Natural or recycled? How can we become more sustainable? What are the most interesting innovations? Anna Pellizzari from Materially provides the answers
[On the cover: Ohoskin, material with content derived from orange and cactus waste – Courtesy Ohoskin Srl]
The path towards sustainable fashion – including fashion accessories – is still all uphill: an obstacle course full of hurdles that all have to be overcome before we can achieve total sustainability. One of these regards materials – and so, to learn more about the subject, we talked to Anna Pellizzari, Executive Director and part of the research team at Materially. With its design-oriented approach and strong focus on issues relating to the circular economy and intelligent innovation, Materially provides companies with help in developing and promoting sustainable innovation with regard to materials.
Is the material the key component of a sustainable product?
Yes, provided it is used intelligently. It’s more complicated in the footwear sector because the shoe itself is a complex object, consisting of a number of components made of various different materials, each with its own precise function and very often not interchangeable with others.
We can look at it from two points of view.
1. The material’s intrinsic sustainability, which refers to the type and origin of the raw material and the transformation processes used. The company has to think in terms of LCA (life-cycle assessment), which quantifies the potential lifetime impact of the material on the environment and on health. In the ambit of faux leathers, for example, there are petroleum-based products and products with a more natural content derived from food waste (grape marc, apples, oranges, etc.). But in both cases, it’s important to measure the carbon footprint, including the energy used in the production process.
2. Process sustainability; these days, companies are moving towards a reduction of potentially harmful chemical substances in their production processes, such as solvents or fluorine polymers used in water-repellent treatments. Contributing to this are the increasingly stringent environmental regulations that some companies – those that were oriented towards more sustainable solutions right from the start – have already adopted proactively.
We often hear about “natural” or “recycled” content: which is best?
Reducing petroleum-based components in raw materials in favour of more natural, bio-based ones is undoubtedly a good idea. However, in certain products – such as shoes – it is difficult to eliminate polymers completely, for performance reasons, and therefore, as an alternative, shoemakers may turn to recycling (e.g., Adidas is eliminating virgin polyester in its clothing products and recycling plastic waste from the oceans for its footwear; at the same time, it is working on a completely recyclable shoe made wholly of polyurethane). So, the one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other!
So plastic has to be eliminated?
I don’t entirely agree with this total demonisation of plastic. For certain things there is no substitute: you can try and manufacture it better, manage it better, but we are a long way off from replacing it entirely. Not all materials can be 100% natural, because many need a polymer component to ensure the necessary high performance. It’s true that some plastics can be created from plant-derived and not petroleum-based monomers – but the costs change.
What must companies do in order to embark on the path to sustainability?
They can move in three directions: 1) a planning stage, in which the product is looked at with an eye to what will happen at the end of its life, and the choice as to which materials to use is made on that basis. If you want to make a long-lasting product, you can use more durable materials that may have a greater impact initially, but have a longer lifespan: for example, compostability only makes sense in short-lived products, while for products with a longer lifespan it is better to think in terms of recycling; 2) take a look at the company’s footprint and, consequently, that of the product 3) think in terms of the naturalness of materials and, therefore, of gradually reducing petroleum-based components in the various processing stages (dyeing, finishing, etc.)
Materially can offer advice on all these aspects?
Yes. Materially caters to businesses that want to play their part in the ecological transition and reduce their environmental impact, both by scouting for suppliers of sustainable materials and advising on the best choices to make. Our clients are innovation-oriented companies or else are looking for solutions to a production problem. But we are also approached by firms that have invented new materials and want to find a destination for them; Materially helps them find new areas of application and connects them to the right business partner.
Materially also organises instructional events, such as the videos made for Mido on the latest trends and new [sustainable] materials for eyewear: is there much consumer awareness on the subject right now?
It’s quite complicated to explain this sort of thing because there’s a lot of confusion about, even in the media. For example, the subject of pollution, which is a local phenomenon, is often mixed up with that of global warming which is, obviously, global: they are two quite different things.
But I’m optimistic, because I see that at the macro industrial level there is considerable interest, and that even very large companies are prepared to change their production processes. Consumer awareness is also definitely on the increase. My advice [to them] is to make products last longer, to choose quality and not fast fashion, to ask for information on the origin of the raw materials and not to settle for vague slogans.
Any interesting innovations you want to tell us about?
There are some interesting developments regarding materials made from agri-food waste, even though we are talking here about a small number of niche products. Another world with an original approach is that of fungi, used as an alternative to leather. Firms the world over have been working on this for some time now, such as the Italian company Mogu, which focuses mainly on the furniture and furnishings sector; and then there is Modern Meadow, which grows leather in its lab, using processes similar to those used in the medical or food sector. These are disruptive innovations, but even incremental innovation, aimed at improving existing processes, is important and deserves recognition. Everything can contribute to changing the production paradigm.