Textile Exchange’s Sustainable Cotton Challenge and Recycled Polyester Challenge annual reports detail the progress made from signatories so far and the next steps that need to happen to keep the industry’s migration toward sustainable inputs on track.
Textile Exchange’s purpose for both initiatives is to challenge companies to switch up their sourcing toward lower-impact solutions with its Fiber Challenges. The aim is for these materials to replace their conventional counterparts, rather than substitute other fiber categories or justify increased industry growth. Coupled with investment in innovation, the scaling of existing solutions and a focus on degrowth can help industry players reach their climate goals on time.
According to the Fourth Annual report of the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, 162 companies signed up to the challenge between its launch in May 2017 and December 2021. This includes 147 brands and retailers and 15 suppliers and manufacturers. By signing the pledge, they committed to sourcing 100 percent of their cotton from one or more of the recognized programs and initiatives by 2025.
Of the signatories, 25 percent had managed to source all of their cotton from one or more of the recognized programs and initiatives by 2020 and 72 percent of the total cotton sourced by them came from recognized programs and initiatives. This significantly outperformed the 30 percent sourced from these programs by the industry overall in 2020. Through this challenge, Textile Exchange’s goal is to increase this to more than 50 percent by 2025.
The industry made significant progress by increasing the market share of cotton from the recognized programs and initiatives to 30 percent in 2020 from 16 percent in 2017. This growth equals an increase in the global production volume of cotton from recognized programs and initiatives to 7.8 million tons in 2020 from around 3.8 million tons in 2017. The majority of this was Better Cotton, including its equivalents ABRAPA, Cotton made in Africa and myBMP, which accounted for around 24 percent of all cotton used that year.
Noting that cotton is one of the most frequently used materials in the fashion and textiles industry, accounting for 24 percent of global fiber production in 2020, Textile Exchange, through the Sustainable Cotton Challenge, aims to identify core concerns with conventional cotton production systems and provide key calls to action, amplify cotton production programs and initiatives that drive positive impacts for people and the planet, build traceability to country of origin and futureproof certification systems, and speed up the shift toward organic and regenerative best practices in cotton production that bring positive co-benefits.
Textile Exchange said while progress is being made, further acceleration is urgently needed. It said more companies need to join the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge and commit to increasingly ambitious targets, while the organization must continue to re-evaluate the programs and initiatives recognized by the challenge to ensure they are fit for purpose to reach its Climate+ goals.
In addition, the language used within the challenge should evolve to reflect the increasing ambiguity around the word “sustainable” and provide a more direct message for signatories to use on the criteria for a program or initiative to be recognized by the challenge, and companies must reduce their overall material consumption, decoupling value creation from new resource extraction.
The First 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge annual report revealed that 132 companies signed up between its launch in April 2021 and December. This includes 109 brands and retailers and 23 suppliers and manufacturers. By signing the pledge, they committed to targets ranging from having 45 percent to 100 percent recycled polyester by 2025.
Of that group, 74, or 56 percent, committed to replacing all of their virgin fossil-based polyester with recycled by 2025. The report detailed that 22, or 17 percent, already use more than 45 percent recycled polyester, nine, or 7 percent, achieved their target in 2020, and 41, or 31 percent, reduced their total polyester fiber volume from 2019 to 2020.
Textile Exchange noted that the fiber is the most popular material used in the fashion and textile industry, representing 52 percent of global fiber production in 2020.
“Our goal is for synthetic fiber production to drive beneficial impact through preferred fiber choices, with no new virgin fossil-based fibers entering the system,” the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge annual report said. “To get there, all materials used in this category should come from a recycled or regenerative source. This shift will be essential if the fashion and textile industry is to do its bit to limit global warming. That’s why we’re encouraging brands to make the shift to recycled with our 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge, which represents the first step of our wider industry roadmap for synthetic fibers.”
Key ways to achieve this are to eliminate the industry’s dependence on virgin fossil fuels, and shift consumption away from plastic bottles, drive forward innovation in textile-to-textile recycling, support and scale new innovations for synthetic equivalents, and push for further research on the causes and consequences of fiber fragmentation.
The report noted that in 2019, the apparel industry accounted for 32 million tons of the 58 million tons of polyester fiber used. Only about 14 percent of this was recycled, despite its significantly lower carbon footprint than its conventional counterpart.
“To keep the industry on track toward its climate targets, this percentage needs to increase to 45 percent by 2025, assuming a 3 percent growth rate in the apparel industry,” Textile Exchange said. “The long-term vision is to bring this up to 90 percent by 2030. Today, mechanically recycled polyester from plastic water bottles makes up the vast majority of recycled polyester. However, chemical recycling and, more specifically, textile-to-textile recycling, will be a necessary part of reaching our goal.”
The report said to keep improving, more companies need to join the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge and commit to increasingly ambitious targets for the industry to achieve an overall reduction of 45 percent, all companies have to set ambitious targets and overall material consumption, particularly, but not only, fossil-based, needs to be reduced.