The IAF and Bayer Material Science: accelerating the uptake of environmental innovation in the apparel industry

The IAF organized with its members [TC]², the China Chamber of Commerce for the Import and Export of Clothing and Textile (CCCT) and with its partner, the World Federation of Sporting Goods International (WFSGI) a unique set of workshops held almost simultaneously in three continents. The workshops had Bayer’s new waterborne technology for polyurethane (PU)leather and coated fabrics as their immediate subject, but were set in the wider context of investments in environmental performance.

The IAF and its partners were particularly interested to explore the global and industry-wide dilemma of innovation upstream versus the uptake of these inventions by brands and retailers. Obviously, brand owners and retailers are increasingly committed to sustainability and improvements in labour conditions. At the same time, there are numerous inventions by material suppliers offering substantial improvements of the environmental performance of clothing articles.

Nicholas Smith, Global Head of Coated Textiles at Bayer MaterialScience talks about their new product offering INSQIN during a workshop in Shanghai recently

Nicholas Smith, Global Head of Coated Textiles at Bayer MaterialScience talks about their new product offering INSQIN during a workshop in Shanghai recently

IAF, [TC]², CCCT and WFSGI cooperated with Bayer MaterialScience because the case they present is so compelling. The new waterborne method for PU leather does away with the need to use the solvent N,N-Dimethylformamide (DMF) that is normally used in the production of this type of material. The use of DMF, now appearing on the European Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) list, poses both workplace exposure risks and environmental pollution risks, both of which are eliminated by the new technology. There is also a further benefit – the existing solvent-based process requires lots of water to remove the solvent from the material, and subsequently a large amount of energy to dry the materials and recover the solvent. The waterborne process needs no solvents and therefore solves both the SVHC problemand the energy and water use problems simultaneously.

Having said this, the new waterborne method for PU leather is also a classic case of barriers to innovation imposed by the market itself. First of all, material innovations must move past numerous links in the supply chain before they reach the brand or retailer. Often, the brand or retailer is simply not aware of the opportunities presented upstream. Bayer is doing a good job in breaking through by directly targeting the companies that bring garments to the market. In addition, with such a hugely fragmented supply chain, a move towards the new waterborne technology needs to be taken by a lot of different players to allow foreconomies of scale to act to reduce the price of the new material.

The value of the workshops was evident in the discussions that ensued, certainly about what is needed to produce a breakthrough. Apart from increased regulatory pressure, breakthroughs must come from within the industry. The apparel market actually consists of numerous submarkets. It was clear from the discussion that changes are likely to occur first in those subsectors where the conditions are most ideal. Outdoor clothing, for example,, where consumers are willing to pay more for functionality, is a front-runner in the market in terms of environmental performance. The question then is how innovation can spread to fashion markets as well. From a supply chain perspective, perhaps the experience in other markets will be that,, the amount of energy saved is so great that costs cannot be a barrier to implementation. Associations and coalitions of industry can play a big role to help the innovation spread from one subsector to the next.

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