Hannah Zimmerman Jeremy Osborn and Tina Nguyen
Published 1 month ago.
About a 9 minute read.
Image: Material Connexion
At SB’23 San Diego, three sets of innovators at the forefront of the materials and packaging space shared key insights into the biobased and circular solutions driving a sea change in the market.
L-R: Jesse Henry, Priti Pharkya and Sasha Calder
‘Next-generation materials’ are created from substances engineered to be
sustainable while providing equal if not better performance compared to
traditional materials. In this Monday morning workshop, companies working to
drive this transformation shared their insights on how to create scalable,
traceable, next-generation materials with minimal environmental impact.
Divided into two hour-long panels, the first focused on the evolution and range
of next-generation materials. Moderated by Dispatch
Goods CEO Lindsey
Hoell led the first
discussion — with Ann Lee-Jeffs, Global
Head of Sustainability at Modern Meadow; and
Gayatri Keskar, VP of Research at
Material ConneXion — on how their
companies are focused on determining the best material for products that
function as well as their conventional counterparts, but can also be easily
adapted and made at scale.
Modern Meadow — which creates upcycled, plant-based
and other versatile, biobased alternatives to common, conventional
that don’t rely on petrochemicals & animal-derived inputs — is driven by a dual
focus on sustainability and high performance. Company processes are hard to
change, and Modern Meadow is pushing its customers to be more innovative.
“Companies are creatures of habit, and it is our responsibility to think outside
the box,” Lee-Jeffs said. “We have a unique opportunity to be a catalyst for
This pioneering approach helps its brand partners not only benefit the
environment by reducing their dependence on petrochemicals and animal inputs —
it also helps them pave the path for a more sustainable, ethical materials
Material ConneXion plays a pivotal role in assisting brands as they grapple with
the intricate task of selecting the most appropriate materials for their
products. Sustainability is multifaceted; and as Keskar pointed out, it can vary
significantly from one company to another. Material ConneXion’s approach is to
encourage businesses to define their objectives in regard to sustainability in
an effort to pinpoint what they consider a non-negotiable.
“We encourage companies to define what is a nonstarter for them,” she said,
“then, find a feedstock which will align with those value propositions.”
With that process in mind, brands can create products that both meet their
sustainability goals and resonate with their company and consumer culture —
allowing them to make environmentally responsible choices while staying true to
their company ethos.
The second panel was moderated by Jesse
Henry, founder and CEO at
Heartland; and featured Sasha
Calder, Head of Impact at
Pharkya, SVP at Geno’s Future
Origins project; and Garrett
Benisch, co-founder at
OurCarbon. From the challenges to the
critical importance of transitioning to next-gen materials by integrating them
into everyday products, the panelists broke down how their companies are dealing
with this often overwhelming topic.
One aspect of that is understanding where your materials came from and how you
can improve the process. Geno, a company specializing in the development of
commercial, biobased processes to produce commonly used chemicals — for
— offers assistance to brands seeking comprehensive insights into the
intricacies of their supply chains and, more importantly, the means to discover
superior, traceable solutions. While it may appear that sustainability takes
center stage for these brands, the true focal point lies in enhancing the
resilience of their supply chains to shareholders.
“For these large brands, biomaterials is not the highlight,” Calder said. “The
most important thing is that it signals supply chain resilience.”
Collaboration is also key to moving the needle towards sustainable materials.
Future Origins partners with Geno alongside industry giants including Unilever,
— pooling resources to drive meaningful environmental and social change. Going
beyond sustainability, the partnership focuses on mitigating business risk. With
a current focus on how to replace palm
which often leads to deforestation, Future Origins recognizes that this shift is
not only a moral imperative but a strategic business necessity.
“Natural resources are limited,” Pharkya asserted. “If companies want to grow
their business sustainability, they need to invest in alternative solutions to
In a competitive landscape dominated by massive industries, the key lies in
forging strong partnerships and fostering collaboration across the entire supply
chain, including vital partnerships like Geno and other major brands.
Finding value in what would otherwise be waste is another angle of next-gen
materials. For instance, OurCarbon creates a carbon-based material crafted from
wastewater solids that were diverted and transformed. Unlike typical
which primarily deal with curtailing carbon emissions at the source, OurCarbon
embraces the concept of
— which entails introducing a material into the product itself that tangibly
lowers its carbon footprint in a quantifiable and measurable manner. By
targeting waste materials of minimal value — such as, in OurCarbon’s case,
industrial biosolids (sewage) —
removing the toxins and repurposing it into a substance such as ink or concrete,
the previously “waste” material's worth increases significantly.
The discourse throughout the workshop highlighted a shift in the materials
industry. These next-generation materials are purposefully engineered to be both
sustainable and high-performing, challenging conventional processes and
materials and fortifying supply chains against risks. This approach will require
the industry's collective resolve to chart a path toward a more sustainable and
resilient future, where materials meet not just performance standards but also
environmental and ethical imperatives.
L-R: Nicole Rycroft, Paula Alexander, Matthew Mayes and Michael Sands
As moderator Nicole Rycroft —
founder and Executive Director of environmental NGO
Canopy — pointed out at the start of a Wednesday
afternoon panel on the future of packaging, the complexity of the subject begs
for the mantra “progress — not perfection nor paralysis.”
With the significant acceleration in sustainable packaging initiatives, Paula
Alexander — Senior
Director of Sustainability at Burt's Bees — opened
the discussion on the subject by stating, “It's an exciting time to be in this
space, because consumers are looking for it — and we’re starting to be able to
While there’s no silver bullet for packaging innovation, Alexander said Burt's
Bees' sustainable packaging standard has acted as a guiding compass — helping
shape its packaging designs to strike a balance between functionality,
aesthetics and sustainability. The standard encompasses precise thresholds with
a material hierarchy: the primary objective is not to produce packaging unless
absolutely necessary, followed by minimizing it to the greatest extent possible,
and then a list of preferred packaging types with the best end-of-life solution.
With the rapid evolution in this field, the standard has been updated every two
years. Even as Burt’s Bees achieves certain goals and introduces products in
packaging with substantial levels of PCR (post-consumer recycled) content, there
is still a transitional phase known as the "sizzle and scale" where the product
is initially offered at a premium price until it can be scaled.
For Matthew Mayes, co-founder
& COO of Sway — one of three startups scaling
seaweed-based alternatives to plastic
through the just-launched Tom Ford Plastic Innovation
— the challenge is identifying the brands willing to collaborate and facilitate
the necessary line time for iterative development. Michael
of Smile Compostable Solutions, delved
headfirst into his company’s innovation journey to produce a compostable coffee
pod — a particularly complicated
product that required becoming experts in compostability and unexpected
partnerships with filter companies, ink companies and lid companies; culminating
in a similarly intricate sales process to bring the product to market. While the
composting infrastructure in the US has improved significantly in recent years,
ubiquitous access and acceptability to composting facilities are still a
Amid the significant progress in packaging, with both successes and setbacks, it
is vital to remember that the packaging is not the hero — the product itself
will be most important for consumers. At the same time, Alexander emphasized the
importance of not being overly precious about how much information you put on
the package. Mayes highlighted how Sway being radically transparent with
followers has inspired trust and helped bring them along on the sustainable
The panelists agreed we must be okay with continuous improvement, and recognize
and avoid “false solutions” that substitute one environmental disaster for
another (i.e., reduce plastic pollution but inadvertently increase
In conclusion, Rycroft’s point about progress — rather than perfection — is a
collective effort involving both manufacturers and consumers.
L-R: Sarah Douglis (moderator), Eastman's Katherine Hofmann, IFF's Renee Henze, UBQ's Patricia Mishic O'Brien and Geno's Sasha Calder
Another Wednesday afternoon session featured presentations from
Eastman, Geno, International Flavors &
Fragrances (IFF) and UBQ
Materials on the latest advancements in
materials science and how they are being used to create more sustainable
products — everything from pineapple handbags to thermoplastic waste tables.
Eastman, for example, has a long history of materials innovation — dating back
over 100 years. The company is a leading producer of cellulose-based
— which are used in everything from coatings and packaging additives to soaps,
textiles and homecare products. Eastman recently introduced two new products:
Aventa — a fully
compostable, cellulose-acetate product for foodservice utensils and packaging;
and Naia — a fully biodegradable textile
The panelists were excited about the advancements that biotech was enabling, and
highlighted the natural power of enzymes and new cellulose products for a range
of applications that relied historically on more carbon-intensive chemistry. The
group collectively questioned whether the emerging and more highly regulated
innovation environment, particularly in Europe, was catalyzing or slowing
Published Oct 23, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Formerly working in the advertising world in Kansas City, Hannah Zimmerman has now married her past experience with her passion for sustainability. When she isn't chasing her four-year-old daughter or helping companies along on their sustainability journey through consulting, reporting, communications and certifications, she is working on her master's in Sustainability through Harvard.
Jeremy Osborn is a NYC-based entrepreneur and and senior consultant with a background in marketing and communications, tech, strategy, governance, and sustainability. He holds an MA in Resources, Environment, and Sustainability from the University of British Columbia and has worked for leading brands in a wide range of industries and sectors — including food and ag, consumer goods, built environment, industrial manufacturing, energy, finance, transportation, and more.
Tina is a sustainability consultant with EcoNomics, Inc. She is a longtime surfer who is passionate about the world of waste.