumer sentiment (often reflecting rising environmental awareness), regulation in areas such as e-textiles and accelerating investment in research and development.
Consumers are prioritising the environment in the choices they make, and some people are willing to pay more for products that have less negative impact. Younger cohorts in particular hold strong beliefs, with a third of Generation Z (born after mid-1990s) in the US saying they will pay for sustainability compared to around one in 10 baby boomers. When it comes to innovation, consumers are also keen for their fashion choices to reflect their digitally enhanced lifestyles.
Secondly, lawmakers are working hard to ensure the fashion and textile industries comply with standards expected by consumers in other aspects of their lives. As discussed in Sustainability First, the EU’s Circular Economy Package introduces ambitious targets for recycling waste, including textile waste. The EU also finances research into textile recycling. Its Trash2Cash project involves 17 partners across 10 countries, aiming to find efficient ways to separate mixed fibres.
Finally, brands around the world are reacting to rising demand for low-impact alternatives that are functional or sustainable or both. Chinese manufacturer Huafu in March 2019 reported a sharp rise in requests for such alternatives from local brands over the previous year.
There’s a lot of clever companies that are starting to blend materials with [bast fibres like] hemp, or ramie, or [flax for] linen.
“There’s a lot of clever companies that are starting to blend materials with [bast fibres like] hemp, or ramie, or [flax for] linen, for example,” says Nina Marenzi, founder and director of The Sustainability Angle, an organisation that stages the London-based Future Fabrics Expo. “These are all blends that lend themselves really well and lower the [environmental] impact immediately.”
Lidewij (Li) Edelkoort, a trend forecaster and dean of hybrid studies at Parsons School of Design in New York, believes that the reinvention of ancient fibres is one of the most promising innovations. “Japan is working on a smaller scale with local producers at the development of nettle, ramie and mulberry paper yarns. The ideal is to make compostable clothes,” she says.
A rising number of companies, meanwhile, are working in collaboration with start-ups or peers. Acabada ProActiveWear and Devan Chemicals are partnering to create products from hemp, which requires less water and fewer chemicals than cotton. Chanel in 2018 launched a new strategy to research and develop materials and leather generated by agri-food industries. The company also invested in start-up Evolved By Nature, which is working on creating sustainable silk. Companies including Bolt Threads, Orange Fibre and Modern Meadow are developing pioneering biotechnologies that create less waste and use fewer natural resources.
“Silks and cellulose will certainly become the biotech focus,” predicts Edelkoort. “Hopefully this will become a staple of available high-tech materials in the future. However one needs to understand that clothes-making is a deep rooted tradition and hasn’t changed much since the Bronze Age [so] developments [can] take an awful long time.”
Elsewhere, she predicts that “the recent revolution of 3D printing on textiles will have a very big market for embellished textiles and will replace the 3D printing of clothes.”
In the e-textiles area, researchers are using 3D printing to make materials that can harvest and store electricity as well as fulfil fashion demands. Japan’s Xenoma has gone a step further, developing “e-skin” that monitors fitness and health with Printed Circuit fabric (PCF) technology. This kind of technology is likely to be the basis of the next generation of sportswear. The global smart-textile market is expected to grow from the current $93 billion to $475 billion by 2025 (including fashion, but also other industries, e.g., medical and military). Google in September 2019 released its Cit-e backpack in collaboration with Saint Laurent. The pack’s left strap contains a computer that connects with an app on the owner’s phone. Users can use simple hand motions to get news, weather or even a selfie.
Companies are reinforcing direct investment with indirect strategies.
Some companies are reinforcing direct investment with indirect strategies. H&M, for example, is partnering with HKRITA (Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel) to operate a pilot hydrothermal recycling plant in Hong Kong to recycle fibre blends. Blends are the most common type of textile and remain largely unrecyclable, so the project represents a major innovation in the space. Several players are also supporting start-ups through awards programmes (e.g., H&M, Kering) and accelerators (e.g., Asics).
“Bigger luxury houses should have R&D and smaller brands should cooperate with them, profiting from their scale and finance. The amount of companies and start-ups is still small compared to the challenge [but] the field is too small for all the students dreaming to work in this direction. [That’s] why the homemade solutions with algae, mushrooms and fruit waste are so popular among young designers,” Edelkoort says.
In addition to updating regulation, some governments are playing a direct role in encouraging and funding research. The EU is set to offer €21 million ($23.5 million) of funding to support sustainable bio-based textiles and circular business models. The US Department of Defence-backed Fibres and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute is researching new technologies to impregnate fibres and yarns with integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells and other capabilities.
The materials revolution is bringing fundamental change both to the raw materials of the fashion industry and the way in which it operates. We expect over the coming year to see more collaboration between start-ups, fibre companies, manufacturers, fashion brands and retailers. Rather than single products or special lines, these innovations may increasingly play out across a company’s wider activities. Companies will build investment centres of excellence and hire product technologists to ensure they remain at the cutting edge. We also expect more vertical integration, with retailers and brands expanding in-house roles for tasks formerly assigned to the supply chain. Finally, functionality will take centre stage, with fibre companies working even harder to reflect digitally enhanced lifestyles and changing consumer behaviours.