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Growing next-gen materials: what opportunities for luxury packaging?

Katie Nichol

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Growing next-gen materials: what opportunities for luxury packaging?

The market for next-gen materials is witnessing accelerated growth, driven by consumer demand for products that are animal-free and more sustainable, says a report from Material Innovation Initiative (MII).

Next-gen materials – defined by Material Innovation Initiative as “livestock-free direct replacements for conventional animal-based leather, silk, wool, down, fur, and exotic skins” – are having a moment. The non-profit’s recent State of the Industry report highlights that $2.3bn has been invested in the next-gen materials industry since 2015, with $980m raised in 2021, or double the amount raised in 2020.

“The opportunities for entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, material companies, and brands in next-gen materials continue to rise. There are significant white-space opportunities for new companies, innovations, partnerships, and products in this still nascent industry,” comments Nicole Rawling, MII’s co-founder & CEO. And while 2022 is likely to see accelerated development and adoption of next-gen materials, MII highlights that “the current materials industry does not yet produce sustainable options at scale that meet brands’ performance, aesthetics, and price requirements.”

With increased consumer demand for sustainable and animal-free products – raw materials alone can account for 60-80% of a product’s environmental footprint – more and more brands are using next-gen materials in their products. While certainly more widespread in fashion – commonly used as alternatives to animal-based leather – next-gen materials also spell potential for luxury packaging – think mycelium coffrets, such as those used by Scentbird, or Givenchy’s Couture Rose Perfecto lip balm with its case made from Desserto’s Cactus leather.

MII identifies some 95 next-gen material companies, 55 of which have been created since 2014. The majority (67) produce leather, while the remainder focus on silk (12), wool (7), down (6), fur (7) and exotic skins (1). Some 49 of the 95 companies use plant-derived materials as main input, the report states, while 21 use microbe-derived materials, 9 work with blends, 8 use mycelium, 6 specialize in recycled material, and 4 use cultivated animal cells.

Some of the next-gen materials showcased in the report include:

California-based Newlight’s AirCarbon is billed as an alternative to petrochemical-derived plastics and animal leather. AirCarbon is a polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) biosynthetic that can be melted and cooled into fibers, sheets, and solid parts. Newlight’s Covalent fashion brand launched in 2020 uses AirCarbon to make carbon-negative accessories, such as laptop sleeves, cardholders and accessories.

With US-based Bucha Bio’s Shorai, fermented bacterial nanocellulose combines with plant-based biopolymers and additives to produce “high-performance textiles and composites” positioned as alternatives to animal- and petrochemical-based materials like leather, epoxy, latex and vinyl. Depending on its thickness, Shorai has different applications. 

London-based biomaterial start-up Modern Synthesis targets the fashion industry with its cellulose-based composites. The material is grown using a patent-pending “microbial weaving” process.

The report also points to the potential of innovations in components of next-gen materials, including coatings and dyes. With PU often the material of choice for binders or coatings thanks to its performance attributes and versatility, “innovation in sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel-derived polyurethane would make a big impact in the next-gen leather industry,” highlights MII.

“We need bio-based PU formulations reliant on green chemistry, or entirely new resins to lower environmental impact. Across all next-gen material categories, additives, dyes, and finishes should also be considered by material innovators and converters, as these inputs also play an important role in product sustainability."

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