Of all the ecological pressures the fashion industry is facing, perhaps the most urgent is waste. Each year, fashion generates 92 million tons of textile waste, according to a study published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.
Circularity offers a chance to move away from take, make, waste. Instead of depleting resources, circular systems allow for reuse. Man-made cellulosic fiber (MMCF) maker Birla Cellulose has heeded the circular call with its Liva Reviva viscose, launched in late 2019. By using textile waste as a portion of the feedstock for viscose, Birla reduces the amount of wood pulp needed. The resulting fibers consume 60 percent less water and 20 to 25 percent less energy than conventional viscose.
“Waste is a problem, but it is also an opportunity,” said Mukul Agrawal, chief sustainability officer at Birla Cellulose. “We want to provide a solution which can reduce the pressure on fresh resources. That’s a key part of our strategy: How can we use the existing waste—which is downcycled, landfilled or incinerated—to make fresh fibers, and use it in a significant quantity that can create a very positive impact on the overall fashion value chain.”
For its wood-based fibers, Birla Cellulose uses inputs harvested responsibly from sources that have Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest (PEFC™) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) certification. Although wood is a renewable natural resource, Agrawal noted the limited availability of FSC-approved wood makes conservation important.
To make Liva Reviva, cotton waste is turned into biomass that can be fed directly into the viscose production process. Many commercial circular MMCF solutions create pulp out of cotton scraps, but Birla says bypassing this step enables additional water, chemical and energy savings.
Since the production process is identical once the biomass is added, the fibers are indistinguishable from virgin viscose. “When we talk to brands and our downstream industry, the moment you say it’s a recycled fiber, they get an impression that there must be something inferior in the quality or properties of this fiber,” Agrawal said. “Liva Reviva is absolutely the same high quality as our standard viscose fiber, and it can be used in any application where viscose is used.”
Liva Reviva is currently on the market in clothing from brands including Selected from Bestseller, H&M Group and Pimkie. Birla’s fiber was also part of Fashion for Good’s Full Circle Textiles project, in which fashion groups Kering and PVH worked with their supply chains to develop garments using recycled fibers. Generating more consumer awareness, the fiber was also featured in a dress design for Canopy’s “Circular Chic” campaign.
To help brands authenticate Liva Reviva, Birla embeds a traceability marker in the fiber. A blockchain tool then tracks the fiber through the supply chain. By scanning a QR code provided by Birla, a brand or end consumer can discover the whole journey, from fiber to finished garment.
Since Liva Reviva’s launch, Birla Cellulose has rapidly scaled production. Originally, the production line had an output of just 2 tons per day. This has progressively grown, and in 2022, Birla plans to reach 120 tons per day, which will further reduce energy use. The company is aiming for 100,000 tons per year by 2024, or more than 274 tons per day.
Currently, Liva Reviva is made using 20 percent recycled content and 80 percent wood pulp. Following trials using a greater portion of recycled content, Birla will begin commercial production of Liva Reviva with 30 percent recycled cotton when it transitions to the larger production line this spring. Looking ahead, Birla intends to make Liva Reviva with 50 percent recycled cotton by 2024.
Raising the recycled content can change the properties of the final viscose product. Birla has been able to make 30 percent recycled Liva Reviva without any impact, but it is still optimizing the process before commercializing fibers with greater recycled content.
Liva Reviva focuses on cotton since it is the most abundant natural textile fiber. While Liva Reviva uses both pre- and post-consumer waste, the feedstock is weighted more heavily to pre-consumer sources. The recycling process requires fully cotton textiles with less than 1 percent impurities, and with post-consumer garments, there is less certainty about the material composition than there is for industrial waste.
To source cotton waste, Birla is leveraging partnerships with its downstream suppliers. Brands such as PVH and Tesco ask their manufacturers in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka to send textile scraps to Birla for recycling.
Compared to virgin viscose, Liva Reviva has additional operational costs surrounding procuring and transporting cotton waste. However, the pricing premium is only around 20 to 50 cents per garment, and at the fiber level, Liva Reviva is about 20 to 30 percent more than conventional viscose. The price difference has already shrunk since Liva Reviva launched, and Agrawal is confident it will fall further as circularity grows.
“We have been able to bring down the prices by optimizing our process and by developing the reverse logistics for the waste,” said Agrawal. “As the scaling up is happening, these prices are expected to come down in the next couple of years.”
Click here to learn more about Liva Reviva—circular fibers made using recycled content.