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Pressured by politics and practicalities, the race for alternative materials and sourcing destinations is on.

When it comes to making a mark on sustainability, materials seem like a logical place to start. From eCommerce storefronts to corporate social responsibility statements, the material composition of products is a key criterion for making people feel comfortable that what they are buying has been made with sustainability in mind.

New research published this week reaffirms part of that accepted wisdom, at the same time as challenging some of the reasons underpinning it.

First, this new data suggests that a majority – albeit a slim one – of shoppers consider material to be an important indicator of the overall sustainability credentials of a product. At the same time, though, less than a third of the people surveyed reported that what material a product was made from would significantly influence their decision to buy it or not.

Taken together, these two data points illustrate a conflict near the core of the “sustainable consumer” trend: the idea that materials matter, but that they do not matter enough to be a deciding factor in a purchasing choice.

The same research does go some way to guessing at why this double-take exists. It appears as though the reason two thirds of consumers do not weight material composition as a vital criterion for buying (or not buying) a garment is that shoppers find it difficult to distinguish between the impacts of different materials on people and the environment.

For anyone not immersed in the inner workings of the apparel industry, this makes sense. While the difference between cotton and organic cotton may be easy to understand – notwithstanding that “organic” can be quite a misleading label in certain scenarios – the variation in environmental impact between, say, one synthetic fibre and another are difficult for end consumers to quantify. All of which is why this research indicates that most shoppers trust brand image above any other indicator of how sustainable a product is likely to be.

The material question is also complicated by the fact that the real sustainability of any given material is not always evident from its name. Take vegan leather, for instance: it sounds like an extremely sustainable alternative to animal hide, but in practice its improvement is purely ethical. Yes, no animals were killed to make it, and in theory mass adoption of vegan leather over the “real thing” would lead to a drop in methane emissions and the other deleterious effects of industrial cattle farming – as well as the significant environmental footprint of tanneries and intensive leather-based manufacturing. But at the same time, vegan leather is a type of polyurethane, meaning that it does not biodegrade in any meaningful timeframe, which serves to – at best – shift the environmental burden of leather or faux-leather goods from upstream processes to downstream disposal. The net harm may be identical, or worse.

Similar complications abound in almost every consumer choice, and every brand design and development decisions when it comes to selecting the right material to meet a defined performance, environmental, and quality profile. And in many cases the “sustainable” alternative has its own downsides. From one perspective, shifting from cotton to a synthetic material can cut down on the use of pesticides; from the other, it comes at the expense of increasing the already alarming amount of plastic in the oceans.

And that’s looking at things through a purely environmental lens, when the ethical angle is also important. This week, in fact, US President Donald Trump considered banning the importation of cotton from China’s politically sensitive Xinjiang region, which many countries and corporations have sought to distance themselves from as a result of what seem to be historic human rights abuses directed at the Uighur Muslim population. But while the scale of the issue in Xinjiang is much larger, this is certainly not the only instance of raw material harvesting and processing being conducted by state mandated or indentured labour.

In many cases, these complexities are hidden from the people making the material or finished product buying decision, because they sit at one or more removes from the key consideration of whether one material is “better” than another from a sustainability point of view.

But nevertheless, awareness is increasing, which is, in turn, increasing interest in genuinely new alternatives. To be clear, both cotton and long-established synthetics are making big strides to improve their environmental credentials and power circularity (more on this from a key collaborator this month), but they are being joined by new fibres made from wood pulp – we have an exclusive interview that touches on this coming next week – as well as alternative methods of producing animal hides through biofabrication.

In a year of uncommon disruption, the fashion retail industry is already weighing up a migration of manufacturing away from China and to alternative locations, and while the same abandonment is not likely to happen to traditional materials en masse, it’s extremely likely that the use of more sustainable versions of natural fibres, better-engineered synthetics (we have an exclusive upcoming op-ed here as well), and entirely new options represents the future of material sourcing.

The Interline’s focus on sustainability continues next week, with an exclusive interview, a collaboration, and an exclusive op-ed.