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Fiber Innovation is the Way Forward for Sustainability

Today’s consumers seek transparency, novelty and sustainability, and all parts of the supply chain—including and starting with fiber producers and spinners—will have to deliver or die.

At a seminar at Texworld USA Tuesday titled, “Innovation in Today’s Fiber Landscape,” Tricia Carey, director of business development for apparel and denim at Lenzing, Terry Lawler, marketing manager at Eastman Chemical Company and David Roberts, CEO of Tuscarora Yarns touched on the demand for innovation and how they deliver on that in today’s market.

“The need and desire to improve performance characteristics and sustainability standards have never been greater,” Arthur Friedman, WWD senior editor and the panel moderator said. “Fiber and yearn producers, where it all starts, have turned up their resources to bring creative solutions to the market.”

At Lenzing, which does nearly $2 billion in sales of fibers made from the wood pulp of trees, sustainability has always been part of the company ethos, but now that the consumer lifestyle has shifted as a result of technology and wellness, demand for activewear has increased, and that is paving the way for fiber innovation.

“We’re going through this phase where activewear is crossing over to wearing every day,” Carey said. “And the consumers are demanding more from the market. Retailers and brands are there saying, “We’ve got to come up with something new.’”

Fiber blends, in particular, have been prevalent and could be the key to propelling fiber innovation forward.

For Tuscarora, the oldest and largest specialty yarn manufacturer in the U.S., blends are big, and Eastman sees blends as the future for fiber, too.

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“I think the biggest shift in the industry is the amount of blends that we’re going to see in the future,” Lawler said. “There will be some new fibers out there in the next two to five years for sure, but I think the biggest thing we’re going to see is companies working together. That’s where were going to see the biggest innovation and the biggest change in the market.”

But no matter the amount companies collaborate to make fiber blends that introduce a new level of performance to apparel products, the concept—and the costs—could go unnoticed if the consumer doesn’t care.

“I see the customer driving innovation, but I also see that customer education is lacking,” Lawler said. “Consumers are still choosing cost over sustainability.”

Cost is still largely a driving factor in consumer purchasing decisions, and if a shopper doesn’t understand just what makes a product sustainable, and therefore its cost higher, many will still opt for the more affordable option.

Companies will have to market goods in a way that paints a picture for consumers about the supply chain journey, what makes a good sustainable and why it even matters.

“There is always that cost for innovation and cost for sustainability,” Carey added. “More of what I see in the market is that retailers and brands want to do the right thing but they might not necessarily be communicating it.”

Consumers may not always know just what they want, but they are increasingly displaying a desire to buy from more sustainable brands that are innovating solutions to problems they may not have known they had.

Naturally, that innovation comes at a cost and one way Eastman is curbing the expense is by developing fibers that are compatible with current equipment, rather than novel ideas that require additional investments in machinery.

“In a sustainable world, you don’t want to be creating a new machine,” Lawler explained. “Developing fibers that run on existing machinery is really one of the most cost conscious things you can do.”

If the panelists agreed on one thing, it was that activewear isn’t going anywhere and neither is the need for innovation. What will have to change is the investment in consumer education to catch shopper demand up with the pace of sustainable innovation.

“There is a lot of need to be supply chain friendly and there’s a constant need from the consumer standpoint to see something new,” Roberts said. “But sustainability is a big continuum and we just all are on a journey to try and find ways to improve the world we live in and how we do business.”