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Demand for Man-made Fibers Up and Growing

Demand for man-made fiber is on the rise as consumers increasingly seek performance properties in fabrics, and experts expect that total annual consumption will reach 100 million tons by the year 2020, a growth rate of about 3 percent per year.

In an interview with Sourcing Journal, Angelika Guldt, head of corporate communications at leading man-made fiber manufacturer, The Lenzing Group, said this is a significant increase compared to the 52 million tons of fiber consumed in the year 2000. And the strongest growth in consumption going forward, she said, will come from emerging markets like China, India and Indonesia.

Guldt attributes the increased demand in these nations to the shift from low to middle class that many citizens have experienced and the increased disposable income that accompanies that.

“Better incomes means more money is available for consumption and consequently people buy better quality products — in textiles this means more cellulosic fibers,” she said.

Because a consumption increase this steep cannot be fully sustained by cotton, man-made cellulose fibers will play an ever more major role in the market.

“Global cotton production is limited to several factors: planting areas are in competition with food and biofuel crops, cotton needs large quantities of irrigation and agrochemicals,” Guldt said. “That’s why market experts expect a so called ‘cellulose gap’ in the long term future that can only be filled up by man-made cellulose fibers.”

The cellulose gap simply refers to the demand for cellulose fibers outweighing current supply, and that gap will only continue to widen, experts say. According to Lenzing, demand for cellulose fibers is expected to exceed available supply by 5.3 million tons in 2020.

Consumers want more man-made fibers because of the functional properties they provide that natural fibers don’t. They want moisture management and wearing comfort, good stretch and long-lasting recovery, Guldt said. When a fiber can improve the sustainability of a product, that, too, is added appeal for many purchasers. For example, “blending TENCEL® into denim fabric results in a significant improvement for the environment because it is made from wood grown in sustainably managed forests,” she said.

TENCEL® is Lenzing’s brand of lyocell, a cellulosic fiber that uses a unique closed loop production process to produce the eco-friendly product.

Lenzing currently operates three TENCEL® plants, one in Heiligenkreuz in Burgenland, Austria, one in Grimsby, U.K. and one in Mobile, Alabama. The company has plans to have a fully operational fourth facility in Lenzing, Austria by the middle of next year.

China has set new growth targets for high-performance fibers as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan for the 2011 to 2015 period as it moves to garner more sustainable growth, another reason for the increased demand from the country. Although Lenzing doesn’t currently operate a TENCEL® facility in Asia, the company is fully confident it will be able to meet China’s demand for the fiber.

Once the Austria plant is operational, Lenzing will have increased its TENCEL® production capacity by about 40 percent and a significant portion of product from the new facility will go to markets in Asia, Guldt said.

“Lenzing still has a major technological advance over its competitors because we have some 20 years of production experience and know-how. We are monitoring the market and the competitive environment closely but for the time being we feel comfortable with 4 TENCEL® plants in USA and Europe (currently 3),” Guldt said.

One company that’s becoming part of that competitive environment is Re:newcell, a Swedish textile manufacturer with a method of producing new textiles from used fibers that is in the process of escalating its operations from a scientific to an industrial scale.

“We know Renewcell as an interesting project — recycling in general is an issue which is discussed a lot in the industry, and we in Lenzing also have looked into the subject and find it interesting. But we do not see Renewcell as a competition,” Guldt said.

Lenzing couldn’t commit to what new performance innovations 2014 would bring, but Guldt did offer some insight into which direction development is going.

The company is working on a concept called “natural connection for bedding” which will incorporate a blending match of TENCEL® and cotton and Lenzing Modal® COLOR, a new spun-dyed fiber for bedding. They’ve also begun development on TENCEL® R100, a flame-retardant fiber planned for use in mattresses. And another interesting development consumers can expect to hear more about in the coming year, Guldt said, is flushable wipes with TENCEL®.

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