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Why Man-Made Cellulosic Fibers’ Circularity May Look More Like an Oval

Sustainability has become a non-negotiable for the fashion industry, as companies encounter growing scrutiny for their practices. Amid this accelerated focus on textiles’ environmental impact, fiber producers are facing pressures from both upstream and downstream supply chain partners to deliver on the different expectations of diverse stakeholders. This requires significant investment and effort in different areas of business—from cleaner manufacturing and scalability considerations, to meeting evolving regulatory requirements.

One of the answers to meeting this demand for sustainability, particularly from downstream brand partners and consumers, is circularity. According to world’s largest viscose producer Sateri, man-made cellulosic fiber (MMCF) has the potential to help close the loop. However, even though circularity is top-of-mind, investments and breakthroughs in commercialization are struggling to keep pace with the flood of new fiber innovation announcements and the fashion industry’s rapidly expanding goals. With this imbalance between development and expectations, Sateri sees MMCF’s closed loop moving toward an oval rather than a circle.

“The path to circularity isn’t straightforward, as technical complexities lie between innovation and a viable and circular end product that meets quality standards at commercial scale,” Sharon Chong, Sateri’s vice president for sustainability, said. “The journey is made tougher by the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic as the apparel industry and financiers scale back their commitments and investments.”

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Notwithstanding the seemingly long and winding path, Sateri forged ahead to put financial weight behind this concept. Sateri is part of the RGE group of companies, which has committed $200 million to fund textile fiber innovation with a focus on alternative cellulosic feedstocks and clean, scalable manufacturing processes.

The apparel business has set ambitious sustainability targets for the next 20 years and beyond, ranging from reducing carbon footprints to ramping up circularity. The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which has drawn more than 100 signatories (including Sateri) since its launch in 2018, targets net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, Forum for the Future and Textile Exchange’s MMCF 2030 Vision outlines steps that the man-made cellulosic fiber value chain can take in order to improve environmental and human well-being. These points of action include closed-loop production, ensuring prosperity for all parties and adopting regenerative approaches to agriculture.

Solving the greenhouse gas reduction equation could be achieved by increasing energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy sources. The latter could prove difficult for fiber makers in developing nations that currently rely on coal, as challenges persist for countries that are still transiting to a more renewable energy mix. China, for example—which has set the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060—has made remarkable strides in driving industries to use a greener energy mix in their operations, and has created new renewable energy capacity through its subsidies toward new solar and wind projects. However, the pace of this new capacity creation outstrips the pace of supporting infrastructure development to ensure industries get the access to this new renewable energy so that they too can achieve their own environmental goals.

Cutting carbon

Navigating these obstacles, Sateri has been working to lower its energy usage by retrofitting or replacing its mill equipment, including upgrading its boilers and turbine systems at each of its five mills. This led to a 13 percent decrease in energy used to produce one ton of fiber between 2017 and 2018. In another initiative, the fiber producer set up a Continuous Improvement department that focuses on reducing the company’s material and fuel usage. The department’s combined 19 initiatives in 2018 helped Sateri reduce its CO2 footprint by more than 25,000 tons that year.

Sateri Chinaa
One of Sateri’s five mills, Sateri (China) Co., Ltd, is located in Jiangxi Province, China. Photo courtesy of Sateri Courtesy

In tandem with cutting back on its energy usage, Sateri is incorporating renewable sources as part of its energy mix. To-date, three of Sateri’s five viscose mills have been verified as EU Best Available Techniques (EU-BAT) compliant, meaning that they meet European standards for air emissions, water discharge and resource usage. Sateri intends to manufacture to a higher, globally held standard for environmental stewardship.

To better measure and define its commitments, Sateri is establishing science-based targets for its GHG emissions. Within the man-made cellulosic fiber field, Sateri is a founding member of Collaboration of Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV). This self-regulated organization has outlined energy reduction targets that are stricter than the standards in China and more in line with European benchmarks.

As a fiber producer, Sateri’s carbon footprint from production has a direct effect on its downstream supply chain partners’ own GHG totals. And due to its position as the leading viscose manufacturer in the world, Sateri has an outsize impact. Keeping this in mind, the company has prioritized the development of fibers that have a lower environmental cost.

For instance, Sateri’s EcoCosy® viscose helps spinners reduce their energy consumption per ton of yarn by improving productivity by 20 percent. To cut back on water, chemical and energy usage, Sateri employs an advanced pre-spun injection and blending technology in the production of its EcoCosy® Colour viscose to dye the cellulose when it is in its liquid form, before it is spun into fibers. Last year, Sateri also began making lyocell fibers with a closed-loop process that recovers and recycles almost all of the organic solvent used.

Sateri EcoCosy
EcoCosy®, Sateri’s flagship brand for its viscose fibers, is made from wood cellulose from sustainably managed plantations. Photo courtesy of Sateri Courtesy

On the circularity front, Sateri launched its first viscose fiber with recycled material in June. The fibers, called FINEX™, contain 20 percent recycled pulp feedstock from pre- and post-consumer textile waste. FINEX™, short for “Fiber Next,” is certified by Textile Exchange’s Recycled Claim Standard, and the fibers have been adopted by brands including Lafuma and Rico Lee.

Scaling circularity

Innovation and circularity along with closed-loop production represent two out of four pillars within Sateri’s Vision 2030 plan, which is aimed at making it the leading net-positive fiber producer in the world. By 2023, Sateri intends to produce viscose products with 50 percent recycled materials, escalating that goal to viscose with 100 percent recycled inputs by 2030. In service of these objectives, the company has set up an R&D innovation center with a test production line and 150 employees. This facility enables Sateri to try out different pulp options, new and differentiated fiber product development, and quality and productivity improvements in lyocell production.

As it looks to scale textile-to-textile recycling, Sateri’s R&D team has studied the use of non-wood cellulosic materials as a feedstock for viscose production. The trials, which used pre-consumer cotton from third-party sources, had promising results in terms of quality with up to 50 percent recycled content.

Infrastructure and regulatory challenges remain in scaling up recycled fibers to match the ambitions of the fashion industry. For one, the supply of textile waste is unpredictable and inadequate for the volume of recycled fiber that would be in demand. In the U.S., only 15 percent of post-consumer textiles gets recycled, according to EPA data. There are also hurdles in removing dye and recycling blended materials.

There may not be a straightforward path toward completely closing the loop in fashion, but Sateri and other innovative producers are moving in that direction. Collaboration will be key in driving advancements and overcoming the barriers to a fully circular system. Responding to this need for collective action, Sateri, as a council member of the China Association of Circular Economy (CACE), is helping to scale up textile waste recycling and create standards around textile circularity.

Chong added that strides have been made in recent years in improving circularity and closing the loop, especially for viscose. While the pandemic may have stalled investment and partnership activities, it has also forced change in other areas of sustainability. “Sateri believes now is the time to build on this momentum and do more,” she said. “We remain committed to investing financial and human capital to drive toward our sustainability goals on these fronts. What could really help to accelerate the pace is support from the public sector to set stronger policy frameworks to catalyze private investments.”

Click here to learn more about Sateri and its Vision 2030 plan.