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Textile Exchange CEO: Why Using Preferred Fibers Must Be ‘Non-Negotiable’

A new report from Textile Exchange reveals the market share gains for preferred fiber and materials–those with improved social and environmental impacts–grew significantly in 2020, but also stresses the challenges that remain.

The “Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report 2021” outlines the market for plant fibers such as cotton, hemp and linen; animal fibers and materials including wool, mohair, cashmere, alpaca, down, silk and leather, and manmade cellulosics (MMCFs) such as viscose, lyocell, modal, acetate and cupro, as well as synthetics such as polyester and polyamide/nylon.

The report highlighted that brands’ increased interest in the use of preferred fibers and materials was demonstrated by a 75 percent increase in the total number of facilities to 30,000 around the world becoming certified to Textile Exchange’s Portfolio of Standards in 2020. These standards include the Global Recycled Standard, Organic Content Standard, Recycled Claim Standard, Content Claim Standard, Responsible Down Standard, Responsible Wool Standard, Responsible Alpaca Standard and the Responsible Mohair Standard.

In early 2021, Textile Exchange launched the Leather Impact Accelerator (LIA) to address the major sustainability challenges throughout the bovine leather supply chain from farm to finished leather, including an Impact Incentives program.

The upside

“The growth of the preferred fiber and materials market in 2020 in general is a big success,” Sophia Opperskalski, fiber and materials specialist and author of the report, told Sourcing Journal. “The extraordinary expansion of Responsible Mohair Standard certified fiber from 0 to 27 percent of all mohair produced worldwide in its first year of existence in 2020 is a huge achievement to celebrate. Also, the growth of Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certified sites from 6,755 in 2019 to 14,367 in 2020 is a big accomplishment.”

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The report found that between 2019 and 2020, the market share of preferred cotton increased to 30 percent from 24 percent and recycled polyester to 14.7 percent from 13.7 percent. In comparison, overall cotton production remained relatively stable at 26.2 million tons in 2020, while traditional polyester, with a production volume of 57 million tons, was the most used fiber, accounting for 52 percent of the global fiber market in 2020. The report noted that the market share of biobased polyester fiber remained low at around 0.03 percent of the polyester fiber market due to price, availability and questions around its sustainability.

In recycled polyester, Textile Exchange cited Eastman’s startup commercial operation of its chemical recycling process through its Carbon Renewal Technology in October 2019. Eastman started a partnership with Circular Polymers that will collect polyester carpets, separate and densify the polyester, which is then chemically recycled by Eastman into new products such as textiles. In 2021, Eastman announced a new $250 million molecular recycling facility using textile feedstock in the U.S.

In 2018 Invista launched Lycra T400® EcoMade fiber. More than 65 percent of the overall fiber content comes from a combination of recycled plastics (PET bottles) and renewable plant-based resources (corn). Nan Ya Plastics SAYA is a GRS-certified commercially offered chemically recycled PET also made from pre- and post-consumer textiles, while Teijin’s Eco Circle is a commercially offered chemically recycled PET.

Polyamide, or nylon, had a market share of 5 percent of the global fiber market in 2020. Due to technical challenges and low prices for fossil-based polyamide, the market share of recycled nylon was only 1.94 percent of all nylon fiber. As the second-most used synthetic fiber, nylon offers significant impact potentials by transitioning to recycled and biobased polyamide, the report noted. Most recycled polyamide is currently made from pre-consumer waste, some also from discarded fishing nets.

Preferred cashmere increased to 7 percent from 0.8 percent of all cashmere produced, while Responsible Mohair Standard certified fiber expanded to 27 percent from zero of all mohair produced worldwide in its first year of existence in 2020.

The market share of Forest Stewardship Council and/or Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification certified MMCFs increased to approximately 55 percent to 60 percent. While the market share of recycled MMCFs is only 0.4 percent, it is expected to increase significantly in the following years, Textile Exchange said.

Canopy estimates that recycling just 25 percent, or 5 million tons, of global pre- and post-consumer cotton textile waste, plus 25 percent, or 1.6 million ton, of MMCF textile waste, could replace all wood fiber currently used to manufacture dissolving pulp, according to the report. There are many initiatives underway to achieve that.

Lenzing’s Refibra was the first lyocell fiber made with reclaimed materials offered on a commercial scale. While it was initially made with 20 percent pre-consumer cotton residues, this share had been increased to 30 percent in 2019. A special lot production including 5 percent post-consumer waste and 25 percent pre-consumer waste started and will become the standard product in the near future. Lenzing’s and Södra’s joint goal is to process 25,000 of textile waste per year by 2025.

The launch of Fashion for Good initiated “Full Circle Textiles Project: Scaling Innovations in Cellulosic Recycling,” a first-of-its-kind consortium project, project partners will collaborate with innovators Evrnu, Infinited Fiber Company, Phoenxt, Renewcell and Circ over the next 18 months to validate the potential of their technologies in this still nascent market. The recycled content produced by four of these innovators will be converted at Birla Cellulose’s state of the art pilot plants to produce high quality cellulosic fibers.

Launched in 2020, the New Cotton Project is a three-year multi-stakeholder project in which textile waste will be collected and sorted and then chemically recycled into a new MMCF that looks and feels like cotton using Infinited Fiber Company’s textile fiber regeneration technology. Circular Systems has developed the Texloop technology that can mechanically recycle Tencel lyocell.

The challenges

However, the report also notes that despite the increase, preferred fibers represent less than 20 percent of the global fiber market. Less than 0.5 percent of the global fiber market was from pre- and post-consumer recycled textiles.

Global fiber production has almost doubled in the past 20 years to 109 million tons in 2020 from 58 million tons in 2000. While it is not yet clear how the pandemic and other factors will impact future development, global fiber production is expected to increase another 34 percent to 146 million tons by 2030 if the industry builds back business as usual, Textile Exchange said. If this growth continues, it will be increasingly difficult for the industry to meet science-based targets for climate and nature.

“Whether for current or post-pandemic business, the production and use of preferred fibers and materials must be a non-negotiable decision,” La Rhea Pepper, Textile Exchange founder and CEO, said. “Now is the time to accelerate a transition to increasingly sustainable practices to reduce conventional fiber and material production’s footprint on the planet.”

Textile Exchange said it aims to be the driving force for urgent climate action and its Climate+ strategy calling for the textile industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to a 2019 baseline in the pre-spinning phase of textile fiber and materials production, while also addressing other impact areas interconnected with climate, such as water, biodiversity and soil health.

“Challenges around the cost and value of more responsible and organic preferred fibers and materials have been around since the introduction of organic cotton in 1991,” Opperskalski said. “Price has always been a key factor in decision making and assessment of return on investment. One of the primary purposes of Textile Exchange is to identify barriers to growth and drive collective action to overcome challenges.”

She noted that Textile Exchange published the “The ‘Price’ versus ‘Value’ Paradigm: Reframing Cost as Investment” brief with the aim to catalyze a conversation around promoting responsible and fair pricing practices. It takes an initial look at some of the solutions that will help companies reframe the ‘price’ conversation to one around ‘value,’ re-imagining business models that will help accelerate the uptake of preferred fibers and materials.

“We are calling this the ‘price’ versus ‘value’ paradigm,” Opperskalski added. “The current or typical business model (paradigm) focuses on price. We are seeking to redefine the discussion around value and therefore the emergence of a new value paradigm. Further challenges beyond cost and value include technology, traceability, availability and collaboration… Overall, the industry also faces an innovation gap that needs to be closed. The greater the growth of the conventional fiber and materials market, the greater the challenge to address GHG emissions will be.”

Textile Exchange encourages companies to commit to its 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge and/or 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge that call for the apparel industry to commit to source all cotton from the most sustainable sources and increase the amount of recycled polyester used to 45 percent, or 17.1 million metric tons, from 14 percent by 2025.

Textile Exchange is a global nonprofit that develops, manages and promotes a suite of leading industry standards, as well as collects and publishes vital industry data and insights that enable brands and retailers to measure, manage, and track their use of preferred fiber and materials. With a membership that represents leading brands, retailers, and suppliers, Textile Exchange has, for years, been positively impacting climate through accelerating the use of preferred fibers across the global textile industry.