Most advancements revolve around bio-based materials, with the industry moving away from petrochemicals and finding new ways to utilize more fibers derived from plants and agricultural waste. “As consumers become more educated on the origins of their clothing—for example, nylon’s roots in fossil fuels—they’re demanding transparency, traceability and responsible sourcing in fashion,” said Lisa Kennedy, senior director business development at biotechnology research company Geno.
Solutions can also be sweet. In the search for earth-friendly inputs, sugarcane has found itself in the spotlight as the industry shifts to bio-based materials, and its minimal impact on the environment could “make it a preferred resource.”
Footwear brand Allbirds was the first company to shed light on Brazilian sugarcane—a fully renewable resource that rapidly grows while also removing toxic carbon from the atmosphere—with a midsole called SweetFoam, creating the first carbon-negative green EVA.
Now, fashion manufacturers across the globe are starting to use sugarcane in their production. The latest manufacturer to use the sugarcane is Gelmart International, a private label intimates and loungewear maker. In fact, the manufacturer has used sugarcane to create the first bra cup made of 80 percent bio-based materials.
Gelmart is now working on creating a fabrication that can be used for other items in the intimate’s category while using sugarcane.
“We know that bio-based materials are a big focus right now,” said Eve Bastug, Gelmart’s chief production officer. “The yarn can be dyed, and the beauty of this is it requires a short time in the dyeing process, which means the energy needed is reduced. The fabrication is also more breathable.”
The textile industry has also begun joining forces to capitalize on shared visions for a more circular and bio-based industry. Chemical companies HeiQ and Renewcell are two prime examples.
The two have recently teamed up to commercialize circular and bio-based high-tenacity filament yarns as a viable replacement for fossil-based fibers like nylon and polyester at scale.
“We eagerly anticipate uniting our ingredient branding expertise to jointly convince brands of the huge advantages of replacing all synthetic, fossil-fuel based textiles and how embracing circularity is both in their interests as well as those of their customers and the planet,” said Carlo Centonze, co-founder and CEO at HeiQ.
Beyond creating sustainable materials, companies are re-using what is already out there, and big deals and innovative collaborations are pushing the textile and apparel recycling industry forward.
Eastman board chair and CEO Mark Costa and French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced the company’s plans to join forces to invest in a molecular recycling facility in France. The $1 billion investment is said to be a “significant economy driver,” creating an estimated 350 jobs and an additional 1,500 indirect jobs in recycling, energy and infrastructure.
However, Eastman is not the only company tackling the industry’s growing problem of textile waste. In fact, recycled cotton fiber producer Recover has partnered with textile sorting company Sysav to do just that.
Now, Recover will start receiving post-consumer waste (PWC) made up of 95 percent cotton, provided by Sysav.
“Recycling post-consumer garments at scale and with high quality is the holy grail and the challenge to solve if we want to move to a more circular textile industry and sorting post-consumer textiles on composition and color at scale is an essential enabler to achieve that,” said Helene Smits, chief sustainability officer at Recover.
Companies are also ramping up innovations to give recycled materials a boost. One company leading the charge is Worn Again, a U.K.-based recycled polyester startup.
While many might believe recycling materials is easy, it’s a “much more complicated process technically,” according to Erik Koep, CEO of Worn Again. This is due to polyester often being blended with other materials.
To combat this while also increasing circularity, Worn Again is dissolving down post-consumer garments or production scraps, “pulling out all the impurities, splitting it apart and solidifying the two components so they can go back into the supply chain,” Koep added. “We are able to essentially extrude both of those streams back into polyester chips and separate cellulose precipitate.”
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