As apparel companies become more sophisticated in defining their environmental goals and efforts, sustainability has become a differentiator for fiber suppliers.
Polymer-based materials such as polyester, nylon and spandex have been around for decades, and during this time their properties have remained largely unchanged. Seeing an opening for more eco-friendly alternatives to the typical production methods, Seoul-based manufacturer Hyosung is giving these fibers a makeover by turning to recycled raw materials rather than using non-renewable resources.
“How do you make your products new and different?” said Mike Simko, global marketing director for textiles at Hyosung. “Sustainability has opened a whole new door.”
And the innovation is welcome, given the demand for responsible fibers, which has exceeded supply in many cases.
A number of Hyosung’s clients have pledged to leverage more recycled materials. Adidas recently announced that more than 50 percent of the polyester it uses in 2020 will be recycled, marking a first for the brand. By 2024, the activewear label has committed to only using recycled polyester. The North Face similarly has its sights set on incorporating more recycled polyester into its products.
In response, Hyosung has launched regen, a sustainability program of 100 percent recycled multi-performance fibers. Focusing on the upper end of the market, Hyosung has used higher grade production processes for its recycled polymer fibers so their performance is practically identical to virgin counterparts. “Not all fiber producers have made this investment and commitment so they cannot deliver on this high level of quality,” said Simko.
Typically, these materials are made using fossil fuels such as petroleum or coal. Hyosung instead is making polyester stemming from plastic bottles or repurposing industrial waste into nylon. For every ton of Hyosung’s creora regen spandex made, Hyosung avoids 1.8 tons of nonrenewable resources from being extracted and used.
Along with being environmentally sustainable, Hyosung is focused on making its solutions affordable for its partners. However, with changing processes, pricing has become more complex than it would be with traditional manufacturing.
While it may seem that it would be less expensive to reuse waste, it is actually costly to do it right, because the quality of the recycled materials comes down to the scale of investment.
“Good fibers come from good ingredients,” said Simko. “Even if you’re making a virgin product, you have to have very pure ingredients and they have to be good. The challenge with recycled is getting those recycled materials and managing them in such a way that you can make them into good raw materials.”
There is also added labor involved, such as sorting bottles, separating caps and removing paper labels.
One challenge for Hyosung is the communication around industrial waste saved, which Simko said is more difficult for consumers to grasp than the impact of recycling post-consumer waste. “I think we need to do a better job in that communication by using lifecycle assessments and other programs that demonstrate the value of using these products,” Simko said.
Looking ahead, Hyosung is launching a handful of new products this year, including rolling out a creora bio-based spandex in the coming months. In another effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels, this fiber swaps oil or natural gas for corn. Aside from saving non-renewable resources, the corn has a positive impact by pulling carbon dioxide from the air.
Finding the right way to tackle sustainability is complicated, but Simko also sees the conversation becoming more advanced. One of the issues companies face is the simultaneous positive and negative effects of certain efforts. For instance, biodegradability actually adds to the carbon in the atmosphere, potentially competing with a company’s work to offset its carbon emissions.
“As individuals and as a company, we care about the environment,” Simko said. “And we want to leave it better off for future generations. But we know that we have a responsibility as a supplier for the industry. And what we want to do is we want to be a solutions supplier.”
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