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Technical Textile Growth Set to Soar—But Can We Sustain the Eco Impact?

Fibers are doing more than they’ve ever done before—from providing functionality to garments, to circulating in a closed loop cycle and being made from old to new again, to eliciting emotional responses from socially conscious consumers—there’s a lot to look at on the bright side of the global fiber sector.

“It’s not a surprise that it’s really a very exciting growth industry,” Lenzing chief commercial officer Robert van de Kerkhof said speaking at the Dornbirn Man-Made Fibers Congress in Austria this month.

Global fiber demand is expected to see growth a little above average GDP at least until 2020, and in that time, technical textile production should reach 42 million metric tons.

“Almost all regions are growing in technical textiles,” van de Kerkhof said, adding that China has seen the greatest growth of all. “It’s a very good industry to be in and a huge opportunity for us.”

But all of that growth in fiber demand comes with a dark side too: pollution.

For one, polluted water runoff from factories and from consumers washing garments made from non-biodegradable synthetic fibers, have been a source of ocean pollution—which has become an ever-prevalent issue in the apparel sector as the industry starts to realize how much plastic actually pollutes the world’s waters.

And having garments made from recycled polyester won’t matter much to a conscious consumer if they know that fiber will simply end up polluting the ocean.

“If we are not careful, all the innovation, all the work we are doing…we really can turn consumers off from buying our materials because they’re very concerned about the long-term future,” van de Kerkhof said. “It’s the brands and retailers that decide which fibers they put into their garments, which fibers they put on the shelves for consumers to buy.”

If things aren’t done to curb the pollution coming from the textile sector and elsewhere, Dr. Hugo-Maria Schally, who works on sustainable production efforts for the European Commission, said, “We actually will see an ocean in 2050 where there’s more plastic than fish.”

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Facts like that have fueled the transition to a circular economy, Schally said, and the European Commission is working to set goals for more sustainable development.

[Read more on circular economy in Europe: It’s Circular Economy or Bust According to Euro Trade Shows]

By 2030, the Commission wants to reduce municipal waste in Europe by 65 percent, it is working on legislation to promote water reuse, and it is trying to get a better understanding of the uses of recycled raw materials and a clearer definition of the requirements that need to be met in order to use them.

The Commission is also working to find a solution to the overuse of incineration for getting rid of wasted textiles and plastics that could possibly have been turned into textiles. As it stands, according to Schally, 40 percent of plastics get incinerated, and the Commission wants to see raw materials designed for long life and recyclability from the start. In turn, all of these efforts will ultimately benefit businesses’ bottom lines.

“Protecting the environment and boosting competitiveness go hand in hand,” Schally said.

The need for less impactful textile process is an absolute one, Adidas senior director for sustainability strategy Philipp Meister added.

“We are doing in total about 380 million pounds of apparel every year and yes, that makes us part of the problem,” Meister said. That’s part of the reason Adidas started its partnership with Parley for the Oceans, undertaking a project to turn plastic that would likely become ocean waste into functional footwear. The company has already committed to producing 1 million pieces of product for the project and the ultimate goal across its greater supply chain is to stop using virgin plastic altogether.

Though some companies, like Adidas, have made firm commitments and are already progressing toward lowering their footprint, sustainability efforts thus far have largely been more talk than walk, according to Franz Josef Radermacher, a professor of informatics (information engineering) at Austria’s Ulm University.

“We are all working on sustainability but it’s all words,” Radermacher said. “For most people in the world, development is more important than environment.” Though climate change has become a major issue, even the Paris agreement consists of voluntary pledges rather than binding commitments.

But more than that, the industry needs to take a more macro look at the pollution problem in the textile sector.

“The biggest problem we have,” according to Radermacher, “is always more people.”

From 2000 to today, the number of people in the world grew by nearly 1.5 billion, according to Radermacher. “In 2050 we’ll be 10 billion people and if we do not do the right actions, then by the end of the century we’ll be 12 billion people,” he said.

Those actions, Radermacher said, have to do with sources of wealth, creating opportunities for more people to have more money to in turn slow population growth. From there, the industry needs synthetic fuels, renewable energy and actions on climate control that will be required and not simply suggested, if the textile industry is to sustain itself.

“We will survive, the question is under what quality of civilization,” Radermacher said.