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Why Textile Exchange Changed Its Definition of ‘Preferred’ Fiber

As promised, Textile Exchange has updated its definition of what qualifies as a “preferred” fiber or material.

Instead of a fiber or material that “results in improved environmental and/or social sustainability outcomes and impacts compared to conventional production,” the sustainability nonprofit will now use the term to refer to a fiber or material that “delivers consistently reduced impacts and increased benefits for climate, nature and people against the conventional equivalent, through a holistic approach to transforming production systems.” 

The change is an important one, said Textile Exchange, whose members cut across a swath of fashion brands and textile manufacturers. It first used “preferred” in 2010 to single out fibers and materials pegged to improved environmental or social outcomes and “address the ambiguity” of what counts as a sustainable or responsible material. More than a decade later, the time has come for the designation to catch up with not only the industry’s growing climate ambitions but also the urgent need to pivot from “less bad” to “more good” to achieve them.

“It is imperative that we do everything we can to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the time is now to update the definition of preferred to align with that pathway,” Megan Stoneburner, fibers and materials director at Textile Exchange, told Sourcing Journal. This includes slashing fiber and material production emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

In other words, incremental shifts are no longer enough, Textile Exchange said. Instead, the industry needs to start producing materials in a way that “holistically” repairs climate change while “actively benefitting” nature, people and animals.

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“There are multiple pathways to lowering environmental impact, but they all must consider the interconnectivity of nature and climate,” Stoneburner said. As such, Textile Exchange’s definition is “evolving” to include key criteria that go beyond greenhouse gas emissions by considering how production processes impact areas such as soil health, water, biodiversity and communities.

Removing the “and/or” approach is part of this. The focus going forward must be a holistic one. Reducing emissions while ignoring human rights or failing to protect biodiversity, Textile Exchange said, means solving one problem but “creating others along the way.”

The group has listed more than a dozen principles that underpin a framework for the long-term transformation of fiber and raw material production systems. Outcomes such as the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems and species, the regeneration of agricultural systems and soils, and the empowerment of farmers, producers and processors to build more equitable fiber systems may appear aspirational today, it said, but they’re important as a “direction of travel” to get the industry where it needs to go.

With regulatory scrutiny bearing down on green claims, verifiable criteria are also important when describing a “preferred” fiber, noted the organization, which creates and manages certifications such as the Recycled Claims Standard and the Responsible Down Standard.

This means that a “preferred” fiber or material must be derived from a renewable or reclaimed material produced according to at least one recognized industry sustainability standard. It must be identified and preserved using a chain-of-custody scheme, allowing it to be potentially traced through the supply chain back to its origin. If the fiber or material is managed through a mass-balance system, the country of origin must, at minimum, be identified. Equally important, its sustainability outcomes, impacts or benefits have to be scientifically proven and peer-reviewed, for instance through a life-cycle assessment.

Also under consideration for a future update is whether a fiber or material has “good” potential for circularity, including its durability, disassembly, resource use and technical and/or biological recyclability.

One thing’s clear: this isn’t the last time the interpretation of “preferred” will change. “This definition will continue to evolve in line with the best available climate science and modeling,” Stoneburner said.