5 Minutes with… Sophie Mather, Material Futurist at Biov8tion

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sophie-mather“Some people say that some challenges are too hard, especially a lot of the emerging sustainability based issues, but for me, I see these challenges as innovation opportunities.  It may be that I need to look outside of the traditional textile industry to find the answers that we need.”

When it comes to the textiles industry, the manufacturing aspect is usually kept hidden from consumers. Many of its processes and practices have changed little, particularly when it comes to sustainability. A quick look into the footprint of the fashion industry and some startling facts begin to appear.

Did you know it can take 2,700 liters of water to make just one shirt and three quarters of all garments will end up either sent to landfill sites or being incinerated?

In response to some of these challenges, Sophie Mather, Material Futurist at Biov8tion set up her company in 2010 and has since worked independently on finding sustainable solutions, many of which have been focused on synthetics like polyester and nylon. Her career has expanded to Hong Kong where sustainable manufacturing and disposal is still a huge problem with a staggering 1,400 t-shirts being disposed of every minute.

Sophie’s role allows her to work collaboratively with key industry sectors and figureheads to connect the people essential to drive projects forward. Biov8tion mediates with many areas of the industry from suppliers to non-governmental organisations, brands and academia. Sophie explains to Bio-Based World News’ Emily O’Dowd why sustainability is so important in the textile industry and what can be done to improve consumer awareness. This interview provides a real insight into the ways the industry currently operates and advice to overcome the barriers to entry for sustainable businesses.

Emily O’Dowd (EOD): Thanks for the time today, so what has led you to this role?

Sophie Mather (SM): No problem Emily. I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years with a background in both design and the technical side of textiles. Early on in my career I moved to Hong Kong where I started to realise that there was a huge issue around textile manufacturing and sustainability. I became acutely aware of this as a runner, when I got to a stage where I had to stop running outside because the industry pollution was getting worse and worse. I’ve seen the first-hand the effects of our industry and it’s this which makes me really fired up and continue what I’m doing.

At the time I was working for Nike so it made me think if I couldn’t make a change there then there was no hope. This led me to start my sustainable journey at Nike when at the time I was leading the Innovation for Nike Asia. It was in this role that I started to understand the importance of bio-based resources because the industry is still heavily petroleum based. It has made me look at bio-based polymers not just from a renewable perspective but also at their performance, because I want to make sustainability at the heart of what I am doing. And this is why I started Biov8tion (@Biov8tion). The company allows me to work alongside the supply chain so I can find the right partners to work with. For example, I might need a machine supplier, a designer, or someone in the academic field and now I have a lot of strong relationships with these groups. Now my work at Biov8tion means that I am the concrete between them.

EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?

SM: This one is really easy for me to answer because I really love the challenges especially in innovation. It is important to identify the main issues and then change your perspective to look at the opportunities that come out of the challenges. If you limit yourself by working in only one area of the sustainable industry then you might miss other opportunities that come up. This is the way that my life and work tend to go. I really enjoy it when I have solved a problem and then another challenge crops up. For me, it means that I can look at the industry in a different way and start to get results.

EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?

SM: When we talk about innovation today it has become a buzz word to replace what it really means. Starting out on my sustainable journey there was a huge amount of resistance to sustainable practices from a range of supply chain and industry partners. This is because either things might be too expensive and difficult or because there was no guaranteed result. People prefer to avoid risk. However, I quickly managed to change these opinions by making people see the opportunities in the sustainable industry. I was always being told – “it’s easier for us to remain as we are today” or “we don’t quite know what it is going to mean for us.” It was important for me to try and change that mind-set and get people excited about this new innovation journey.

EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable/bio-based industry?

SM: I would say don’t give up. I know it’s a difficult industry to enter so businesses should follow their ideas through without worrying that they might be wrong. I’ve been in sustainability and innovation for a long time and if I had not gone down a lot of the routes that I took because they were too risky, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. Throughout my career wrong courses have sometimes been taken but each time the industry has learnt from these and moved on. So yes, my message is – don’t give up!

EOD: What single change would help develop the bio-based/sustainable industry further?

SM: At the moment, I think that as an industry we are burying our heads in the ground by not engaging enough with the consumer. We are not giving them all the information that they need to be able to make informed decisions. I think the textile industry should take a multi-faceted approach and the food industry as a good example of this. Whilst there is still more to be done, we are so much further behind in clothing.

Maybe one part of the solution could be to work with younger consumers? I set up a competition with school-aged children to make them think about clothing. It was really interesting to get their ideas about it. Or there could be more consumer transparency about where the products come from with marketing campaigns. There are all sorts of different ways that this can be achieved and it has to be done.

EOD: Where would you like to see your company in 5 years’ time?

SM: My aim for Biov8tion is to work on the intersection between the academic sector and global mega trends in the industry. These partnership can achieve collaborative results in bringing bio-based textiles and other sustainable innovation to the industry. As it stands, the textile industry operates an archaic process which has been used for over a century now. I want Biov8tion to be at the centre of making this change.

EOD: What is your favourite bio-based/sustainable product aside from your own product range?

SM: Although not in the fibres I work with normally, I recently bought an organic mattress called Snowdonia which is handmade and sourced in the UK. It is made from natural and organic bio-based fibres. I think it is important to bring sustainability as close to you as possible.

EOD: Thank you for your time today Sophie and sharing your experiences about the textile industry with. Sophie also co-wrote an article for Bio-Based World News which can be read here.

*This story first appeared on Bio-Based World News

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