How can we change the fashion industry for the better, starting with cotton? A chat with Materra co-founder Ed Brial
We talk with Edward Brial, co-founder and CEO of Materra, a startup producing sustainable cotton, on a mission to shift the fashion industry into harmony with people and the planet.
The fashion and apparel industry is one of the most profitable and destructive industries on the planet. Globally, it generates 1.53 trillion U.S. dollars a year but also produces 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year. Fast fashion, or the business model of producing cheap, trendy clothing to meet consumer demand in short life cycles, is a big driver of this. This consumer-centric model also neglects the garment manufacturers and materials farmers who are involved in the process.
There’s hope for change though, and to understand more about the industry and where innovation fits into it, we spoke with Ed, co-founder and CEO of Materra, a startup growing radically sustainable cotton. Ed shares with us how Materra aims to close the gap between cotton as a natural resource, and the farmers, clothing brands, and consumers that depend on it.
Since advertising, communications, and brand awareness are big factors in the fashion industry, we, as consumers, creators, designers, and thinkers, also have a responsibility to accelerate change. As a creative agency, we’ve loved working with sustainability-minded and quality-focused brands like Pipatchara (who have created designer clothing and handbags from recycled bottle caps), and recognize there’s more we can do to help change the industry.
We hope you find this conversation as enlightening as we did, and like us, you might start questioning more about where our clothes come from, who might have been involved in making them, and how we can consciously contribute to net-positive fashion, not only as consumers but as communicators and creators too.
Note: As a little backstory, Ed and Yoichiro (YL’s co-founder and CEO) happened to meet at Bear Pond Espresso in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo in 2016. Whilst waiting for their hot brew in the tiny café, it was actually a skateboard under Yoichiro’s arm that sparked their initial conversation (both were passionate about skateboarding) and led to their friendship.
From skateboarding to design and creative innovation, we recognize how passions can spark new possibilities. This time Y+L Projects was grateful to connect with Ed to chat about what he and the Materra team are up to.
You can learn more about Materra here:
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m the CEO at Materra and one of three co-founders whom I work closely with. Getting into farming and fashion has been a journey because of my background. I did a brief stint in conceptual art before studying mechanical engineering, where I learned how things are made and where they really come from.
After this, I studied design, which took me from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London to Keio University in Tokyo and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I was developing a sense or an ambition for a multidisciplinary approach to social impact and sustainability during that time.
I also worked in experimental design, designing with new and emerging technologies for the Middle East, the Far East, South Asia, and Europe. Then starting to shift to the sustainability world, I worked with a startup deploying agricultural infrastructure innovations in Kenya.
My co-founders were on a similar journey, and we were continuously talking about projects with massive potential social and sustainable environmental impact.
How did you get into cotton and end up co-founding Materra?
I’m interested in the roots of raw materials and where stuff comes from. Despite some dirty ways it can be farmed, cotton is not a dirty crop. If you treat it correctly at the end of life, you can remediate it and put it back into the soil since it’s a natural fiber.
In a basement through the winter of 2018, we started growing cotton using controlled environments and sometimes hydroponics*. It’s super efficient since you can grow cotton with much less water and recirculate the wastewater.
It looked like we were growing weed — we had suspicious pink lights, all that stuff, but we got enough to grow a few buds of cotton. And we thought, okay, this might be a viable idea.
In 2019, we scaled up our trials in East London and just started pitching to brands. Most of them have no idea how to deal with raw materials. Still, we knew that they were super interested because the industry is trying to realign its relationship with the planet and the people that make its clothes.
We got some grants, allowing us to work more on the projects. By the end of that year, we graduated from two accelerator programs, secured our pre-seed round, and also confirmed trials with Kering, who owns Gucci, Balenciaga, PVH who own Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein, and Arvind, the second largest mill in India.
What do you think are some of the main challenges of the cotton industry at the moment?
The cotton industry is still segmented, and it’s not the norm for brands to know even the material’s country of origin. Trust and transparency issues are really big. There was a bit of a scandal with fraudulent accreditation of organic cotton in India last year.
The other side is that we’re living in a climate emergency, and farming is one of the greatest drivers of climate change. With the current cost of living crisis, it’s also more expensive to farm with margins smaller than they have ever been.
Can you tell us more about your team and what Materra does?
Our team is a multidisciplinary bunch of young graduates and experienced specialists, including plant scientists, data engineers, software developers, and real cotton farmers. We can build machines and technology platforms, but we can also run human-centered design projects.
In terms of what we do, we currently have three service areas for the fashion industry.
- Firstly, we design farming systems, including hydroponic farms and regenerative farm projects. This is where farmers focus on rebuilding biodiversity in the field and natural farm resilience.
- Secondly, we have a farm intelligence platform that supports farmers with in-field decision-making. That’s where our agronomy* and data team come together.
- And lastly is the data transparency element, where we create ground truth data in a scalable way for smallholder farm systems. We’ll work on traceability and supply chain tracking, collaborating with others using technology like blockchain.
For example, Australia and America have massive farms, so they can aggregate all of the cotton from one site and easily trace where lots of their cotton comes from. However, in regions like Africa and South Asia, there are millions of smallholder cotton farmers. We’re trying to make sure that that’s captured in a database so that brands know where their stuff comes from and that farmers can get paid their fair share from the sustainability premium.
What does net-positive mean and how does Materra work towards a net-positive fashion industry?
The idea is that in net positive, you leave the planet in a better condition than you found it in. For the fashion industry, it means using less than the planet can replenish on a yearly basis. Fundamentally, this means doing more good, not just doing less bad.
Our farms minimize impacts and land usage making space for more regenerative land opportunities such as rewilding and reforestation for rebuilding local biodiversity.
Another aspect is the net-positive impact on people, such as giving greater visibility and compensation to farmers. We need to reappraise how we value the people at the foundations of everything we wear.
What can we do as consumers to contribute to net-positive fashion?
Repair, reuse, buy secondhand, and then try to recycle where possible. Getting used to repairing items is actually one of my favorite things because it builds a better relationship with your stuff.
When you have to buy new stuff, pay attention to the labels where the brands say things are coming from and look for quality. Don’t buy stuff that’s just going to dissolve after three wears.
I think consumers can shift those kinds of approaches, and that’s also a strong signal to the industry. It has to be a multi-party approach, and everyone should try as hard as they can to shift their behavior or business practice.
Essentially, if we want things to change, we’re going to have to pay more for them and readdress our relationship to consumption. There are only finite natural resources on this planet, and I guess we could also think of human dignity as a finite resource.
Brands need to accept that these core materials need to be more expensive, and as consumers, we need to think that there’s no such thing as a throwaway garment.
Can you tell us more about Materra’s pilot farm in India and what your plans are after that?
Beginning in 2021, we packed our bags and went to India for a few months to set up the first farm. In partnership with brands, we’re developing a pilot approach to controlled environment agriculture and translating our technology from the UK to India.
It was a challenging year in India. We went through the COVID crisis and were very lucky to hire some incredible people who kept the farm operational and running.
Now we’re running more advanced agricultural trials and also piloting regenerative farm systems. The idea is that within the next few seasons, we will be able to serve customers all over the world with both hydroponic and regenerative cotton with verifiable impact data.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced so far as an agritech* startup?
Setting up all business and peripheral operations in another country is very difficult. Coming into an old and established market, behaviors and practices are very entrenched, so convincing people to try things differently can be challenging.
However, platforms like Fashion for Good allow industry employees to learn quickly about materials and innovative solutions.
The backdrop of the climate emergency means we have to rethink how we procure materials, feed ourselves, transport ourselves around the world, and live our lives. So trying to be ready for quite an unpredictable future while also developing something new is quite difficult.
How can we get more people interested and wanting to work in the sustainability space?
It’s easier to hire in sustainability now than it was in the past but we’re still competing with organizations in industries like finance and hard consultancy. If you’re in a concrete jungle like London or Tokyo, it’s just an endless city. It’s almost like we’ve been separated from nature, and we don’t know what we’re losing.
This is where we need to have storytelling and better sustainability marketing, to help people see its value.
Another thing is having real unfettered access to nature, going for walks in the woods and camping, and learning about where your food comes from. That’s a straightforward one because then you start thinking about, okay, what’s going into the farm? What’s going into my body?
My co-founder also always pushes that it needs to start in schools when kids are really young, which is also pretty critical.
What advice would you give to those who are thinking about or have just started their own business in the agritech or sustainability space?
It always feels weird giving advice because we’re still a seed-stage company.
Whoever your customers are, it’s important to figure out their real motivations behind sustainable procurement so that you can better tailor your products. If you can communicate what you’re doing in a way that they understand, everything else becomes a bit easier. Fundraising becomes easier if you have customers who really want your products and are willing to shout about it.
Get scrappy. Since we’re trying out so many different things for the future of agriculture, we need to move faster than we can verify. We can’t go through slow production processes or verification cycles.
Work hard on thinking about the areas of your business that are not as sustainable. Be open and honest with yourself and whoever you’re working with about the limitations. Take ownership of the limitations so that once you start scaling, you don’t multiply the bad sides of what you’re doing in a way that negates your positive impact.
What is the driving motivation for the work you do?
We wanted to put our time into a company where we could fight against the climate crisis and not make any people’s lives worse. So it’s a very simple kind of mentality, and that usually comes down to agriculture since it’s one of the largest impact industries in the world.
What keeps me motivated now is that we have a sick team. It’s great to have people with lots of energy to take on this program, from experienced specialists to young members.
Are there companies or organizations that you aspire to or that you think might have similar values to Materra?
I mean the classic one — Patagonia is leading the way. They’re not perfect, they are still a consumer-facing brand who have to sell more clothes, but I really respect their values and that they’re trying to get more people out into nature. Their whole ethos in the way that they’re trying to get consumers to reappraise that relationship with things is really important.
I also really like Fair Phone; they’re a Dutch company making smartphones as ethically as possible. I guess it’s impossible to have a 100% ethical firm, but they’re also transparent about the limitations of what they do.
What do you think is the future of cotton and cotton farming?
To have better relationships from top to base of the supply chain and move back to natural fiber systems.
The utopian future is that we all know where our stuff comes from, and no brand will ever turn around and find it acceptable to say, “I don’t know where my cotton comes from”. They’ll know where it comes from and the impact that it’s having, and they’ll work on plans with their farmers to improve their impact.
A short vocabulary list:
- *Agritech = agricultural technology, use of technology to improve the efficiency and output of agriculture
- *Agronomy = the science of soil management and crop production
- *Hydroponics = the growth of plants without soil, often with nutrient-rich water
- Net-positive fashion industry = one that uses better materials which nurture ecosystems rather than depleting them, and that designs products with zero waste in mind. Read more about net-positive fashion here.
For more information about Materra visit:
Editing by: Emma Araki, Lucy Dayman