The clothing and footwear industry thrives on new materials and is increasingly committed to reducing its social and environmental impacts - which should be good news for the uptake of innovative new products and processes. But that’s not always the case, as a series of workshops across three continents heard recently.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges seems to be persuading brands and retailers to embrace innovative and environmentally-friendly new materials in the upstream supply chain.

Taking Bayer MaterialScience’s new waterborne technology for polyurethane (PU) leather and coated fabrics as their main focus, the workshops took place in New York, Leipzig and Shanghai.

Organised by the International Apparel Federation (IAF) with its members [TC]² and the China Chamber of Commerce for the Import and Export of Clothing and Textile (CCCT), and its partner the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industries (WFSGI), they also set the agenda for wider discussions on industry investments in environmental performance.

In particular, there is the challenge of making brands and retailers aware of upstream innovations and persuading them to introduce these into their products.

The disconnect is particularly frustrating given that an increasing number of brand owners and retailers are committed to sustainability and improvements in labour conditions – while at the same time, numerous inventions from material suppliers offer substantial improvements in environmental performance.

Bayer MaterialScience’s waterborne polyurethane (PU) textile coating offers an option for environmentally friendly synthetic leather. It does away with the need to use the solvent N,N-Dimethylformamide (DMF), which appears on the European Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) list due to the risks it poses in both workplace exposure and environmental pollution.

Another benefit is that 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 problem and 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.

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 for economies of scale to reduce the price of the new material.

Workshop discussions suggested that breakthroughs often result from increased regulatory pressure – but must also come from within the industry. Sub-sectors like outdoor clothing, for example, are front-runners in the market in terms of environmental performance as consumers here are willing to pay more for functionality and cutting-edge materials.

The next question is how to spread innovation like this to fashion markets too? From a supply chain perspective, energy savings may mean that cost is not a barrier to implementation. And it was widely agreed that industry associations and coalitions can play a major role in helping innovation spread from one sector to the next.