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Balancing Innovation & Nature

WHAT IS INNOVATION


Fashion is driven by change, innovation, and social influence, each process or style modified to fit the needs or trends of the period. Now more than ever, fashion is difficult to navigate due to its cost and price pressure, climate change, regulation, and adapting to the future of tech. But with pressure come diamonds. In the last ten years, the rate of fashion innovation has skyrocketed with the introduction of new tech and the rise of new materials.


Innovation among start-ups, designers, local producers, and leaders of change is resulting in some exciting solutions within fashion. But how do we define innovation as a concept, and has it become just another buzzword in the sustainable fashion lexicon?

In today’s fast-paced world, “innovation" has become ubiquitous with notions of newness, technological advancement, and cutting-edge design. In fashion, innovation transcends novelty – it may be in form, function, or style and can be the radical or incremental change that reimagines old paradigms and champions sustainable evolution.


From mushroom and bio-based leather to biodegradable glitter and 3D weaving, we’ve seen headline-grabbing innovations offer a glimpse into the possibilities of innovation. But in an industry dictated by new seasons, trends, ideas, and fabrics, what does it mean to be truly innovative, and what does this process look like in practice? In this article, we look at the different stages of innovation and explore various methods for striking a balance between innovation and nature.


STAGES OF INNOVATION

Innovation is never a single event; it takes a long time to go from an initial concept to something ready to be marketed. For example, while Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it didn't arrive on the market until 1945, nearly 20 years later, even though it was a proven market need. Scaling up a product or service delivery can require building machinery, building entire system changes, setting up collaborations, delivery methods, etc. 


How can we measure the point in an innovation's journey? How do we compare innovation stages for entirely different things, such as a new material and traceability solutions? 


Market readiness is a term used to assess whether a product or service is ready. Different frameworks are available to determine the readiness of an innovation for commercialisation. 

Market Readiness Level (MRL) refers to how ready a product or service is to market as a commercial offering for a group of customers. MRL frameworks tend to include the following steps: 

  • An idea about a perceived need in the market

  • Initial research

  • Forming an initial offering

  • Testing and validation with potential consumers

  • Proof of scalability


Technology Readiness Level (TRL) measures a technology's maturity during a program's acquisition phase. TRLs enable consistent and uniform discussions of technical maturity across different types of technology. TRLs are based on a scale from 1 to 9, with 1 being the least mature technology, with initial research being carried out and basic principles are observed, and 9 being the most mature technology, in which the actual system is proven in an operational environment. 


These are widely used in the world of investment, which is key to implementing innovation. According to BOF, decarbonising the fashion industry is expected to take $1 trillion (!!!) over the coming decades. These systems to evaluate new solutions will be key to allowing the transition to happen. 


FOCUS ON MATERIALS AND NATURAL SOLUTIONS

Innovation doesn't have to mean newness and high-tech machinery; we can also look to nature to inspire innovation. 


We need to prioritize natural solutions over future-facing tech that promises benefits such as speed, agility, and scale. This shift can take many forms: biotechnology, natural dyes, slowing production cycles and prioritizing quality over quantity. Adopting restorative agriculture practices for sourcing materials and implementing solutions like closed-loop manufacturing processes can drastically reduce the industry's ecological footprint. 


While future-facing tech is important in finding solutions to the climate crisis, fashion requires a global shift in mindset and understanding of the role nature and biodiversity play in our lives and in the future of fashion. 

As mentioned in our last article, a readily evolving climate crisis and a growing plastics market have given brands and innovators an impetus to find alternatives to synthetics. Governments like the E.U. incentivize this change through regulation, leading brands to invest in biotechnology companies that house biomaterials such as mushroom-based leather, algae, and other bacteria-based materials. 


Take Ganni, for example, who is unique in how they approach innovation;  “We’re a fashion company but run like a tech company” . Usually trialling around 30 innovations at a time, they engage in research and development by connecting the sustainability and ventures team with the brand's design to develop products. The brand is committed to phasing out all virgin leather by 2023, which has pushed them to explore bio-materials and work with new companies looking to push innovations to the forefront of the industry.


While these innovations can improve results, the sad truth is that "innovation" in the fashion industry over the past 25 years has failed to reduce its environmental impact significantly. This downfall is due to a mixture of the fast fashion business model driven by a demand for unrelenting scale, creating a complex environmental crisis that accounts for 4-10% of global carbon emissions


In addition, bio-materials have high initial costs (relative to established alternatives that benefit from scale economies), large requirements for capital, and reliance on an industry resistant to change – and use of petroleum-based materials that aren't priced with their actual environmental and social costs in mind.


Take Bolt Threads, who produce a mushroom-based leather alternative and have worked with leading fashion houses such as Adidas and Stella McCartney. They halted their production this past July after struggling to secure new funding. While Bolt Threads fabric can be considered market-ready and have a high TRL, they need more funding to scale.


Similarly, material science company Pangaia reported a net loss of $50.4 million in 2022. Despite a loss, Pangaia's mission to sell climate-friendly material innovations to the rest of the fashion industry is groundbreaking and represents the gap present in material innovation. For these natural solutions to succeed, brands with leverage must partner with and invest in biotechnology companies to help scale natural solutions. Infrastructure and market adoption must evolve alongside innovation to generate change.


BUSINESS MODEL INNOVATION

Innovation is too often associated with new technology, such as new machinery, however, business models can also be innovated, in particular in the world of sustainability, upcycling, reuse, repairing and sharing, there are a lot of examples. 


Business model innovation is a concept that we like a lot. This is because it demands neither new technologies nor the creation of brand-new markets: it’s about delivering existing products that are produced by existing technologies to existing markets, but in a different way. It often involves changes invisible to the outside world, particularly because it doesn’t require new production, doesn’t generate environmental impact, and can bring major advantages without side effects.


Traditional linear business models, characterized by a take-make-dispose approach, are being replaced by circular models that prioritize resource efficiency, waste reduction, and ethical practices. Companies are embracing strategies such as rental and subscription services, resale platforms, and product-as-a-service models, which extend the lifespan of garments and reduce overall consumption. Additionally, advancements in technology enable greater transparency in the supply chain, allowing consumers to make informed choices about the products they buy. 


By integrating these innovative business models, fashion brands can not only reduce their environmental footprint but also create value through improved customer engagement and loyalty. The result is a sustainable transition that benefits both the industry and the planet.


An example of business model innovation that we love is that of United Repair Centre, which provides an alternative to buying new by offering clothing repair services for brands. It was set up as a cross-industry collaboration between apparel brands, consultancy groups, government agencies, NGOs, and education institutions, and strives to make clothing repair the new norm.


They don’t only tackle the environmental issue of clothing waste and consumption but also focus on supporting local communities by employing the talent of people who might face difficulties in accessing the labour market and providing training and employment opportunities to newcomers with refugee backgrounds, young adults and other job seekers so that they can tap their full potential within the textile industry. This team has years of experience and is now using its skills to make thousands of repairs in both the original Amsterdam hub and the new facility in London.


If you have read our articles on this topic, you might recognise this business model: they are a social enterprise, and therefore working with United Repair Centre counts as social procurement


This is a wonderful example of business model innovation, in the sense that this model didn’t exist before, but it didn’t require any new technologies, but simply a new mindset in providing a solution by creating impact all throughout. United Repair Centre are first and foremost social pioneers, who are on a mission to repair the clothing industry. Brands can look for these types of solutions rather than hoping in a new novel material to solve the climate crisis and achieve circularity. We like this quote from URC’s CEO: 


“Repair sits at the core of the solution for brands, so we are focused on demonstrating that it is possible for the clothing industry to put people first, by creating value with textiles that otherwise would be wasted.” Thami Schweichler - CEO


Supported by a strong tech platform, their approach aims to make a super convenient, scalable, and data-driven offering to brands, making it easy to embrace sustainability and create positive change.


WILL WE STRIKE THE RIGHT BALANCE?

We foresee a future where nature and innovation hold a symbiotic and harmonious relationship that benefits the fashion industry and the planet. Rethinking fashion innovation beyond the buzzword requires a shift in mindset and practices, as well as patience and guidance from nature's wisdom and resilience to move us in the right direction.


There are so many incredible innovative businesses and companies, such as United Repairs, with a unique business that tackles clothing waste and supports local communities, and many others we will dive into in our next article. Stay tuned.


Until next time, friends,

Stay Diligent x


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