#MaterialsMatter: The Fashion Industry’s New Mantra?

“Materials matter” is a mantra you’re hearing more of in the fashion industry as brands, big and small, consider the impact materials have on climate change. NIKE has gone further with a new collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate CoLab to bring fervor and clout to materials innovation.

“We know materials make up about 60 percent of the environmental impact in a pair of Nike shoes,” says Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer at NIKE. “This knowledge has focused us on the need to bring new low-impact performance materials to scale through innovative solutions.”

Earlier this month, NIKE and MIT announced a challenge around “Materials Matter” to build a community of like-minded leaders and influencers to define opportunities for low carbon innovation and also methods to drive scale in low impact materials. Nike has been a long time supporter of sustainability initiatives including an instrumental role in creating the Materials Sustainability Index, which was adopted by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in 2012.

Consider these facts from MIT’s Materials Systems Lab:

  • Each year, the global production of cotton generates the same greenhouse gas as 52 million passenger cars.
  • The creation of polyester just for textiles has the same greenhouse gas footprint as 185 coal fired power plants operating for a full year.
  • Each year, enough leather is produced to cover the state of Maryland, and more than 50% of that goes into footwear.
  • Growing and processing materials for use in the global apparel industry requires 1 billion kWh of electricity. Enough to power more than 100,000 houses in the US for a year.

Materials are a climate problem that are often overlooked

“When Nike told us about the research they had done with the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, we saw that the use of materials was an important part of the problem that the world didn’t even realize it had,” says Prof. Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and founder of the Climate CoLab. “This Nike-sponsored contest allows many different kinds of people — marketers, designers, scientists, supply chain managers, customers, and many others — to work together on this critical part of the climate change challenge,” Malone explains.

The Materials Matters challenge seeks novel and well thought-out ideas on how to engage industries, designers, product creators and the public in valuing, demanding and adopting lower impact materials. Entries to the challenge may take many forms:

  • Ways to develop standardized terminology and shared understanding for energy and carbon and the corresponding footprint in materials
  • Novel methods to increase the perceived value of material composition
  • Breakthrough technologies that lower the impact of materials
  • Incentives to increase the adoption of lower impact materials for fabrics
  • Solutions that drive collaboration across industry and supply chain
  • Models to support demand creation for lower impact materials
  • Campaigns or programs that redefine how apparel is used

Laur Fisher, program manager of the Climate CoLab says this is a real opportunity to innovate collaboratively, “Some people enter the contest with a proposal they have already developed, but you can also post an early version of your idea before it is fully developed. Then other people can support the idea, comment on it, and help you develop it. If you want to, you can even invite others to officially join your team.”

New York Designer Yehua Yang says both MIT and Nike have the talent and the resources to lead this type of innovation, and she’d like to see an initiative like this made accessible to a broad public. Yang studied Art/Design at Washington University in St. Louis, and has been in the fashion industry for almost a decade. She recently founded her own fashion design company, Pivotte.

Yang was one of several designers, materials specialists and marketers to take part in an afternoon ideation session together with MIT Climate CoLab and NIKE around materials innovation in New York last month. “I loved the session, and all the thoughts given to this conversation,” Yang says.

Yang says MIT and Nike lend credibility and authority to this space and she also says that it’s not a simple problem space. She adds for there to be a strong and lasting movement around materials innovation — environmental scientists, materials engineers, policy makers, sociologists and anthropologists need to communicate and collaborate to help shift the mindset of consumers in — consuming less and finding ways to reconcile that with corporate interests. “I obviously think it’s a very important issue, and think it has to be a bigger movement,” says Yang.

For the past few years, Nike has been expanding the pipeline of innovation around materials and fabric through LAUNCH, a program that helps identify and accelerate sustainability innovations. Connora Technologies Inc., a recent LAUNCH innovator, enables the next generation of performance composites and adhesives to be recyclable for the first time.

Impact of fabrics and textiles on our climate

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, some 12.4 million tons of footwear, clothing, and other non-durable textiles were generated in the United States and some 85% of these materials end up in landfills or incinerators.

The Material’s Matter challenge aims to redefine society’s relationship with fabrics and textiles. More information on the challenge here:

About the authors: Davar Ardalan is the Director of Storytelling and Engagement at SecondMuse. Monica Price Cohen is the Engagement Manager for Materials Matter. SecondMuse is one of the partners in this open innovation endeavor.

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