Coming Full Circle: Innovating towards Sustainable Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres
Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres (MMCF), which are most commonly derived from wood, have the third largest share in global fibre production after polyester and cotton. They are a set of fibres with increasing importance – MMCF production has doubled in the last 30 years and is forecast for continued growth over the coming years. MMCF production has great potential from a sustainability perspective; moving production away from oil-derived synthetic fibres and reducing the depletion of freshwater through reduced cotton cultivation.
Central to the sustainability credentials of MMCF are responsible sourcing practices and production processes; ensuring that harvesting of trees is done at a replenishable rate and closed-loop processes are used. Despite improvements, environmental organisation Canopy estimates that approximately one third of MMCF is procured from ancient and endangered forests – posing a grave threat to the environment and our ecosystems. Moreover, on the demand side, the fashion system that MMCF enters into is predicated upon a linear system; extracting virgin resources for production and disposing of textiles after a short amount of use – generating huge amounts of waste.
THE FUTURE MMCF SYSTEM
Strides have been made in laying out a future system – one that is regenerative and replaces the use of virgin wood coming from ancient & endangered forests with responsible forestry and alternative fibre sources – namely waste cotton textiles and other agricultural residue. Cotton textiles provide a fantastic source of cellulose to be regenerated into new MMCF fibres – requiring only 1 tonne of cotton waste input to produce 1 tonne of MMCF output, compared with 2.5 – 3 tonnes of conventional wood input.
This opportunity is unique and cannot be understated; if just 25% of the cotton and rayon textile waste was converted into regenerated MMCF, the need for virgin wood fibre in viscose production would be eradicated.
BARRIERS TO CLOSING THE LOOP
Textile recycling technologies provide an encouraging solution to close the loop on MMCF production, alleviating the burden on virgin resources and reducing textile waste. Two key forms of textile recycling exist; mechanical and chemical. The former is a more established industry, however, drawbacks including the requirement for high-purity feedstock and the shortening of fibres during recycling can reduce the performance at yarn and fibre stage and thus not provide a truly circular solution.
Chemical recycling technologies are best poised to tackle the bulk of textile waste, producing fibres of identical (or in some instances superior) quality. That said, key barriers still exist to scaling this technology – best summarised through the chicken and egg analogy: brands will not formally commit to offtake until it is cost competitive with virgin fibre; however, investors will not finance the innovation to commercialisation without the lack of demand signalled from the brands – leaving innovators in a difficult position.
DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION HELPING TO CLOSE THE LOOP
A myriad of innovative solutions are being developed by established players and start-ups alike: some developing chemical recycling technologies that recycle cotton from pure cotton waste garments, others extracting the cotton from garments with blended fibres and finally those that target agricultural waste in the production of regenerated MMCF.
These innovations are nudging the needle; however, more must be done to move from siloed success stories to systemic change.
CONSORTIUM PROJECTS ENABLE INNOVATION TO SCALE
Consortium projects with multiple innovators can help to overcome the aforementioned barriers – providing innovators with industry expertise and support, helping brands harness the full capability of several innovations simultaneously, and finally, providing supply chain partners with access to potential scalable long-term implementation partners.
The Full Circle Textiles Project (FCTP), orchestrated by Fashion for Good, brings together the relevant stakeholders across the spectrum of chemical recycling of cellulosics, to bring structure to the innovation process, test their output with industry experts, and best enable the scaling of the technology.
The key FCTP stakeholders are: Fashion for Good, Laudes Foundation, Birla Cellulose, Evrnu, Infinited Fiber Company, Kering, Phoenxt, PVH Corp., Renewcell, Target and Tyton BioSciences.
WIDER INDUSTRY ACTION IS NEEDED
Scaling chemical recycling of cellulosic fibres cannot be achieved by one consortium project alone. A concerted, industry-wide effort is required to provide the incentive and financial means needed to accelerate the transformation to sustainable and closed-loop processes. Fashion for Good, through the FCTP, hopes to inspire other stakeholders to pilot, invest and ultimately secure offtake with chemical recycling innovators, catalysing the transformation to a more circular fashion system.
A bold approach is needed to identify and scale innovations that drive sustainable change in the fashion industry. This multi-stakeholder consortium, a first-of-its-kind, addresses the most important barriers to scaling innovation, setting the precedent for all industry players with ambitions for disruptive innovation to follow.Katrin Ley, Managing Director, Fashion for Good