Developing the fabrics of the future

We’d all like to feel good in the clothes we wear, and look good too, but when making choices about the clothes we buy we need to look beyond colour, cut and cost - we need to think about fabric, its impact on the climate, and the properties it should have to avoid bacteria proliferation (and bad odours).

RespectLife products
RespectLife products


The UN Inter-Agency Consultancy Group (IACG) report states that 700,000 people worldwide die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections; the number could rise to 10 million by 2050 if no action is taken[1]. The Lancet journal also published a study on the impact of bacterial infections in Europe, concluding that the total value of infections with selected antibiotic-resistant bacteria was higher in infants and people over 65 years of age, with a consequent impact on life expectancy[2].

It is therefore clear that an evolution in the materials from which garments are made is not only an interesting step, but a necessary one. Evolution does not only have to do with purely sanitary aspects. Staying in control of one’s appearance, both in terms of personal comfort and pure aesthetics, are crucial factors for the mental wellbeing of older people and their social participation.

Social participation is often limited by a number of exogenous factors: research most often focuses on aspects such as limited mobility, isolation, socio-economic factors, the configuration of urban spaces, inclusion in the communities themselves, however there is a distinct lack of studies on purely personal aspects such as, for example, one’s own smell as a result of factors such as menopause or incontinence.

New garment fabrics can help to strongly reduce the proliferation of odours related to use (again due to the absence of bacterial proliferation). These elements are a benefit, for example, if individuals are suffering from urinary incontinence problems, mitigating the impacts related to social interaction. The World Federation of Incontinent Patients (WFIP) White Paper on Urinary Incontinence estimates that 36 million people in Europe are affected by incontinence [3]. The British Journal of Urology International (BJUI) has also studied this phenomenon, which is mainly due to the ageing of the population and indicates that 423 million people will be affected by incontinence in 2018 [4].

To explore the above, we teamed up with RespectLife, a start-up founded in 2019 by three over-55s and made possible by an investment fund specialised in new initiatives in the field of sustainability. The seniority of the founders was a factor we seriously considered in our everyday activity in promoting entrepreneurship along different stages of life. The company produces fabrics and finished garments made of polypropylene yarn. The founders have applied their knowledge of yarns and textiles to create a product (a fabric named WAL – WEandLIFE) that is comparable in workability and look and feel to those derived from cotton and wool. There are two main applications: underwear, with a focus on the hospital sector, and technical, sports and workwear.

Polypropylene is a completely recyclable material, which can be washed with little water, at low temperatures and with reduced quantities of detergent. The resulting fabric does not retain moisture. It is therefore an inherently antibacterial product, because bacteria do not find a favourable environment for reproduction.

Our approach

Together with RespectLife, we designed a collection of garments to be used in everyday life and thus tested the effectiveness of a new class of fabrics, not only in its purely functional aspects, which were certainly the first objective of our work, but also in its aesthetic acceptance, comfort, pure wearability and usability.

Furthermore, we know that new materials bring with them key considerations related to impact over carbon footprint. It is difficult to compare the sustainability impacts related to the production and recycling of different raw materials used in the production of clothing and underwear. Indeed, the manufacturing processes are very different (e.g. cotton yarn vs. polypropylene yarn) and an analysis should be made throughout the life cycle of the goods. In our project with RespectLife, we therefore focused our attention on the common maintenance phase of the product during use, i.e. washing and – specifically – the temperature necessary for its cleaning, which – in the case of polypropylene – can be maintained at 30°C. Reducing the washing temperature from 60 to 30 degrees can – in particular – result in energy savings in the order of 60%, according to the indications of, a consumer portal created on the initiative of AISE – International Association of Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (5).

We involved a panel of 16 (8 with incontinence and 8 without incontinence issues) VOICE® members, asking a group of people aged 60-95 to wear/use garments from RespectLife for a period of two weeks. We then asked participants to complete a short online survey to gather their insights.

The outcomes

First impressions were varied – some participants thought the products were pleasant, and soft to touch, while others thought the products appeared synthetic and unattractive.

After having used the products, feedback improved and, in the main, the fabric was well received.

Most report that:

  • The washing instructions were fair (reduced detergent and temperature), although some highlighted that creases did not fall out and some stains proved difficult to remove.
  • The warmth, lightweight and breathability of the fabric were reported as good:
    • “They seem to be made well, very light”
    • “I thought they would be easy to wear and incorporate into daily life”
    • “Soft and silky fabric”
  • The design and synthetic smell could be improved.
  • The majority of participants washed the items 2/3 times per week, in the washing machine, as instructed. Most described their experience of using and cleaning these items as ‘similar’ to their usual routine (although used less detergent and, some, at a lower temperature which was pleasing).
  • 69% said items still smelled clean after one wear.
  • 63% said they felt comfortable wearing the items without ironing them.

Next steps

Fundamentally, the fabric was well received by this group. There is more work to be done in relation to product development – mainly around the design – however it must be underlined that we’ve created a sample set just for sake of this pilot stage and “style” was not part of this stage of evaluation.

The appetite to engage in this study was hugely positive from the involved community, showing how much interest there is from an older demographic to not only test final products, but to advise in product development itself.

Furthermore, the interest both in novel fabrics with specific features to combat bacteria proliferation to avoid bad odours as well as more sustainable wash-cycle garments are two areas where the fashion industry still has a lot more to do and where it could find a clearly interested market segment.

Want to join us?

If you want more information, or your organization is keen to take advantage of this sum of knowledge, please email


[1] (2019)

[2] (2015)

[3] (2012)