Textiles Industry’s Pandemic-Driven Shifts in Innovation, Sustainability & Work-Life Balance

September 28, 2021

Hear from Evan McCauley, VP, Innovation, Sustainability, Calvin Klein at PVH

The worlds of work and family life suddenly collided for many at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as companies sent employees home to work remotely. In many cases, this change occurred overnight with individuals packing up their computers and setting up makeshift offices in their kitchens, bedrooms or wherever they could find space.

For Evan McCauley, a working professional and mother to three young children, the problem of working from home (WFH) turned out to be the solution she had been seeking for quite some time.

“It is quite difficult to balance professional ambitions with having a family,” said McCauley. “I love what I do, and I am a relentless learner; at the same time, having children is the best thing I ever did in life.”

With her partner often traveling for work, her own long commute to and from the office, and no family nearby to help, McCauley relied on childcare providers to fill the gaps in parenting.

Then her world was transformed with the shift to WFH.

“I took a huge sigh of relief,” she said. “I am now more connected with my children’s care, able to make better decisions about it and setting them up for success by providing more guidance to them. My children are happier and I am happier because we have many more touch points- I know them better and understand their day-to-day. For years, I struggled to fit in even 1 school drop-off or pick-up; I can recall once in 2019 when my eldest son asked my why his classmates thought their nanny was his mom.”

Although, the switch has not been seamless. Working at home is quite different from working in an office environment. While McCauley has someone to help with childcare during her designated work hours, she still struggles with home dynamics and distractions. It isn’t easy to focus on a Zoom meeting when a child is having a temper tantrum in the next room.

“I really love working from home as hard as interruptions can be,” McCauley explained. “however, I would take that any day over the complete and unrealistic expectations that parents can completely outsource the day-to-day. I feel that I now have life-work balance.”

With regards to her team at PVH and how they have worked together remotely during the pandemic, McCauley says the transition to WFH in itself was not a challenge.

“We are a solid team that had been using remote tools for quite some time, so we were familiar with the technology and how to successfully collaborate outside of the office.”

While remote work with existing team members has been relatively easy, McCauley says building relationships with new colleagues in a virtual environment has been a greater challenge.

“It’s harder to get to know someone, convey who you are and build trust when you are not face-to-face in the same room,” said McCauley. “That aspect of WFH has been difficult for me personally.”

Pandemic pressures and textile trends

While the COVID-19 pandemic broadened opportunities for employees to work beyond the four walls of their employer, it diminished some areas of product innovation. McCauley points to cotton production shutdowns in China, which forced textile manufacturers to seek out new sources of raw materials, as a major disruption to textile product development.

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“When your raw material base completely changes, any products you had developed or technologies you had experimented with prior to the change are no longer relevant,” described McCauley. “All of that is out the door and you have to start from scratch using the new raw material base.”

As she explains, the innovation path in textiles “has a long tail.” More incremental projects can take anywhere from 18 months to three years to complete because of the complexity of the development cycles. When the industry is faced with a challenge like over the past 18 months, good ideas and hard work can, in her words, “die on the vine.”

“From an industry trend perspective, enhanced durability is potentially where apparel companies might change their approach to product development,” McCauley said.

“I expect that product durability will become more and more important as brands continue to work toward hitting circularity goals.”

Promoting sustainable solutions and practices in the textile industry has been a personal goal for McCauley over the past 10-15 years, so she is happy to see the shift in this direction.

“Interests and education on sustainable products are gaining traction and the industry is starting to implement more robust product-based goals,” McCauley explains. “We are starting to see that across many different types of brands. Companies are pushing themselves to think beyond foundational shifts within the supply chain – to what sustainable decisions they are making at a product level.

Consumers want to look and feel clean

While environmental and industry factors are shaping textile design, innovation ultimately comes down to consumer preferences. As McCauley notes, people want clothes that are easier to launder and look and feel fresher and cleaner longer.

“They want to feel buttoned up and clean all of the time,” she said. “They want fabrics that will repel stains, resist wrinkles and stay smelling fresh after repeated wear.

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McCauley says apparel manufacturers are taking a lesson from other industries and adopting tenets of human centered design in the development of their products. They are increasingly taking into consideration how an individual will use the garment, experience it and what they will perceive from their experience.

Based on intel from the fabric care industry, McCauley says odor is a top concern among consumers when it comes to the apparel experience. There are two challenges when it comes to odor: the odor the person emits and that which is created by bacteria in the textile after repeated wearing. That which is resistant to normal laundering is often termed “permastink”.

McCauley has developed and tested apparel featuring Sciessent’s Lava, which harness the power of zeolites – mineral-based substances originating from volcanic ash – to capture odor molecules and keep products smelling fresh. The technology can not only attract and absorb odor molecules, but also degrade them. This enables self-regeneration of the technology without laundering for an extended lifespan due to less washes and no odor build-up.

“To really tackle persistent odor, you need the combination of an effective antimicrobial and odor capturing mechanisms,” she said. “That’s the way to achieve total odor control.”

Truly understanding how a consumer is wearing and laundering a product is critical to design success, according to McCauley. As she explains, a lab test doesn’t always translate to the experience of the wearer. Companies garner far more useful insights when they test their garments in real-world circumstances.

These real-world tests are a great way to understand if you delivered on the benefit that you think you did,” McCauley commented.

Testing products in this way can also lead to some surprising discoveries. For example, McCauley and her team believed lint on fabrics was a major concern among consumers, so they implemented static dissipating technology for lint-free fabrics right out of the dryer. But they discovered lint was not the primary issue.

“When we started consumer testing of this technology we found consumers didn’t care so much about lint or didn’t express that concern. Rather, they cared about pet hair on their clothing and solutions to rid garments of it.”

A pause and a restart

The pandemic has driven many changes across industries to how work is performed and products created.

With the pandemic proving that employees can successfully work outside of the office on a long-term basis, McCauley hopes that employers will support a more hybrid work environment, with a mix of in-office and WFH days, as the new norm.

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“I hope that a balance of WFH and in office collaborations will be the official policy moving forward. As a result, collaboration between people would become more purposeful – seeing that in-person meetings may be more difficult to orchestrate.”

With regards to product design, McCauley sees the pandemic as providing apparel companies with the opportunity to take a step back, determine what the wearers of their garments truly want and need, and reposition design efforts accordingly.

“Brands can use the pause to reset their brand positioning and hopefully develop robust technologies that keep consumers looking – and smelling – cleaner,” she says. “The biggest challenge today is competing with value in extremely price sensitive channels.”

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