The Future of the Materials Industry

Written by
Emily Cai
Materials Specialist at On

Must read

Aug 14, 2023

The materials industry is evolving as consumers increasingly prioritize sustainability. A 2023 study by McKinsey and NielsonIQ found that consumers are increasingly directing their spending towards environmentally-conscious products. Even during the pandemic, 57% of European consumers had already started changing their fashion spending habits to better align with their sustainability values. Of those surveyed, two-thirds valued the use of sustainable materials as an important purchasing factor.

Biomaterials, which can revolutionize the way products are produced, play a vital role in this shift towards sustainability. They address social and environmental concerns such as animal welfare, fossil-fuel reliance, and carbon emissions. Despite their potential, challenges such as defining clear sustainability goals and scalability still remain. We explore the potential of biomaterials, their place alongside conventional materials, and the importance of supporting their development during this critical time.

Industry leaders must unite consumers, brands, and innovators under common sustainability metrics.

The Potential of Biomaterials

Biomaterials have the potential to provide more sustainable alternatives to many conventional materials. However, the industry must be mindful of prevailing perceptions of current conventional materials to take advantage of the right opportunities.  

For instance, real fur has gradually lost favor, with the exception of select luxury markets. Fur bans and the rise of veganism signal a collective commitment against animal cruelty. Most consumers and brands are turning towards faux furs, which are typically made of polyester and acrylic fibers. Biomaterials can then be a fitting alternative to these synthetic furs.

On the other hand, leather still enjoys a natural and luxurious image, despite its harmful environmental impact. Leather production is linked to rainforest destruction, increased carbon emissions, and toxic chemical exposure. However, leather is still seen as a byproduct of the meat industry and there is a strong argument that not using leather actually wastes large numbers of hides. Synthetic leathers made of polyurethane are typically seen as cheaper and lower-quality than real leather. While biomaterials have the potential to be alternatives to leather and synthetic leathers, they must contend with the positive public perception of conventional leather.

Unlike animal-based materials, it is difficult to have a positive outlook on fossil-fuel derived materials. New sustainability regulations target coal-burning factories and virgin plastic reliance. As more regulations are introduced, petrochemical-derived materials will be more difficult to use as they may not pass these guidelines. The extraction and usage of fossil fuels destroys habitats, pollutes waterways, and emits harmful greenhouse gasses. This has pushed many brands to look into recycled or bio-based alternatives.

Ambiguous Sustainability Goals

The differing perceptions of animal vs. petrochemical-based materials also speaks to a broader absence of a clear sustainability definition. Brands, innovators, and industry leaders all have differing sustainability goals. While the UN Sustainable Development Goals include targets for “Responsible Consumption and Production” and “Climate Action,” the steps to achieving these goals remain vague. Some brands value animal welfare, while others are more interested in carbon reduction, circularity or biodegradability. While it is necessary to tackle sustainability issues from multiple angles, this diversity of objectives leads to conflicting approaches.

Industry leaders must unite consumers, brands, and innovators under common sustainability metrics. The EU exemplifies this leadership with the introduction of stricter sustainability regulations to guide the fashion industry. The regulations will clarify certifications, ban the incineration of unsold goods, and provide environmental footprint information to be available to the public.  

Currently, consumers are left to navigate a maze of sustainability claims from different brands. Each new “sustainable material” seems to carry an asterisk: recycled polyester is better than virgin polyester, but it diverts waste from the PET bottle waste stream. Chemically recycling polyester is more circular, but the process has a larger carbon footprint. Biomaterials may have a lower carbon footprint, but many current alternatives are coated with synthetic products. Each new material has its strengths and limitations, making it challenging to determine the most genuine path forward.  

Scalability of Biomaterials

Biomaterials will not replace conventional materials overnight. The standards for biomaterials are significantly higher than those for conventional materials. In order to be competitive with conventional materials, they have to perform better and cost comparably. Conventional materials benefit from economies of scale, keeping their costs low. Startups working with small-scale production may struggle to meet these price targets due to research and development demands. Initially, more premium products with smaller volumes may be better positioned to adopt these new materials.  

The Future of the Materials Industry

In the journey to create more widely adopted sustainable materials, biomaterials face a gradual process with successes and setbacks. Biomaterials will need to begin by coexisting with their conventional counterparts, being used on products that best utilize the strengths of each.

As consumers demand more authentic sustainability practices, it becomes crucial to continue supporting biomaterials during this critical transition period. Collaborative efforts and building upon past learnings are essential to create the most impactful materials to address wide-ranging sustainability challenges.