New Report Outlines Fashion’s Emerging Material Opportunities – WWD

“Megatrends” sustainability, functionality, differentiation and personalization are the four key drivers for textile and apparel industry growth, according to a new report by Lux Research, a New York-based research and data company.

In its Emerging Materials Opportunities for the Apparel Industry report, the firm outlined why material innovation is crucial for continued growth in both industries. The authors of the report said factors such as “low-cost tolerance and fast product cycles make materials innovation a challenge, but both brands and consumers are demanding change and creating new opportunities for innovation.”

But first, its report delved a bit into textiles’ timeline, reminding us that fabrics and textiles are “rooted deep in human history, with archaeologists discovering early signs of cloth weaving from the Paleolithic era.” Today, the textile industry is its own universe that includes the design, sourcing, production and distribution of cloth or woven fabric made by natural or synthetic fibers.

The World Trade Organization assessed the value of global textiles exported at $315 billion and apparel exports as $505 billion for 2018; the growth rate was 6 percent and 11 percent, respectively — one of the highest rates since 2012, according to the report. Described as “a ubiquitous behemoth,” the textiles and apparel industries are currently steady and strong but face uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Patagonia offers bio-based fabric finishes.  Shutterstock / Tada Images

Tiffany Hua, an associate at Lux Research, told WWD, “Right now is a tough time to sell new materials into textiles and apparel, due to the pandemic. On the one hand, there are major supply chain disruptions and manufacturers are too busy struggling to continue production to think about adopting new materials. On the other, brands and retailers are overflowing with inventory and solely relying on digital sales, and many innovation teams are limited or furloughed. We will likely see a temporary halt in adoption of new fiber innovations as producers and brands work to push out their existing products.”

“However, COVID-19 creates a strong need for innovation. We will see increased adoption of antimicrobial and antiviral textiles for uniforms and personal apparel, and within public transportation, automotive and health care. Companies can make their supply chains more robust by making use of waste feedstock, using recycled material and embracing circular economy. As the industry recovers from the crisis, it will need to adopt agile innovation thinking to stay ahead of materials shift.”

Cecilia Gee, Lux Research analyst and lead author of the report, said innovative solutions are critical for the industries’ evolution, in addition to achieving strong brand value and image. “While these four megatrends [of sustainability, functionality, differentiation and personalization] are driving long-term industry change, companies need solutions right now to address policy changes and consumer demands.”

For Lux Research, those solutions include six material and chemical-focused paths to sustainability, including  advancements in fibers; sustainable processing techniques such as water-free dyeing of fabrics; functional improvements à la smart textiles; special material coatings, and end-of-life recycling options for both polyester and cellulosic materials, which collectively “tackle sustainability from multiple angles,” authors of the report said.

Primarily, Lux Research underscores the demand for unbridled innovation, which lends itself well for brands seeking distinction. “While fiber innovations are still a few years away, chemical companies can benefit by partnering with start-ups to help scale and validate novel fiber technologies. Developing environmentally friendly alternative materials can help brands differentiate themselves through the ongoing sustainability trend,” Gee said.

DuPont Sorona’s eco-efficient performance fiber. Photo courtesy of DuPont Industrial Biomaterials. 

Its report added that brands looking to immediately differentiate themselves “should look to innovations on a more immediate timeline, ignoring longer-term developments until those are ready for upfront adoption.”

And a way to do just that is through the use of functional coatings, which are perhaps best described as fabric magic. Functional coatings are popular options for enhancing performance apparel, in addition to sports, outdoor and automotive textiles, and feed into both textile processing and product functionalization, the report said.

“Functional coatings and finishes provide near-term opportunities within the next one to two years, whereas fiber innovations, water-free dyeing, and smart textiles should be viewed as long-term opportunities,” Gee explained. “Drop-in additives that provide performance enhancement and differentiation are already market-ready, and chemical companies can benefit from providing less harmful and bio-based products that meet brand and consumer demand.”

Lux Research also said end-of-life recycling opportunities for polyester and cellulosic materials do indeed “pose midterm (or three to five years) opportunities for growth,” but with a caveat. While polyester recycling is close to scale, there is a need for improved supply chain logistics and better-quality feedstock to achieve a scalable solution, the report said.

Modern Meadow uses biotechnology in its Zoa Biofabricated Material. Photo courtesy of Modern Meadow. 

And interestingly, there is an opportunity for chemical companies to benefit from this need by providing polyester feedstock diversification. “Cellulosic recycling of cotton-based materials is being driven by government regulation and corporate consortia, providing companies an opportunity to develop post-consumer recycling options that capitalize on future feedstock opportunities, especially in the EU, which is leading in textile waste separation infrastructure,” the firm explained.

For the long term, Lux Research emphasized the undeniable power of sustainability to keep driving innovation. “Sustainability is of critical importance for companies and society alike. [But] transitioning toward a more circular economy has been historically difficult, with commercialization relegated to niche markets because of high material costs, poor performance and low capacities.”

The firm said brand owners themselves are “spearheading sustainable change across the value chain, from upstream sourcing and manufacturing to downstream reclamation and recycling,” calling out brands such as Adidas and Patagonia for their efforts, and cooperative initiatives such as Macron’s Fashion Pact, the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, and Greenpeace’s Detox 2020.

“Each aspect of sustainability [outlined in the report], despite any technical challenge, is necessary to reach improved practices across the value chain for the future, whether through sourcing, prolonging product performance, recycling or otherwise. At present, major fashion brands are leading the charge on sustainability; chemicals and materials companies should respond to the market pull and partner with key brands to develop technologies that supplement the needs of the value chain.”

For more Business news from WWD, see:

Outdoor Brands Talk Coronavirus Impacts

Brick-and-Mortar, Digital Retailers Adjust Strategies in Wake of Coronavirus

Field Notes: How Fabric Is Helping Save the Planet


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