Can future material innovations solve sustainability issues?

In order for sustainable companies to have a major impact on the market, the scalability of sustainable fabrics is necessary. But at the moment the supply chains are not yet aligned for this

By Christopher Snyder, Material Design Expert

Source & Copyright by Adidas x Parley

Author: House of Eden

The sourcing of raw materials for the textiles industry is facing two obvious issues: One is the plastic waste, caused by products made of petroleum based synthetic materials, and the other one is the sourcing of animal-derived leather, which is alarming in terms of animal protection. Thus more and more brands are promoting alternative and innovative materials to replace these problematic resources. However it is questionable if these materials can ever be more than a symbol and really drive sustainable practices.

To answer that question, let's talk to Chris Snyder, creative director and materials design expert. With 17 years of experience in the world's largest sportswear companies such as Adidas and Nike, where he led global textile design and research departments. He has helped brands create new sustainable solutions and storytelling for material design through innovation.

"We need a vastness of these types of innovative materials that are used everywhere. It requires a shift in mindset, investment and education, in order to move from mass consumption into meaningful consumption with lasting longevity."

Current material innovation trends are aiming for circularity

Especially fashion garments, but also furniture textiles, are experiencing a transition towards sustainable innovations, involving plant-based and recycled materials, but it is not clear if any of these innovations will be future proof.

"When talking about sustainability, you are going to see a rise in organic, biodegradable and natural materials, while emissions tracking is becoming a popular way of quantifying materials. Another trend is the idea of full recyclability or circularity of a singular product, an example for this is the Adidas Loop shoe”, says Christopher Snyder.

For complete circularity, materials are required that are completely biodegradable, such as organically produced mushroom and apple leather. Alternatively, materials would have to be 100% reusable.

“The recyclability of products is often questionable, this is why you see multiple brands focusing on one material products right now, because it gives the ability to recycle in full at any time. When adding secondary materials, we need to go to a chemical recycling processes, which we don’t have as of today.”

Supply Chains cannot to make alternative materials scalable yet

In order to create one yarn, resources are often coming from multiple sources and suppliers in most cases are not fully traceable. Meaning supply chains are complex and the transition to full sustainability is therefore difficult as well as linked to high costs. On the other hand, in order to develop alternative materials at large scale, intensive investments or reallocation of capital is required.

“Right now, it is a petroleum-based supply chain that drives the majority of at least the sportswear industry and I would say even a lot of the textile industries today. In order for sustainable or an eco-conceived company to have a large impact on the market, we have to be able to build and adjust the infrastructure, to bring scalability to sustainable fabrics. But right now, there is not the infrastructure to produce a million products a day made of these innovative materials“, explains the material design expert.

Cactus Leather, Source & Copyright by Adriano di Mati

Leather alternatives for example are not new to the market, but in the recent month a big milestone has been reached, when Stella McCartney made the first capsule collection made of mushroom leather called Mylo™, which also has been promoted by other brands like Adidas or Hermès.

“Today, many brands are just making one product with this material, not an entire line, just scratching the surface. It is great and it is a nice storytelling opportunity, but what is the real impact? And that is where the scalability needs to reach the point, where you can make mushroom leather on the same scale, that you can make a synthetic leather. But for a true systematic shift, investments and supply chains are not ready yet. There have to be groups of brands investing in these things”, Chris says.

Ocean plastic raises awareness, but cannot solve the plastic problem

Every year million tons of plastic waste enters our ocean, polluting our environment and killing ocean animals. For quite a while now, consumers are given the choice to buy products made of recycled plastics, for example made of Econyl®, which is regenerated Nylon, or made of recycled “Ocean Waste”, first pioneered by the Adidas x Parley Sneaker.

But can recycled ocean plastic be the solution? No says Chris Snyder, because a lot of that ocean plastic is actually ocean bound plastic. When we speak about ocean plastic most people are thinking about plastic, which is washed ashore or floats in the oceans. However collecting this plastic is costly and the recycling process complex. The majority of the collected plastic cannot even be used for recycling, since it has been exposed to salt water and rough weather conditions.

This is why most companies use what is known as “Ocean Bound Plastic” and refer to it as “Ocean Plastic”. By definition this is plastic waste, that is collected within a distance of less than 50 km around the coast through cleanups and volunteers.

Source & Copyright by Adidas x Parley

"So when we speak about recycled plastic it is actually more a process than creating a virgin material. Compared to virgin synthetic materials, where the costs are driven by petroleum prices, recycled material costs maintain until more and more efficiencies are built. And there is an additional process that has to go in, to create recycled materials. So that is why recycled goods or products cost more for the companies to produce them", Christopher Snyder says.

Is vegan leather the solution?

But what about vegan leather, which is actually not made of bio-based materials such as cactus or apples. These are then made of synthetic materials. Consumers often question the high prices for such "vegan leather" products.

“Now when you talk about synthetic vegan leather versus real leather, this is a point that pains me personally, because vegan leather today is plastic. Yes, it is not using a living thing to create a good, but I would expect that maybe the people that are vegan, also do not want to support the plastic industry. But a lot of times they are not even educated to know that it is plastic.

Vegan became a really catchy marketing name, but it is not a real representation of what the consumer is receiving. Leather in my opinion is still more sustainable than synthetic leather. And especially if it is ethically sourced through a food supply chain”, the designer explains.


Consumers do not see the consequences of post-industrial waste

Last but not least there is the waste problem. Different studies have shown estimates on the total number of garments produced globally, falling between 80 and 150 billion pieces per year. Up to 47% of all fibres that enter the fashion value chain are wasted in the various stages of production, from fibre, yarn, fabric to a piece of clothing.

“This is where a lot of issues are, the product creation results in waste, which the consumers do not see. They think they are getting a sustainable product, but it could potentially have a lot of waste going along with it. So that is where you need to have a blend of technology. Starting from bio-yarn or recycled yarn and then understanding what technology or what process creates less waste, for example like 3D printing. "

Education is another important lever to drive sustainability. Consumers need to understand the consequences of their consumption. Education needs to be driven by brands and government.

“I think it is definitely on a brand as well to educate the consumer. We need to evolve our language to educate them on what the future materials look like. For example hemp. This is an amazing opportunity when it comes to sustainability and it’s proven. We have the facts from science showing the water savings all the way to being able to make bioplastics and biofuels from hemp. So now it needs the government to open up land and regulations to grow such a product and then again, the investment from the corporations as well.”

Future materials can transform the industry, but require investment and education

“We need a systematic shift in the industry as a whole and move away from synthetic or petroleum based materials. We also need to think about longevity of products. How can we make products last and create products that grow and evolve. A plastic bag at the end of the day does not do this. You cannot polish it, you can’t refurbish it, that’s not what is inherit with those products.”

“I think Hemp is a big one, but it does not solve the world’s issue. Same as mushroom leather, that does not solve it. We need a vastness of these types of materials that are used everywhere. It requires a shift in mindset, investment and education, in order to move from mass consumption into meaningful consumption with lasting longevity."



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Author: Christopher Snyder

Chris Snyder is the creative director and materials design expert. He has 17 years of experience in the world's largest sportswear companies such as Adidas and Nike, where he led global textile design and research departments. He has helped brands create new sustainable solutions and storytelling for material design through innovation.

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