Coming Full Circle: Innovating towards Sustainable Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres
Less than 18 months since its launch in September 2020, the Fashion for Good Full Circle Textiles Project has been successfully executed. This final chapter provides an overview of project activities during the two phases, the lessons learnt and finally what lies ahead in scaling these technologies for the future.
THE PROJECT PROCESS
For Phase 1 of the project, a comparative assessment of five innovators took place. The assessment was based upon five areas; the impact of the technology, the input/feedstock, the output, the company structure and finally the technology and associated risks to scaling. The comparative analysis provided necessary structure and standardisation in assessing the innovators, making it easier to understand differences. All five innovators were then invited to participate in Phase 2 of the project – moving from assessment to implementation.
Innovators were responsible for sourcing post-industrial and/or post-consumer textile waste to put through their chemical recycling processes. Given the project’s focus on creating regenerated cellulosic fibre, innovators chose to source feedstock with a high-cotton content (as cotton is 90-95% cellulose).
Using their technology, innovators chemically recycled the textile waste into cellulosic pulp. The recycled pulp was then sent to Birla Cellulose for fibre spinning. Infinited Fiber Company’s cellulose carbamate process is different from the others and therefore they processed the textile waste into Infinna™ fibres, which were sent directly into the brand’s supply chains.
Using their pilot facility, Birla Cellulose spun regenerated cellulosic fibres from the recycled pulp. In the spinning process, the recycled pulp was blended with FSC-certified wood pulp to produce fibres with 20% recycled content. This is in-line with the recycled content of Birla Cellulose’s commercially available in-house chemically recycled fibre – Liva Reviva™. Infinited Fiber created its Infinna™ fibre with a recycled content of 100%.
Each innovator’s pulp and resultant fibres were evaluated in a private session using pre-specified confidential technical criteria – e.g. dissolution quality, filtration. This was an important part of the project as it presented the opportunity for innovators to receive feedback on the quality of their pulp and discuss any areas for technical improvement.
Yarn, fabric and garment production
The regenerated cellulosic fibres from Renewcell, Circ and Evrnu were then sent into Kering and PVH Corp.’s supply chains for conversion into yarn, fabric and ultimately finished garments. As previously mentioned, Infinited Fiber Company’s Infinna™ fibres were sent directly to Kering and PVH Corp.’s supply chains for yarn, fabric and garment production.
In the Kering and PVH Corp. supply chains, the recycled fibres from Birla Cellulose and Infinited Fiber Company were blended with organic cotton to produce a yarn that would result in a cotton-like feel. Various yarn formations were tested – including ring-spun yarns, open-end yarns and vortex yarns. This was also an important step as it demonstrates the capability of the regenerated cellulosic fibres in terms of most suitable use-case/end product for each fibre.
For the final garments, using each innovator’s yarn, PVH Corp. created a pique fabric to make navy polo shirts. Kering created both a white knitted jersey t-shirt and white woven shirting garments. An evaluation of the yarn and fabric was also conducted – giving the innovators an opportunity to get feedback on the technical characteristics of the garment – including the colour fastness etc.
Each innovator received a sample of the Kering and PVH Corp. garments produced. All other stakeholders received a sample of the Kering and PVH Corp. garments for each innovator to have a comparative final result
PROJECT ACHIEVEMENTS AND LEARNINGS
The project achieved all three goals it set out to:
Pulp, fibre and yarn evaluations met basic technical requirements thus validating the potential for innovator’s chemical recycling technologies
- The recycled pulp (and Infinna™ fibres in the case of Infinited Fiber Company) were able to be used by Birla Cellulose for pilot scale fibre making. Birla Cellulose provided innovators with areas of improvement for further optimization.
- The innovator’s pulp was produced into fibres by Birla Cellulose with the same recycled content as commercially available incumbent technologies (20%) and could be spun into yarn and converted to fabrics.
- The finished product met the brand’s specifications – demonstrating the capability of chemical recycled fibres in meeting the quality requirements of large brands.
Project gained significant traction and galvanised industry towards scaling chemical recycling technologies
- The Full Circle Textiles Project was well-received by industry. It was reported on over 65 times by a diverse range of press outlets across the world. Fashion for Good was invited to many leading conferences to present the project and disseminate within industry – e.g. Textile Exchange 2021 Conference.
- This coverage helped to raise awareness on the importance and potential of chemical recycling to reduce textile waste in the industry and drive the transition towards circularity.
KEY LEARNINGS FROM THE PROJECT
A phased and collaborative approach is key
The consortium structure of this project brought together the key stakeholders to demonstrate and scale innovation. By collaborating with both brands and supply chain partners, innovators were given the opportunity to receive feedback on their recycled fibres at the fibre, yarn and fabric stage. The multiple evaluation opportunities enables innovators to accelerate their technical development and ensure their product is fit for the market.
Moreover, the collaborative structure means that risks are shared and stakeholders can concentrate efforts on their area of expertise.
The phased approach of The Full Circle Textile Approach brought discrete milestones for innovators to achieve in order to move from assessment to implementation. Moreover, the due diligence, coupled with the production process provided brands with a suite of ways to compare innovators to understand the landscape of cellulosic chemical recyclers.
NEXT STEPS FOR SCALING
Now the technology has been validated at a pilot level, the project now focuses on scaling cellulosic chemical recycling. Given the different stages of maturity of each innovator, the next steps are bespoke. However, no matter the maturity, scaling innovators requires action from several fashion supply chain partners. Taking both into account, the following three focus areas are key to enable further scaling:
- Optimise technical development to enable large scale roll out of recycling technologies – moving from lab, pilot to commercial scale can require technical changes to be made to innovator processes. Innovators should continue to work with supply chain partners to ensure their processes are compatible thus scaleable to enable circularity across industry.
- Increase recycled content in fibres and yarns – requires both innovator and supply chain innovation development. Innovators will continue testing with brands and supply chain partners to optimise their process and increase the recycled content of the fibres – moving the industry closer towards ‘true’ circularity.
- Funding and offtake support required to advance roll out – even if innovator technologies, together with the relevant supply chain partners, are able to produce 100% recycled content fibres and yarns, the growth of the industry is still dependent on suitable financing and offtake commitment for growth. Offtake agreements are crucial as they provide certainty of demand for the product in the market – de-risking the opportunity for financiers. Financing is absolutely key for the scaling of these technologies.
Since the project launch in 2020, we have seen huge progress in fundraising, with EVRNU (EUR 13.5 million), Infinited Fiber Company (EUR 30 million), Circ (EUR 4.5 million) and Renewcell (IPO) all receiving significant funding – allowing them to further optimise their technology and begin commercial expansion.
In addition, discussions around long-term offtake agreements and partnerships are in progress. Long-term partnerships and financing are two leading indicators for future potential growth. In order to realise the next steps we need to:
- Continue to collaborate to test and validate innovator technology with the relevant supply chain partners and
- Support the development of adjacent industries like textile waste collection, sorting, pre-processing to assist feedstock procurement for recyclers. This is a crucial lever in creating supply chains that enable circularity.
Fashion for Good has taken steps to address both of the points above through the launch of the Full Circle Textiles Project – Polyester, which follows a similar consortium style structure to scale polyester chemical recycling. To contribute to the development of adjacent industries, Fashion for Good initiated the Sorting for Circularity Project and Sorting for Circularity India Project – industry-wide precompetitive projects that aim to develop the infrastructure necessary to scale textile recycling.