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Could Rice Straw be the Future of Sustainable Fashion?

Clothing the planet without relying on petrochemicals is possible. It just requires a great deal of willpower, investment and focused collaboration.

Also rice straw, although there is already plenty of it.

According to a new study commissioned by the Laudes Foundation, agricultural waste—think wheat husks, banana stems and, yes, rice straw—is woefully overlooked in the search for innovative new materials.

This is a mistake since there are enough viable agricultural residue streams in South and Southeast Asia to create next-generation fibers without the polluting baggage of polyester or the heavy chemical and water use of cotton, the Amsterdam-based sustainability think tank said.

And unlike some newer-fangled innovations, so-called “agro-residue-based textile fibers” have the potential to scale almost immediately while providing characteristics both familiar to and desired by the apparel industry.

“To encourage the sector to shift, you have to have viable solutions at scale,” Anita Chester, head of materials at the Laudes Foundation, told Sourcing Journal. “A lot of innovations are new materials, but they exist in petri dishes.”

But not all agricultural waste is created equal. To find the most suitable feedstocks, researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Communities, the World Resources Institute, and Wageningen University and Research examined more than 40 crops across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Rice straw, the vegetative part of the rice plant that is usually cut off and discarded after harvest, proved to be the one crop that ticked all the boxes. It’s abundant in all eight countries, has plenty of easily extractable cellulose and is suitable for transforming into textiles.

“There’s plenty of rice in all these countries,” Chester said. “[After harvest], the residue that is left over is burned, which causes pollution. I live in Delhi, and when it’s harvest time, it’s chaotic because the winds carry pollutants from the farms nearby. But you can create value out of that waste.​​”

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Equally important, funneling rice straw into textile production makes economic sense, and not just for the farmers who will gain another source of income. Researchers were able to use spatial mapping to identify at least 10 specific locations where rice straw’s large-scale availability coincided with existing or potential processing capacity within a sourcing radius of 100 kilometers. In some cases, they were able to reduce this to as little as 50 kilometers.

Establishing a business case for agro-residue fibers when synthetic materials cost next to nothing, on the other hand, is not as simple, particularly when you can’t predict the costs and benefits of a system that hasn’t yet been established. But initial calculations are encouraging. For cellulose-based biomass extraction plants, researchers projected the lowest gate cost at $63 per metric ton of cellulose and the upper end of the range at $160 per metric ton.

Still, it’s “difficult for brands to feel ownership and empathize [when] the price [of a new material] is five times what they are currently paying,” Chester said. “But we do have to work together and understand that short term-ism is not going to serve us in the long run.”

Rice straw at a paddy field after harvesting.
Rice straw at a paddy field after harvesting. NokHoOkNoi/Adobe Stock

Already, a consumer backlash to polyester and its fossil-fuel-based ilk may be brewing, if slowly. A recent poll of 2,000 British shoppers by nonprofit group A Plastic Planet found that 72 percent of them were ignorant of the amount of plastic used in clothing. Once they were made aware, however, 80 percent wanted the government to mandate plastic warning labels on clothes.

Investing in agro-residue fibers, then, could lay the groundwork for a more environmentally sustainable source of fiber for the fashion industry.

“I think one big bottleneck is still the investments,” Chester said. “It’s not technology anymore; the technology exists. Now we have to get investments into this space because without investments, nothing happens. This is not the work of one foundation or a few researchers. It requires brands, their supply chain, actors, innovators, governments and investors.”

“There are solutions,” she added. “They just need some real hard work.”