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A textile industry revolution is taking place in Peoria

A Ralph Lauren polo manufactured using CLARUS materials from Peoria-based Natural Fiber Welding.
Ralph Lauren / Natural Fiber Welding
A Ralph Lauren polo manufactured using CLARUS materials from Peoria-based Natural Fiber Welding.

It's 2022, and a revolution is quietly brewing in Peoria, Illinois. “Plants, not plastic” is the mantra of Natural Fiber Welding, a Peoria startup that is developing plant-based alternatives to leather and plastics.

Ralph Lauren, one of the world's top fashion companies, was an early investor in NFW. During last summer's Olympics, USA team members wore Ralph Lauren apparel featuring patches made from Mirum, NFW’s plant-based leather alternative. Now Clarus, the company's other major product, is taking center stage with the debut of Ralph Lauren's RLX Clarus Polo Shirt at the Australian Open tennis tournament last month.

Dr. Luke Haverhals is the CEO and founder of Natural Fiber Welding, and the inventor of Clarus.

“Clarus is a family of technologies that enables performance fabrics and therefore garments, apparel, shoes and other kinds of things,” he explains. “It's really the ingredient brand name of textiles that are high-performance and all-natural.”

The revolutionary technologies behind Clarus originated in a number of discoveries Dr. Haverhals made at the US Naval Academy a decade ago. He and his research team found a new technique to shape natural fibers in such a way that gives them high-performance capabilities, which previously could only be achieved from plastic-based synthetics like polyester.

“The reason people use synthetics is not because they like where plastics come from,” he explains. “People don't like where plastics go to. But when you have certain performance criteria, it was your only solution… until Natural Fiber Welding came along.”

Using the Clarus platform, NFW can apply the versatility of synthetic fabrics to cotton, hemp and other natural materials, transforming them in ways that were never before possible—and with zero waste.

“What we were able to show with Clarus is that you can have a garment that doesn't cling to your skin, that wicks moisture very effectively, that dries very fast, that's even more breathable than what you would get from a synthetic,” Dr. Haverhals explains.

NFW’s patented process essentially fuses these fibers together, hence the name “fiber welding.” The resulting yarn takes on the best properties of synthetics, while retaining all the properties of natural fibers. That yarn must then be woven into fabric and turned into products. That's where Ralph Lauren comes in.

“We met a person named Jason Berns, who's the VP of Innovation inside of Ralph Lauren,” recalls Dr. Haverhals. “Jason had the capacity to understand how transformative the technology could be. And so, with his foresight—and coming to Peoria to see what we were doing—that kicked off about a year-and-a-half long process by which they got to know us. We would send them materials; they would give us feedback. And we build trust with each other.”

When it came time for NFW to seek funding, Ralph Lauren led a $13 million round of investment. A year and a half later, the company used its iconic Polo shirt to showcase the groundbreaking innovations of Clarus. The successful rollout at the Australian Open demonstrated that Clarus lives up to the hype—and the implications are vast. Over time, Ralph Lauren expects to dramatically reduce its use of synthetics moving toward more sustainable and recycled materials.

Greg Stillman is the general manager of NFW’s Clarus unit. He says the partnership with Ralph Lauren is a natural fit.

“Ralph Lauren has always been a cotton company,” Stillman notes. “If you look at their entire portfolio of garments, they never made this switch to polyester, spandex or athleisure. In many ways, our launch with them is just doubling down on what has already been true to their DNA. This technology essentially gives them a competitor to the synthetics, but again, still true to their DNA. And now performance means not just good with naturals, but so good that we can start competing with the synthetics, but not have all the externalities and the unfortunate environmental consequences.”

From toxic waste to climate change, we continue to learn more about the dangers posed by plastics. In the textile industry, microplastic pollution has emerged as a significant issue. Each time synthetic fabrics are worn, washed or dried, they shed tiny pieces of plastic debris, which then make their way into the oceans, the air, our lungs and our food.

“What's so important to communicate about the Ralph Lauren announcement is that it's an example of a large industry player saying we're going to do business differently going forward,” Dr. Haverhals declares. “And the business we want to do is with NFW.”

According to Dr. Haverhals, NFW is ushering in a new industry, a movement, and a completely different way of manufacturing. Its mission—to enable a plastic-free future—could hardly be more ambitious. Yet for the very first time, because of NFW, that future feels possible.

“The idea is to be able to make materials, and products that you wear or for the built environment that you're within, and make those materials and products out of nutrients, directly from what nature grows—what photosynthesis does, in particular,” he explains.

More new plant matter grows in one day on Earth than the combined total of plastics produced each year. “It's a number so big, it's hard to wrap your mind around it,” Dr. Haverhals says. “So in other words, we figured out how to get this performance from the most abundant natural resource on the planet.

“That is a comprehensive approach to making sure that people can continue to live well and abundantly on planet Earth without the consequences and conflict that comes from unsustainable practices.”

The RLX Clarus Polo Shirt can be purchased on the Ralph Lauren website today. Clarus can also be found in Chaco footwear and is being explored for use in the automotive industry, in your home, and anywhere else you find textiles. NFW believes consumers will come around very quickly—whether they are consciously seeking an alternative to plastic or not.

“They will literally benefit from the performance,” Stillman says. “They can wear it and enjoy it, and then understand all of these sustainable benefits. It's such an intimate medium of storytelling and delivering a message—because it literally envelops our lives. From the moment you wake up, the first thing out of the shower, to the moment you go to sleep: Everybody has a relationship with textiles.”

The future of Natural Fiber Welding could hardly look any brighter. Ralph Lauren is looking to source tens of millions of pounds of Clarus this year alone. So what does this all mean for Peoria? Well, jobs for one.

“We have headcount growth that is going to add hundreds of jobs, literally, in months,” Stillman notes. “I think we'll have a few announcements on increasing our physical footprint in the city. And to anybody who's interested in joining, we certainly have a long list of positions, and we'll continue to have a long list of positions to fill—now and into the new year.”

“This isn't just a nice story,” Dr. Haverhals points out. “This is an approach to technology and manufacturing and making things that literally is a higher-performing, more abundant, better way forward for humanity to go.

“When you have a comprehensive approach that solves the trillions-of-dollars-per-year plastic problem, it's actually a pretty big deal. We have enough proof now to say this is beyond just a nice story. This this is happening.”

And it's happening right here in Peoria.

Jonathan Wright is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.