Your Two Minute Guide: New Material Technologies and Their Impact
The fashion industry is evolving at an ever-increasing speed to revert the damages it has caused to our environment, whether through social movements, new business models or technologies. With many of fashion’s most significant environmental impacts coming from the raw materials, it is of little surprise to see the number of ground-breaking material technologies coming into the market in recent years.
These innovations range from: 1. Novel sources of fibre feedstock such as algae (from Algiknit and Algalife) and bio-based synthetics made from corn (from Everest and Olmetex), 2. Finishing treatment such as chemical free performance membrane (from Dimpora) and plant-based dye (from IndiDye) and, 3. Production technologies to achieve waterproof function with natural fibre (from Ventile).
As much as it is exciting to discover these revolutionary materials, it can also be daunting to understand the real science behind and assess their true environmental impact, especially as these technologies are so new in the market there are hardly any information and independent data available. In this article, we provide some high-level principles and practical guidelines that enable designers and buyers to make more informed and responsible material sourcing decisions.
How to appropriately assess the impact of new fibres and material?
When it comes to assessing sustainability of raw materials, it is important to be aware that they can have various types of impact: on climate, water cycles and biodiversity. While energy intensity (i.e. carbon & water footprint) are the most absolute metrics and widely used to track climate impact, a more wholistic and complete approach would be to consider the entire lifecycle of the fabric, from its raw material state to its end-of-life.
Climate impact is typically measured in CO2 equivalents – and emissions from the materials can come from the production of the feedstock, processing of the fibre, to production of the end material. For natural fibres, it is important to take into account agriculture related emissions, including potential impacts on land use change. As many novel fabrics include advanced processing, it becomes particularly relevant to consider the energy intensity at that stage of the product’s life cycle. On the other hand, impact on water cycle includes both the quantity of the water used in production and processing, as well as the quality of any discharged wastewater.
As the industry moves towards circularity, a key challenge is designing garments that are circular ready, and this is when the end-of-life impact of material is particularly relevant. This includes selecting fabrics that can be recycled using available technologies, and typically fabrics made from mixed materials are more difficult to recycle. Where recycling isn’t possible, biodegradability becomes an important consideration. Ideally, fabrics should be biodegradable, while maintaining their durability during use.
Finally, impact on biodiversity includes the protection of plant and animal wildlife and the natural ecosystems they thrive in. This includes both above ground biodiversity, such as the threats placed on forests and natural ecosystems through intensive land use, as well as below ground biodiversity, such as the impacts of mono-cropping agriculture on soil fertility and soil quality. Unsustainable agricultural practices (of natural material) are one of the leading threats to biodiversity globally. To mitigate this, the fashion industry is looking to develop fibres that are produced through regenerative agriculture.
What to do when there is limited information?
One of the key challenge with using new, innovative materials is that there are limited quantitative data on their impact, both due to the cost and time required to conduct such quantitative studies. For example, biodegradability tests could take between 6 to 36+ months to complete, costing at least US$15,000 per 6 months.
When quantitative data is limited, one should look for more qualitative information, which is more readily available but also equally important for sustainability assessment, particularly for impact that are not easily captured by absolute numbers (i.e. on biodiversity). One could request more information from suppliers and offer to work together to close the information gaps. More generally, the transparency and willingness of suppliers in sharing information on their practices are also good indicators of their sustainability governance.
What else to consider?
With many of these new materials, the true environmental impact would require time to fully assess and understand. Unintended downside impact may also only be revealed later, for example, the issue of microfiber pollution from synthetics only became more concrete in recent years. It is important to recognise that our knowledge on materials’ impact (both positive and negative) are constantly evolving, and so are that technologies that can overcome the problems and create new possibilities.
There is no one single material or solution that trumps the rest, rather it is about each individual playing its part to take small, incremental steps - managing the transition and phasing out harmful substances at a pace that is right for them. Being more curious and actively seeking to understand the impact through open and reliable industry sources, such as The Sustainable Angle and Textile Exchange, is a great starting point. While there remain many unanswered questions, what is certain is that the greater the demand for information, the more transparent and accountable the fashion industry will become. The power is in each of our hands.