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Cotton Leads the Way in Preferred Fiber Growth, Textile Exchange Report Reveals

Textile Exchange’s new Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report reveals that global fiber production has doubled in the past 20 years, reaching an all-time high of 111 million metric tons in 2019, which was up from an estimated 107 million metric tons in 2018.

Pre-COVID-19 results indicated potential growth to 146 million metric tons by 2030. The report shows that the market for preferred fiber and materials–those with improved social and environmental impacts–is growing but not at the speed and scale required.

“There are clear leaders in the industry that are making a significant impact through their bold adoption of preferred fibers and materials, and many others who are well on their way–they have found a place to start and are taking action,” La Rhea Pepper, Textile Exchange managing director, said in the report. “Every step, no matter how small, is an accomplishment worth celebrating. If we have learned anything from the global coronavirus pandemic, it is that business-as-usual is no longer an option. We must make better choices that sustain life for all people and the planet.”

With a market share of 25 percent in 2019, the market for preferred cotton is more advanced than for most other materials. This is thanks to the existence of several well-established preferred cotton programs and that cotton as a large-volume material has been on the industry’s sustainability radar for many years.

However, increasing the share of preferred cotton and continuous improvement in terms of sustainability are urgently needed, the report said. Preferred cotton programs include: ABRAPA, BASF e3, Better Cotton Initiative, Cleaner Cotton, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Fairtrade, Fairtrade Organic, Field to Market, In-Conversion Cotton ISCC, myBMP, Organic, REEL Cotton, Regenerative Cotton, and the United States Cotton Trust Protocol.

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While the share of recycled polyester is increasing and reached 14 percent in 2019, it is not yet advancing at the speed and scale required, according to Textile Exchange.

“Low prices of fossil-based polyester create a challenging market environment for recycled and biobased polyester,” the report said. “As the fiber with the largest market share, the impact scale of polyester is enormous. While using plastic bottles as feedstock is a good start–and most recycled polyester is currently based on plastic bottles–we need to move toward textile-to-textile recycling and urgently improve social conditions in waste collection and recycling.”

The preferred fibers report said conventional wool dominates the wool market, but the adoption of non-mulesing and preferred wool programs, such as the Responsible Wool Standard, is increasing. Textile Exchange said transitioning to wool programs with animal welfare and responsible land use criteria in place offers the chance to create positive impacts in animal welfare, land use and biodiversity.

The use of recycled wool can be another key lever, the report noted. While it has a long tradition, the market share is still low, but the impact potentials are high.

In manmade cellulosic fibers (MMCF), the report said despite a high market share of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certified MMCFs that is estimated at around 40 percent to 50 percent, the risk of sourcing MMCFs from ancient or endangered forests remains high. It cited Canopy estimates that around half of all MMCFs come from ancient and endangered forests.

The market share of “recycled MMCFs” is estimated at below 1 percent, but much research and development is taking place, so it is expected to increase significantly in the coming years, Textile Exchange said, adding that with new standards introduced for the pulp and fiber level, action on this level is also likely to increase.

Until recently, leather processing risks such as tanning and chemical use have been the primary focus, but there is a growing interest in animal welfare, deforestation, land use and climate change issues, the report noted. Textile Exchange has developed the Leather Impact Accelerator to speed up positive actions along the leather value chain.

In down, awareness of animal welfare issues has led to successful growth in the use of standards, such as the Responsible Down Standard. While influencing at farm level is challenging, the use of preferred down standards helps to reduce the risks along the supply chain, the report said.

Due to technical challenges and less attention due to lower volumes, the market share of preferred polyamide is still low compared to polyester.

“As the second-highest used synthetic fiber, polyamide offers significant impact potentials by transitioning to recycled and biobased polyamide,” the report said. “Most recycled polyamide is currently made from pre-consumer waste, some also from discarded fishing nets. Increasing the use of post-consumer textiles is needed.”

Other fibers and materials, from hemp to elastane, are often not in the focus of the industry’s attention despite significant sustainability potentials as well as challenges, the report noted.

“Now is the time to accelerate a transition to preferred fiber and materials to sustain life for people and planet,” the report said. “Textile Exchange aims to be the driving force for urgent climate action, with a goal of 35 percent to 45 percent reduced CO2 emissions from textile fiber and material production by 2030.”

A few companies are exploring innovative approaches to recycle carbon and directly use it as feedstock for textiles. Covestro and its partners, led by the Institute of Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University, announced last year that they have succeeded in making elastic textile fibers based on CO2, partly replacing crude oil as a raw material.

Fairbrics with Airwear is developing a technology to convert greenhouse gas into sustainable polyester, while LanzaTech is developing a carbon recycling technology to create clothing like yoga pants from the CO2 emissions from a steel mill. LanzaTech calls these products “CarbonSmart.”

NatureWorks is using plants to capture and sequester CO2 into long-chain sugar molecules. Its R&D team is assessing new technology to skip plants and use microorganisms to convert greenhouse gases into lactic acid directly. NewLight is working on a technology to turn greenhouse gases into aircarbon, a material that can be melted and forged into fibers and solid parts.