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Eco-Friendly Materials are Central to Sustainability Strategies

A growing number of apparel companies, ranging from outdoor and activewear to mass-market and high fashion, are touting their sustainability initiatives in 2016. Yet the use of environmentally preferred materials is still low.

Day one of Texworld USA’s brand-new educational boot camp series did its best to point out why that needs to change. Jeff Wilson, director of business strategy and development at Textile Exchange, and Lenzing’s director of business development for apparel and denim, Tricia Carey, spoke in New York City Tuesday, highlighting the environmental and social attributes of organic cotton, recycled polyester and manmade cellulosic fibers.

“What we define as preferred fibers are ecologically sound materials that are better in comparison to other choices, in particular the more conventional ones that dominate the market,” Wilson explained.

Organic cotton

Almost 100 million farmers grow cotton on about 33 million hectares in 80 countries worldwide, and about 70 percent of that production is from genetically modified seeds. Organic cotton, on the other hand, comprises less than 1 percent of the world’s total cotton production.

In an effort to promote why brands should opt for organic cotton, Textile Exchange teamed up with Think Step in 2014 to conduct a lifecycle assessment of both. According to their findings, organic cotton has a smaller environmental footprint than conventional cotton, consuming 91 percent less water, causing 70 percent less acidification of land and water and using 62 percent less energy use.

In fact: “In 2014, by growing 11,974 metric tons of organic cotton, farmers helped save 226.7 billion liters of water,” Wilson stated, noting that the potential impact of more farmers shifting to organic cotton is huge. “Imagine if global organic cotton production moved from 1 percent to 10 percent to 20 percent?”

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Recycled polyester

Similarly, only 30 percent of plastic water bottles used in the U.S. are recycled. That means of the roughly six billion pounds of PET produced in 2011, about four billion pounds ended up in the marine environment and landfills.

“This is feedstock!” Wilson stressed.

Recycled polyester, both mechanically and chemically recycled varieties, makes up only about 5 percent of total polyester production, despite leaving a much smaller mark on the planet than virgin polyester.

How small? Eight-five percent less energy is required to produce mRPET, while chemically recycled polyester needs 60 percent less. Both options offer a 75 percent and 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions respectively.

“When we look at lifecycle assessment stuff, it really is about ascertaining why material X is a better option that material Y,” Wilson said. But virgin polyester, which is fossil fuel based, has the plunging price of crude oil on its side, so it’s cheaper to produce.

But consider this: if recycled polyester increased to 50 percent of global polyester production by 2018, energy consumption would be 2.2 trillion megajoules less, water consumption would be reduced by 202 billion liters and a massive 42 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions would not be released.

Manmade cellulosic

Lenzing’s lyocell fiber, Tencel, which has been on the market for more than 20 years is still thought of as relatively “new.” Carey said that’s because a lot of the market hasn’t been asking about it until now.

“Over the years our production of Tencel has continued to increase, so I think the scalability is always important, too. That it’s not just a niche product, but a wider, market-accessible fiber,” she noted.

In response to market shifts, each generation of Lenzing fibers has been more environmentally friendly than the last. Issues concerning Lenzing Viscose were solved with Lenzing Modal, and its issues were then solved with Tencel, Carey explained. And there’s another one on the way—Lenzing will be announcing a new fiber in October.

“Are brands willing to pay more? Are consumers willing to pay more? This is something we really struggle with as an industry,” Carey noted. “We want more out of our product, we want technology, we want innovation, but that does come at a cost.”

“There’s no reason why RPET, mRPET or Tencel can’t be economically competitive with conventional if big brands start asking for more,” Wilson continued.

Using LED lighting as an example, he explained that one LED light bulb retailed for about $25 five years ago, compared to roughly $5 today.

“That’s come about because of market demand, driven partially by consumer demand. They’ve reached scale and can produce LED bulbs and make a profit for $5 now,” he said. “Do we have a long way to go? We sure do. But we do need bigger investments from the brands to signal demand, drive volume and lower production costs.”