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Coming Full Circle: Innovating towards Sustainable Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres


Key Issues

In man-made cellulosic fibre production

The current system of virgin MMCF production has issues that can be broadly categorised into three key areas:

  1. When sustainable forestry practices are not followed, the extraction of raw material is contributing to the continued deforestation and logging of forests, particularly important are ancient and endangered forests, as well indigenous communities’ traditional lands;
  2. The continued production of garments containing virgin material is leading to a large amount of textile waste that is not recycled back into textile fibre, a significant portion of which is destined for landfill or incineration;
  3. The manufacturing process of most MMCFs contains the use of hazardous chemicals, which if not managed correctly using the latest technologies, can harm workers and contaminate local ecosystems.



It is well known that drastic action must be taken in order to meet the ambitious climate targets set in the Paris Agreement – that is to limit global temperature rise to well under 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2030. After that point, it is said that the catastrophic impacts of climate change are irreversible11.


Given the magnitude of the issue, a multi-faceted approach that influences both production and consumption habits must be pursued. As well as transitioning to a more decarbonised economy, recent studies from the UN have found that the maintenance and restoration of forests are equally as crucial in supporting the climate goals12. It is projected that nature-based solutions, of which restoration and management of forest is a central component, can provide a low cost solution to sequester significant amounts of the carbon needed through to 2030 to limit warming to less than 2 degrees13.


Within the MMCF supply chain, there is particular importance on the preservation of ancient and endangered forests. These can be original forests that have never been industrially logged, rare forests that are not abundant on a global level, and/or forests that contain high concentrations of rare and endangered species14. From a carbon sequestration perspective, ancient and original forests hold disproportionately greater significance, storing 40x more carbon per hectare than industrial plantation forests15.


Aside from the carbon sequestration effects, restoring and managing natural forests can help to protect communities downstream from flooding, as well as protecting biodiversity16. Forests are home to 80% of all land-based biodiversity, providing irreplaceable variety to our ecosystems helping to ensure its resilience and continued productivity17.



The forestry practices followed by MMCF producers are pivotal in influencing the sustainability of industry. For example, progressive MMCF producers that follow sustainable forestry practices, such as replanting more trees than they are harvesting, can have a net positive environmental impact through increased carbon sequestration. However, irresponsible practices lead to deforestation and thus significant release of carbon dioxide, as previously mentioned. Canopy, through their CanopyStyle initiative, is making huge strides in working with pulp and viscose producers to ensure sustainable forestry practices – having engaged almost 85% of the entire global market of MMCF producers in the initiative. Presently, 42.5% of global market share of MMCF producers achieved a ‘green shirt’ in the 2019 Hot Button Ranking.



The Hot Button Ranking reflects the growing commitment of the textile and fashion industry to look beyond simply mitigating risk. With the goals of making the viscose supply chain more sustainable, as well as institutionalising the long-term solutions required for a stable future for the world’s ancient and endangered forests, the ranking focuses on:

  • Producers’ level of risk of sourcing from ancient and endangered forests
  • Producers’ leadership on advocating for conservation legacies,
  • Producers’ work to advance the commercial-scale production of fibres usinginnovative and alternative feedstocks, such as leftover straw or post-consumer recycled clothing.The assessment analyses measurable actions by producers and the methodology is transparent and replicable.


The Fashion for Good FCTP will not directly address the problem area of sustainable forestry, but will instead look to reinforce and align with this progress whilst working to relieve pressure on forests through replacing fibre sources with circular alternatives.



The current system of producing, distributing and disposing of clothing occurs almost entirely in a linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model – that is, extracting virgin resources, using garments for a short period before disposing of them, whereby the materials are lost to landfill or incineration.


In many parts of the world, the infrastructure for collecting the disposed garments is improving, therefore increasing the amount of used garments being collected. For example, incoming EU legislation mandating the separation of textile waste from other waste streams by 2025 will only accelerate the amount of textiles being collected18. However, the fraction of these garments that can be resold domestically or exported to be resold is shrinking – which has traditionally been the financial driver for the textile sorting industry19.


The proportion of reusable textiles is reducing because of three key reasons:

  • There are more low quality, ‘fast-fashion’ items entering the textile waste stream that retain less value20.
  • The traditional export markets are becoming saturated with used garments – with some countries deciding to ban or place tariffs on the imports of used garments21.
  • Consumers and brands are taking greater ownership of the reuse market, meaning discarded garments are often those that are non-reusable.


This, coupled with the challenges with closing the loop through textile-to-textile recycling (as discussed below), has meant that over 70% of clothing discarded ends up in landfill or incineration, with less than 1% being incorporated in the production of new textiles22. To put that into perspective, the rate of disposal is equivalent to one garbage truck of textile waste being landfilled every second23. This problem is exacerbated given the fact that over half of the textiles produced today are from synthetic fibres, which are conventionally not biodegradable and have been found to shed microfibres into the surrounding environment.


The recycling of textile waste that does occur consists of cascading the waste to other industries in the production of lower value applications – such as insulation, mattress stuffing and industrial wipes. The sheer quantity of textile waste being generated is further increasing given the underutilisation of clothing. For example, the emergence of fast fashion and falling costs has meant that clothing production has doubled from 2000 to 201424. In today’s trend-driven system, consumers keep clothing items about half as long as they did 15 years ago25. It has been estimated that over half of fast fashion items produced are disposed of within one year – leading to an extreme throwaway culture26. The consequence of all of the highlighted converging factors is a huge amount of non-reusable textile waste that is destined for landfill or incineration at large environmental cost.


As shown later in this report, innovation in textile-to-textile recycling holds significant force to accelerate the transition to a fashion industry that generates less waste, with more existing materials re-entering the system. Given this opportunity, the FCTP has been formulated to address this issue directly – transforming textile waste into new garments of indistinguishable quality.



The production of (most) MMCFs includes a number of highly corrosive and toxic chemicals. Whilst discharge and dangerous levels of exposure were more prevalent in the early years of MMCF manufacturing (1970’s – 1980’s), without adequate chemical management it still remains a threat today.



Central to this is the release of carbon disulphide (CS2), a hazardous chemical that is used as a solvent in the production of viscose and modal27. Exposure to CS2 for prolonged periods can cause a wide range 2 of illnesses – ranging from organ damage to endocrine disruption. Other hazardous chemicals used in the dissolving of pulp and spinning of MMCF include caustic soda (NaOH) and sulphuric acid (H2SO4) – both of which are commonplace in chemical industries; however do both pose a threat to human health if not appropriately managed28. Finally, it is crucial to note that the adverse effects of the aforementioned chemicals are not limited to the workers within the manufacturing sites; without adequate chemical management the surrounding areas can become affected by the discharge of chemicals – harming the health of local communities and surrounding ecosystems.


In the last two decades, there has been considerable development of technologies, referred to as the closed loop technologies or Best Available Technologies, that address the risks to safety, health and environment. These technologies allow the chemicals to be recovered and recycled back into the process. Progressive viscose producers now apply these control technologies, thereby keeping the work environment and ambient air conditions below the limits prescribed by World Health Organization (WHO) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).


The problem of hazardous chemical discharge is further being addressed through industry-led initiatives, for example the work of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC). In April 2020, the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme, a collaboration of brands, supply chain players and manufacturers, released a set of guidelines for responsible production of MMCF – across wastewater management, sludge, air emissions and chemical recovery during the fibre production stage.


The aspiration is to create an aligned approach for manufacturing facilities across the world to generate cleaner outputs whilst encouraging more closed-loop processes. The guidance provides best practices of responsible manufacturing, including technologies and techniques to recover hazardous chemicals (e.g. carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide) as well as prescribing percentage rates of chemical recovery for manufacturing facilities to be considered as ‘foundational, progressive or aspirational29’. In doing so, ZDHC hopes to implement its roadmap with defined milestones for fibre manufacturing facilities to advance towards progressive and aspirational performance levels as presented in EU BREFS documents.



The EU Best Available Techniques References (BREFS) define the most advanced technologies that are available today to control and minimize the emissions to environment from the industrial processes and reduce the resource consumptions.

These documents also describe the associated emissions and consumption levels that can be achieved by applying the Best Available Technologies. The BREFS for the viscose staple fibre industry are available in document called “Best Available Technology for production of Polymers”. It is considered to be the most comprehensive and ambitious standard addressing pollution to air and water as well as defining the consumption norms for the raw material in the viscose fibre manufacturing process.


Whilst this is clearly an important issue for the industry to tackle, the aforementioned initiatives led by ZDHC and the European Commission are making fantastic steps in addressing them and so the Fashion for Good Full Circle Textiles Project will not be addressing this problem area directly.