The State of Circular Innovations in the Indian Fashion and Textile Industries
The textile supply chain begins with raw materials, which are used as feedstock for the production of fibre, yarns and fabric. It is estimated that more than half3 of the environmental footprint of the textile and apparel industry is created in this stage. For the most commonly used fibres: polyester (51.5%4) and cotton (24.4%5), the C02 emissions are estimated at 1.7-4.5 kg and 0.5-4.3 kg per T-Sshirt of the fibres respectively6. This brings about the need for alternative, lower impact new materials or improved manufacturing processes..
KEY FINDINGS FROM THE REGION
- Low-impact natural fibres have been used extensively in India with traditional production techniques but have not been suitable for industrial scale.
- Scaling natural fibres is the mail focus in raw material innovations in India, most technologies being lab scale or early stage with limited industry access.
- Man-made cellulosic industry in India is exploring process innovations, with large-scale development of low impact cellulosic fibres by the large players.
PLANT BASED NATURAL FIBRES
Known as fibres sourced from plants, bast, fruit and seed fibres, many of these have been in use for centuries. The most widely used natural fibre is cotton, which uses vast amounts of land, pesticides, water and energy during the growing cycle. Many lower-impact natural fibres that use traditional production techniques have historically not been suitable for industrial scale. Innovation opportunities in this space include improving manufacturing processes to enable the scaling up of these fibres, such as bast, leaf and fruit skins, as well as exploring the use of alternative feedstocks such as agricultural or food waste (eg: straw, wheat, coconut husks).
India is one of the largest producers as well as exporters of cotton yarn7, cotton provides the gold standard by which natural fibres are produced and measured in the country. The majority of production infrastructure in India converts cotton fibre into yarn and fabric. With challenges like water scarcity, sustainable fibre alternatives with similar properties to cotton such as hemp, stinging nettles, lotus stem, agricultural waste and banana fibre present exciting solutions for the textile industry. Historically, there have been challenges around the compatibility of these fibres with the dominant spinning and production infrastructure, originally designed for processing cotton. However, recent technological developments allow for bast fibres like hemp to be processed more efficiently on conventional equipment. This can also improve the material properties and characteristics of these fibres, foreshadowing a future in which these lower footprint fibres might take a more prominent position in the global fibre mix.
AltMat from Ahmedabad, India has developed a proprietary process to extract usable bast fibre from agricultural produce, sourcing hemp and banana agri-waste directly from organisations and farmers. The fibre is natural, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive by enhancing farmer’s livelihoods. AltMat’s fibre, while competitive in price, still needs blending with other materials like cotton, viscose and polyester to make it suitable for use in the apparel industry. The fibres can also be used to make paper, non-wovens and many composites like leather or insulation sheets due to its chemical and acoustic insulation properties.
REGENERATIVE PROTEIN FIBRES
Animal fibres include silk, wool and cashmere and have properties that make them particularly well suited for specific applications. For example a silk filament has great tensile strength8. The durability and strength are performance characteristics that are hard to replace. Moreover they provide an occupation to local ecosystems. Even with all the benefits, such fibres often have a high water usage and high GHG emissions in most production hubs9. Animal Fibres make up less than 2%10 of the total global fibre production however play an important role in the industry due to the characteristics mentioned above. There are opportunities for innovation in both the production process as well as the feedstocks used, for example using algae or spider silk. These are called regenerated fibres which are man-made fibres produced from either animal or vegetable non-fibrous proteins which have been reconfigured to take up a fibrous form to emulate the natural protein fibres of wool or silk11. There are also opportunities for innovation in the manufacturing process for example using water based silk solutions to mechanically extrude the fibres reducing water and energy use.
Some regenerated sustainable fibres from bio-resources include cupro fibres, casein fibres, groundnut protein fibres, zein fibres, soya bean fibres, silicate fibres and alginate fibres.
Spintex, from the UK, has developed a technology platform that can create bespoke, next generation fibres and materials from a liquid silk solution. The artificially spun silk filaments are produced sustainably and efficiently. Fibres are spun from a water-based silk solution, purely by applying a small pulling force, which forms the solid fibres through self-assembly. Spintex produces this feedstock and spins the resulting fibres at room temperature, representing the main energy saving compared to the conventional silk production process, where up to 50% of the energy input is heat, whilst producing a material that matches or surpasses traditional silks in quality.
Man-made cellulosic fibres are developed from natural sources by extracting cellulose, processing it into pulp and then extruding into yarn. Cellulosic feedstocks such as wood, food waste or agricultural waste have undergone chemical or mechanical processing to create a new fibre. There are many new processing technologies disrupting the cellulosic industry; for example Lyocell and more recently Eastman’s Naia™ fibre. Lyocell’s manufacturing process is less chemically intensive than traditional viscose – it does not use toxic compounds as reagents (e.g. carbon disulphide) and operates in a closed-loop process – leading to solvent recovery rates of above 99%. In 2020, Eastman expanded their Naia™ line to include a staple fibre, which utilises feedstock from sustainably managed pine and eucalyptus forests and employs a closed-loop and low impact manufacturing process. India is one of the largest producers of viscose primarily due to the low labour cost and technological expertise9. Traditional viscose processing which is dominant in India often incurs high costs related to the effluent treatments that are required as a result of these processes10.
There are a number of both incremental and disruptive innovations in effluent and wastewater treatments covered in the cross-supply chain innovation section of this report.
Birla Cellulose, a part of the Aditya Birla Group, is among the global leaders in Viscose Staple Fibre (VSF). Birla’s product portfolio includes LivaecoTM, Birla ExcelTM, Birla SpunshadesTM, Liva Reviva, Birla Viscose and Birla Modal. Birla Cellulose fibres are of natural origin, moisture absorbent, have a soft feel, are completely biodegradable and are widely used in apparel, home textiles and non-woven applications. Birla has committed to environmentally friendly fashion and its eco range of products are backed with outstanding sustainability credentials. Liva Reviva is RCS certified11 circular product which uses industrial cotton waste as a raw material. All Birla Cellulose eco products are FSC certified12 , have low water consumption, low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, made using a closed loop process and come with complete traceability of the entire value chain. Sustainability is at the core of Birla Cellulose’s business strategy and they have set several global benchmarks on sustainable viscose fibres such as sustainable forestry, lowest water consumption and carbon neutrality. Its entire scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions13 are neutralised by carbon sequestered in its managed forest, based on the GHG evaluation done in 201914 covering its entire global operations.
Bio-based and partly biodegradable alternatives to synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are created by extensive chemical or biological processing of natural feedstock to make biopolymers. Some examples of biosynthetic materials include polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), and Bio polyethylene terephthalate (BioPET). These can either be a drop-in technology allowing for the use of existing equipment or require a new processing technology such as fermentation or chemical synthesis. Feedstocks can include corn, sugarbeet, agricultural waste as well as greenhouse gases, such as methane waste gas, and organic waste. Each fibre has different impacts at the end-of-use, some are compostable and marine degradable whilst others are recyclable in existing waste streams. If the fibres are compostable and biodegradable, using them helps address the challenge of microfibre shedding of current fossil-based fibres, however this is not a guarantee for many biosynthetics. As a new area of innovation, at the current scale it is hard for biosynthetic materials to compete with conventional oil-based fibres on price. The manufacturing of biosynthetics is a relatively unexplored application area in India.
Phabio offers bioplastic i.e.biodegradable polymers made from renewable biomass obtained from waste in the beer, dairy and sugar industries, as well as food waste and seaweed. These bioplastics can also be made from agricultural waste, used plastic bottles and other containers using microorganisms.
FIGURE 5 – RAW MATERIAL LANDSCAPE
● Investments and testbeds are required to improve processing technology for alternative low-footprint natural fibres, such as the spinnability and compatibility with the current equipment & infrastructure.
● Creating a formal supply chain for agri-waste as feedstock for alternate material innovators can lead to increased farmer income, reduction in agri-waste burning and solving the agri-waste disposal challenges.
● Public and private engagement and state-level intervention to develop a local supply chain of alternative low-footprint natural materials and build the conditions for large-scale production.
● Building knowledge and human capital for innovations in bio-synthetics and regenerated fibres.
We are in an era where the fashion industry is aspiring to move to nature based and circular products. Path breaking innovations are enablers of these change; Liva Reviva by Birla Cellulose is one such example where cotton waste can now be up-scaled to fresh fibres. Birla Cellulose is proud to be part of the Full Circle Textiles Project the Fashion for Good consortium project, that aspires to scale the innovations in cellulosic recycling and we believe that co-creating such solutions has the potential to transform the industry into a new, much needed driver of circular and natural fashion."Mukul Agarwal, Head Sustainability and Strategic Projects, Birla Cellulose , Aditya Birla Group