f recent launches are to be believed, the road to a sustainable world is paved with innovation… and if that means the occasional oxymoron – the “carbon-neutral” car, “zero-emissions” flights or “green” finance, to name but three - then so be it.
In an area where all is not what it seems, there is a need to distinguish between greenwashed marketing claims and innovations that will genuinely reduce environmental impact. Here are some original concepts that offer real potential for the luxury industry.
Eat your wrapper!
Notpla is an interesting case in point. The London-based start-up, founded in 2014, has set itself the mission to “make packaging disappear” through nature-based solutions that use seaweed, a “super material” with immense potential (including for the luxury industry). Seaweed captures 20 times more carbon than trees, contributes to ocean oxygenation and grows astonishingly quickly without chemical fertilisers, pesticides or fresh water.
- Is this the material of the future? London-based start-up Notpla produces a range of packaging solutions from seaweed.
The company began by developing a non-plastic container for liquids. The Ooho edible bubble generated a global buzz when 36,000 were handed out to runners at the 2019 London Marathon as a waste-free alternative to plastic bottles.
Buoyed by this success, it went on to raise £10 million in a 2021 financing round. The next step: find a use for the 80% of fibres and biomass left after extracting the gelatinous part of the seaweed that is used to manufacture the bubbles.
- Notpla Rigid is a seaweed-based packaging material used by Swiss watch brand ID Genève.
The answer, Notpla Rigid, is a revolutionary solid packaging that can be home-composted and biodegrades within four to six weeks. ID Genève was first to use it, for the launch of its recycled steel watch which the brand presented at the Re-Luxury fair, held early November in Geneva.
Notpla Paper, which can replace card, promises more opportunities for sustainable packaging to come. The company – which just won a 2022 Earthshot Prize – is also working on scaling its flexible film for industrial production as an alternative to the single-use plastic that is rife in the agrifood industry.
The real magic mushrooms
US biotech start-up MycoWorks is behind another example of innovation that has already caught the attention of luxury brands. The company came about from unusual beginnings. Philip Ross is a San Francisco-based chef, artist and amateur mycologist who was initially struck by mycelium’s potential… as a material for his sculptures.
Ross was first approached by the luxury industry in 2013 when a brand enquired about potential applications. Hermès was next to show an interest in the product and, after testing, was impressed by its softness, suppleness, texture, tensile strength and water-resistance. Most importantly, it provided the sensory appeal ingrained in every luxury product. The collaboration led to the first Hermès bag made from Fine Mycelium™, introduced in 2021.
Endorsed by one of the most renowned names in luxury, MycoWorks raised US$ 187 million at end 2021 and continues its expansion. The manufacturing process is wonderfully eco-friendly as it uses next to no energy (mycelium grows in the dark), very little water (compared with traditional tanning) and none of the chemical agents used in leather tanning.
- MycoWorks produces materials from fungi.
The material grows, without being forced, over a period of six weeks (compare this with the two years needed for a calf hide) and is carbon-neutral. The process was made scalable at a pilot plant near San Francisco; now a full-scale production facility, scheduled to open at end 2023, is being built in South Carolina. MycoWorks won recognition for its innovation at the Luxury Innovation Summit in Geneva in November when it was presented with the Luxury Innovation Award in the Fashion category, and has just signed a partnership agreement with General Motors.
Notpla and MycoWorks are both examples of how genuinely sustainable and circular innovations, based on abundant, fast-growing materials, can emerge through the observation of natural processes. Could natural science be the future of innovation?
Transforming air into diamond
It would seem so. Laboratory-grown diamonds are another example of an innovation that reproduces a natural phenomenon. While luxury brands certainly aren’t blind to the environmental damage and negative social impact of mined diamonds, there is no way to replace them overnight.
Global production of natural diamonds fell from 147 million carats in 2018 to 116 million carats in 2021. At the same time, a growing number of brands are turning to lab-grown alternatives. Breitling is one, having announced its intention to use only lab-grown diamonds by 2025 (more here).
On paper, the environmental appeal of these “synthetic” diamonds is undeniable. In practice, things aren’t so black and white. Growing diamonds in a laboratory environment consumes fossil fuel and carbon emissions remain high – particularly when the diamonds in question are produced on the other side of the world, in China or India for example.
- Transforming air into diamond
Now an American company has developed a way to produce diamonds… out of thin air! Another 2022 Luxury Innovation Award winner, Aether Diamonds grows stones using carbon captured in the atmosphere.
How does it work? Carbon dioxide is pulled from the atmosphere then synthesised into hydrocarbon from which the diamonds will grow. This revolutionary process is powered entirely by clean energy and, why not, could even create local carbon sinks. The concept works and is certainly one to watch, given rising consumer demand for ethical luxury.
An abundance of eco-materials
In a recent article (read it here), we took a factory tour at Panatere, a company in the Swiss Jura that has developed a system to recycle scrap metal collected from local businesses into new steel. The waste metal is smelted in a solar-powered furnace for a carbon footprint that is 165 times less than that of conventional steel. This is another great example of a high-potential innovation that could be scaled for applications worldwide.
Recycled steel isn’t the only product on offer; the company proposes a range of eco-friendly materials that can be used in watchmaking (as well as other industries). For example, ZEP 1510® is an alloy produced by electrolysis of ashes recovered from waste incineration that can replace brass or German silver. Up-and-coming brand Iris Alt. (more here) has already chosen it for the dials of its eco-conscious women’s watches.
- Aether Diamonds produces lab-grown diamonds from atmospheric carbon.
By extending the principle it has put in place, Panatere can also recycle titanium, concrete, even glazing. Elsewhere, watch straps made from the byproducts of winegrowing or agrifood, such as the fish leather from French tannery Ictyos, show just how prolific companies are in their search for circular, sustainable solutions.
After the recent COP27 climate change conference produced another disappointing outcome, the need for innovations that have real and measurable impact, in particular in the circular economy, is stronger than ever. A growing number of start-ups are joining in this global reflection, urged on by young generations. This leaves one fundamental question: surely the greatest innovation would be to change our economic model, accelerating circularity and scaling back production and consumption? Every solution warrants consideration.