The Future of Materials

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With less than a decade to prevent irreversible damage to our climate, a new wave of material innovation is helping designers and organisations adopt circular and regenerative approaches to design

According to Swedish non-profit organisation Axfoundation, global demand for new textile fibres is forecast to increase by 150% by 2050. But with many materials in use consisting of fossil fuel-based synthetic fibres or requiring intensive processing, a generation of future-facing brands and designers are building a new material future that prioritises circularity and regeneration. 

In doing so, they are realising the possibilities we first explored in Material Far Futures, using material innovation as a tool to combat once-in-a-generation issues currently faced by society, from the climate crisis to resource scarcity. 

When it comes to circularity, the fashion world is at the forefront of building a new closed-loop landscape. As part of its ongoing environmental efforts, Lululemon is partnering with biotechnology company LanzaTech to create eco-friendly yarns and fabrics made from recycled carbon emissions. This circular innovation – a response to the need to reduce the impact of materials – avoids reliance on virgin fossil fuels by making use of waste gases.

‘Carbon recycling enables companies like Lululemon to continue to move away from virgin fossil resources, bring circularity to their products and achieve their climate change goals around carbon reduction,’ explains Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech.

Elsewhere, Gucci has launched its first circular collection with a line of accessories made from recycled, bio-based materials in an attempt to help limit the 148m tons of industrial waste forecast to be produced by the fashion sector annually in 2030 (source: Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group). 

While these examples are specifically from the fashion world, they are representative of the movement occurring across industries, which is tackling the dizzying amount of waste through materials that lend themselves to circularity. A cross-industry, collaborative approach to innovation and creating new partnerships to build circular eco-systems will be key to this future, which we recently investigated in depth in a report for leading labels and packaging manufacturer Avery Dennison.

What’s making this future even more likely to play out is the fact that material innovation isn’t just transforming discarded resources into something new – but something better. One example is Circulose, a biodegradable and hyper-durable material made by Sweden-based Renewcell from cellulose contained in old clothing. Another is Prada’s Extreme-Tex, which is made from recycled polyester, has anti-bacterial properties and can thermoregulate the body.

Published by:

1 September 2021

Author: Adam Steel

Image: Material World by Foam Studio for Covestro, Berlin

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Circulose by Re:newcell

Looking ahead, new materials will go one step further than circularity and begin proactively regenerating the environment. Teaming up with industrial designer Charlotte McCurdy, Phillip Lim has developed a dress made from carbon-sequestering algae. Elsewhere, Mexican designer Fernando Laposse has created Totomoxtle, a material that turns waste from corn production into a veneer, with the added benefit of re-popularising an endangered species of maize.

Promisingly, such concepts are not only environmentally beneficial but have a positive economic impact too. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation forecasts that restorative approaches could deliver an annual net material cost-saving of £437bn by 2025 in Europe alone, with materials integral to these approaches.

And at the same time, this new material movement entirely complements a fresh post-pandemic consumer mindset. Research from Capgemini reveals that more than two-thirds (67%) of consumers say they’ll be more cautious about the scarcity of natural resources and 65% more mindful about the impact of their overall consumption after the Covid crisis.

It’s a shifting mindset that Rachael Stott, The Future Laboratory’s futures analyst, also wrote about in our Innovation Debrief 2021. ‘The most progressive brands acknowledge that they are part of an interconnected set of global systems and should be continually striving to improve every element of their operations,’ she said. ‘Consumers are cynical about greenwashing tactics, and expect concrete, resourceful solutions from brands that place planet and people first instead of their bottom line.’

For brands, it means that material innovation isn’t just a way to prevent irreversible damage to our climate; it can also realise extra value and build deeper relationships with consumers. In other words, it’s a way to build the New Extra-ordinary and accelerate society forward.

Our foresight reports are a compelling resource that provide insights to your company internally and help you carve out a distinct viewpoint externally. Find out more here.

‘New materials will go one step further than circularity and begin proactively regenerating the environment.’

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