Sequins… those tiny, shimmering disks of joy. They might bring glary images of festive party dresses or novelty items to mind, but after speaking to Elissa Brunato of Radiant Matter, our eyes have been left widened and gleaming at the sheer number of everyday appearances that little plastic sparkle makes.
There is an innate reason why humans are attracted to sparkle and shimmer, resembling water and linked to our will to survive. Covering oneself in shiny items was once evidence of prosperity.
Sequins developed from gold coins in Ancient times to beetle wings in the 19th century, edible sequins in the 1930s, to the modern plastic form we see today.
Sequins were a symbol of wealth until the product was commercialised – sparkle went from exclusive to democratised.
From the garment industry, to cosmetics, accessories, and home decor items, the sheer volume of sequins used is staggering.
A 2019 Oxfam report stated that in an eight-week Christmas and New Year festive season in the UK, 33 million new sequined garments are purchased and 7 million are dumped in landfill after only 5 wears.
Most sequins are made from made from mylar, PET and PVC. They do not biodegrade, meaning they will languish in landfill for years to come. These types of plastics are also linked to health risks such as stunted growth, reproductive issues, higher stress levels and inability to process stress.
“Sequins and sparkle won’t ever go away, we just need to do it more sustainably”
In comes Elissa, with ten years experience in the fashion industry and having worked with some of the big players. Her experience ranged from managing teams to production and product development and design. Throughout her career, particular interest and expertise in embroidery emerged.
Elissa had the opportunity to travel to manufacturing sites in Italy, China, and India. She saw firsthand the effects of the production of embroidery components and garments on local communities and the environment. She witnessed the multiple waste streams created as well as the exposure and use of harsh chemicals.
From high-end couture gowns to high-street fast fashion pieces, our captivation with all things that shimmer is continuing to cost people and the planet.
“When you see the impact of the materials that the fashion industry employs and the reports and news that capture this impact, we have to wonder how these materials can still be in use.”
Five years ago, the conversation about sustainability or the circular economy was not widespread within the garment industry. The industry functioned very linearly with few options to do things differently. Under the given circumstances, Elissa wanted to take on a different role within the industry and decided to dedicate her time to material innovation.
Going on to study at Central Saint Martins and while also being mentored by Claire Bergkamp who was at the time, the World Wide Sustainability & Innovation Director at Stella McCartney, alongside material scientists at Research Institutes in Sweden, Elissa developed a biodegradable sequin using cellulose derived from wood.
A biodegradable sequin, to a garment industry outsider, may look like an extremely niche product. Still, it seems that this new product has caught the eye of many.
Astonished with the response that she has been getting since launching Radiant Matter, Elissa has been approached by some big names in the fashion industry, and to throw an unexpected curveball in there, by luxury automobile brands too.
“The fashion industry is willing to change and there is so much demand for sustainable material solutions, there is just not enough supply.”
There is a considerable shift in the textile industry right now. We see solutions that transition away from petroleum as a resource, materials and systems designed to improve soil health, the introduction of chemical fibre recycling and brands showcasing transparent and ethical supply chains.
“More support is needed for new companies creating positive change. There is no shortage of demand, the challenges lie in funding and scaling quickly to meet this demand.”
When asked about her thoughts on partnerships with big brands, Elissa says, “Partnerships enable large scale impact. We need to collaborate across the industry in order to drive the change needed”.
From a startup’s perspective, she says it can be daunting speaking to giant companies. “Our edge is being agile; being a new company, we can design the rulebook for ourselves. But when speaking to large corporates with decades of experience, we want to make sure we step into these conversations prepared and have the right strategies. That’s why working with the CRL Accelerator has been so important”.
Over the last 6 months, Radiant Matter has been part of the CRL Accelerator programme, the UK’s leading programme for product makers and hardware pioneers, offering support for early stage businesses developing hardware products.
Alongside the product development support, the CRL Accelerator has offered business and commercial readiness support but Elissa says the more training a startup can receive around commercial partnerships the better so they are prepared when dealing with a corporate with complicated processes and large budgets.
Photo credits to Sara Hibbert.
ABOUT A BETTER WORLD COLLECTIVE
Better World Collective supports both startups and corporates through the challenges of sustainable material innovation collaborations so that solutions can make a more immediate impact. From workshopping what a collaboration project looks like, supporting implementing a project effectively, and inviting policymakers into the conversation. We believe that a more sustainable, better world is possible. It just takes effective and streamlined collaboration between the startups with solutions and the corporates that can scale them.
Interested in joining? Get in touch with the team.
Central Research Laboratory (CRL)
Central Research Laboratory is the UK’s leading accelerator and co-working space for hardware startups and product pioneers. Partially funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the CRL has supported hundreds of entrepreneurs to realise and scale their companies through product development, commercial strategy, 24/7 prototyping facilities, mentorship and access to a network of investors, mentors and partners.