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Bio-Based Synthetics Could Pave the Way for More Sustainable Activewear

What looks like polyester, acts like polyester but has a lower carbon footprint?

Bio-based polyester, and it’s making further inroads into activewear.

The so-called “green” synthetic fibers made from bio-based feedstock—which are things like sugar cane and corn sugars, agricultural waste—has a production process with a much lower carbon footprint. The raw material is made with natural renewable resources instead of fossil fuels.

Two bio-based sports shirts on display at a breakout session during the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference Wednesday proved there’s no visual difference and no difference in hand between the bio version and traditional polyester.

“It performs the same as regular polyester, you can process it in the same equipment, you can recycle it the same as regular polyester,” said Ralph Lerner, director of business development at chemicals company Virent. “It’s really what you would call a drop-in product.”

As Fanny Liao, SVP of Far Eastern New Century Corp (FENC), one of the world’s top polyester suppliers, added, “You can print, you can dye, whatever you can do on regular polyester you can do on bio based.”

Biov8tion, a consultancy run by founder Sophie Mather and aimed at transforming the textile industry to one that accomplishes “resource neutral innovation,” helped develop a working group this year with a focus on supply chain mapping, economies of scale and communication needed to increase knowledge—and eventually uptake—of bio-based synthetics in a way that’s feasible for today’s market.

Brands and retailers interested in the raw material said the key to moving forward and considering how to incorporate bio-based fibers into their products is knowing who the available suppliers are, what the costing looks like, how to factor in testing and how it fits into the supply chain.

That’s a task the working group intends to undertake as it works to scale the fiber that could at once match growing demand for athletic wear and cater to growing demand for products with less impact on the environment.

For now, price remains the issue as scale hasn’t yet helped costs come down.

“When 100 percent bio polyester gets out there in the market, the people who are going to want to use it first are going to have to look at it as a specialty product,” Lerner said.