When we talk about next generation technology, we often think of flying cars, human robots and such. The fashion industry doesn’t really come to mind and I suspect that this is because this is one industry that draws enormous strength from its history. Fashion complements a traditional sense of culture and is an industry that doesn’t always propagate the most modern or conventional viewpoints. The fashion industry is unique, not just because it’s a merger of creativity and the industrial process. Still, all through the ages, the primary role of fashion has been to cover human nudity; so how technologically advanced can that get? As it turns out, the answer is a lot. A whole lot.
The traditional fashion industry has a huge waste problem and comes with a steep price in the form of negative impact on the environment and quality of life. According to the World Wildlife Fund: the textile industry annually emits 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide that is pumped into the air we breathe. Roughly 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce a kilo of cotton – the equivalent of a single pair of jeans – cotton can be found in nearly 40% of all clothing manufactured each year. Additionally, 85% of the world’s textiles end up in dumps annually where many of the synthetic materials cannot degrade. Other fabrics either release enormous amounts of micro-plastics into the ocean or rely heavily on animal leather.
Fortunately, the hunt for more sustainable fashion products – fueled by the fight for a healthier environment – has eventually led to the development of ‘next generation’ materials in the fashion industry. The technology and science behind them are innovative and in some cases, frankly mind-boggling. For instance, Piñatex is a vegan leather made from pineapple outers that would ordinarily be food waste. Recork turns wine corks into sustainable raw materials, like soles for shoes; while Bloom Foam by Algix transforms green water (from algae) into clean water to make performance foams. Orange Fiber fabric for clothing is made from orange juice pulp and Fruit leather is just as it sounds; leather made from fruit.
Now these fascinating materials all have one thing in common; they are all sustainable and good for the environment. For some materials, this is because they are biodegradable. For others, it is because the materials incorporate the use of recycled materials. The growth of next generation materials portends a good future for the fashion industry because it has the potential to make all future fashion sustainable. And the good news of this cannot be overemphasized.
While the development of these next generation materials is critical, an even more critical point is their adoption by fashion brands. A few factors directly impact this adoption and top of the list are the fashion brands themselves; what the fashion brands say will work is what will work. ‘Next generation’ means that even though these innovations are on the cutting edge of technology, they mostly aren’t mainstream yet. Adoption by industry leaders such as Adidas is very important and as if to reassure us of their support, Adidas just released their iconic Stan Smith sneakers made of a next-gen material known as Mylo, and is crafted from the root structure of mushrooms.
Mylo is grown in sheets over the course of two weeks, tanned and dyed to create mycelium leather. The difference between this and the traditional leather process is that its supply chain, unlike the latter, completely boycotts animal killing. Adidas had begun to push the boundaries of innovative materials with its launched of futureCraft loop sneakers in 2019 but the new Stan Smith sneakers may mark a milestone in the journey of next gen materials to go mainstream. With global brands such as Adidas adopting next-gen materials, they are set to play a big role in fashion’s future – if they aren’t already playing that role already.
This is where organisations like Materials Innovation Initiative come into the picture. MII works with brands to encourage the adoption of next-generation materials. According to MII co-founder Nicole Rawling, the organization has conferred with about 40 leading fashion brands, and all but two are actively searching for next-generation materials to integrate into their supply chains. Now as amazing as all these are, pushing these innovative materials into widespread adoption is not the work of one organization or a single fashion brand. The ultimate test of adoption is whether or not they are loved by consumers and so buyers have a role to play here. The good news is that consumers are becoming more ethically minded for environmental reasons and demand for environmentally friendly products creates more supply for environmentally friendly products.
Another vital element we have to take into account here is time. There’s no way around this, the development and adoption of these innovative fashion materials will take time. From the supply chain to workers’ rights, from recycling to making the process of manufacturing far more energy-efficient, things need to change on all fronts if the fashion industry is to become sustainable in a way that counts – and this will all take time, and in that time, there is other major work to be done.
As I often do when I talk about the future of fashion, I will sound a note of warning regarding the industry’s next-gen materials. It is important that from the outset that we put safeguards in place and not make the mistakes of the past. As someone who grew up around drainages clogged with plastic and climbed hills made of fashion waste, I think that to be truly sustainable, future business models should leverage excess inventory so customers know that their outfits are not adding to waste. There are many in the industry that don’t care about this aspect yet but with enough of us who are willing to support sustainable fashion, we can work toward a better future.
Also, there is the issue of equitable investments and developments. In studying the growth of next-gen material startups, I noticed that they are more likely to cluster around developed countries with advanced technologies. This might be fair, as far as the economics go, but if the current state of affairs are anything to go by, we know that these developed countries often do not bear the brunt of fashion’s exploitative supply chain. It will serve no good for us to change the materials if the old systems remain the same. We have to take deliberate steps to ensure that this technology is spread across the globe through equitable investments.
The roots of what will be the future of fashion are already growing with the advent of next-generation materials, virtual reality, 3D printing and advances in blockchain. The question we need to answer now is how to utilize these advances to create and implement new systems that will change the shortcomings of the present fashion industry.
In the end, the materials don’t make the clothes, humans do.
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Cover image of Stan Smith sneakers made of recycled materials via Adidas.