Sustainable Textiles: The Case for Bast Fibres in Circular Economy
An overview of alternative cellulose-based bast fibres in contributing towards net zero carbon emissions
The textile industry is one of the most highly polluting in the world – production of textiles for fashion buyers makes up 10% of global carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and 85% of all textiles go to waste each year. Since 2002, global clothing production has more than doubled, and while the average consumer buys 60% more, each garment is kept for half as long.
Image Credit: Unite Hemp
According to Fashion for Good, on the current trajectory, the fashion industry is projected to use 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Textile waste from the fashion industry is estimated to increase by about 60% between 2015 and 2030. The anticipated total fashion waste in 2030 is 148 million tons — equivalent to an annual waste of 175 kg per capita across the planet.
What are the different textile fibres and how do they relate to sustainability?
The largest share of materials used by textile manufacturers comprises plastic-based or synthetic fibres, which include: polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane. These materials have a wider variety of garment usages; versatile properties such as ease of drying and draping; are cheaper than other fibres as they do not require agricultural land; are produced from oil, and use lower quantities of water compared with other types of fibres. However, these fibres are non-biodegradable, emit nitrous oxides, contributing to greenhouse gases and are energy-intensive during dyeing (requiring high temperatures).
Cellulose-based fibres make up 33% of textile materials, which include cotton (which comprises 27% of all cellulose-based fibres), viscose, lyocell and bast fibres (linen, hemp, jute). These materials are sourced from plants, and are lightweight, strong, non-toxic and can be recycled effectively. However, growing and processing cotton requires large amounts of water, which is especially problematic in water-scarce regions, and usually, large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers are used. Cotton, viscose and lyocell do not absorb dyes well and are therefore treated heavily with chemicals and high energy usage in the dyeing process. By contrast, bast fibres require small quantities of water, pesticides and fertilisers to grow, and can grow on land unsuitable for food production. This is the most sustainable textile fibre category.
Finally, protein-based fibres comprise 5% of all fibres used, which include wool and silk, and are derived from animal sources. These fibres easily take up dyes, which decrease the chemicals or energy inputs into the dyeing process, are highly durable and can be recycled through mechanical processes. However, both wool and silk are expensive due to their labour-intensive production processes, and in the case of wool, requires significant amounts of land to produce and sheep release large amounts of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Wool must be treated to remove dirt and pests before use, which often uses chemical treatments that can have negative impacts on the environment if poorly managed or simply discharged.
As evidenced by the comprehensive research conducted by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there is increasingly a movement from the linear form of production in this industry to a circular form of production. The circular economy has been defined as: ‘the decoupling of growth from the use of finite resources by eliminating waste at every stage of the value chain to drive competitiveness and deliver value to consumers, citizens and the global economy. In the textile industry specifically, circularity can occur at any point in the value chain, from i) usage of renewable input raw materials; to ii) investment into energy-efficient processing and dyeing; to iii) change in consumer retail-end-use (promotion of durability, clothing rental schemes) and iv) improved clothing recycling processes.
The textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources – 98 million tonnes in total per year – including oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibres and textiles. There is very little scope to recycle these fabrics to bring them into the circular economy, and therefore efforts are concentrated towards the usage of alternative fibres, which fall under the ‘cellulose-based fibre category.
The case for alternative cellulose-based bast fibres
While countries like India lead in global production and export of cotton yarn, there are growing challenges with cotton such as water scarcity and soil erosion, as a result of intensive cultivation and pesticide usage.
As a result, sustainable fibre alternatives with similar properties to cotton - such as hemp, nettles, linen, viscose, lyocell, lotus stem, agricultural waste and banana fibre - are strong alternatives for the textile industry. Historically, there have been challenges around the compatibility of these bast fibres with the dominant spinning and production infrastructure, which were originally designed for processing cotton at scale. However, recent technological developments have been developed by private players, allowing bast fibres like hemp to be processed more efficiently on newer, custom-made, patented equipment. These processes can also improve the material properties and characteristics of these fibres, foreshadowing a future in which these lower carbon footprint fibres might take a more prominent position in the global fibre mix.
Alternative cellulose-based fibres are in high demand both i) due to growth in consumer and brand awareness for more ecologically viable products, and ii) due to new and evolving processing technologies disrupting the cellulosic industry. The new technologies not only use sustainable cultivation practices but also employ less chemically intensive processes for fibre extraction, not utilizing toxic compounds as reagents (e.g. carbon disulphide) and operate in a closed-loop process.
Innovations in the Textile Supply Chain by Indian Corporates
Arvind Limited, a textile to technology conglomerate and the largest manufacturer of denim in India, has collaborated with Textile Genesis, a block-chain enabled digital transparency platform for the apparel supply chain. The collaboration will address the emerging need for transparency across the denim supply chain, backed by a credible traceability mechanism of upstream inputs (cotton and others) used by Arvind to the customers. This technology works closely with a network of key sustainable fibre suppliers and textile chain partners helping create a sustainable ecosystem for major brands and retailers.
Birla Cellulose, a part of the Aditya Birla Group, is among the global leaders in viscose staple fibre, which is another cellulose-based fibre. Birla Cellulose fibres are of natural origin, moisture absorbent, have a soft texture, are completely biodegradable and are widely used in apparel, home textiles and non-woven applications. Liva Reviva (one of the fibre products) is Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) certified which uses industrial cotton waste as a raw material. All Birla cellulose eco products are Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) certified, have low water consumption, low greenhouse gas emissions made using a closed-loop process and come with traceability of the entire value chain.
What does the ecosystem for sustainable textiles look like?
There are various consortiums for sustainable textiles globally, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which is a US-based, 250-member forum of apparel, footwear and textile brands, retailers, suppliers, service providers, trade associations, non-profits and academic institutions working to reduce environmental impact and promote social justice throughout the global value chain. Another platform is Fashion for Good, which was launched in 2017 by the Laudes Foundation to convene various brands to promote sustainability in fashion, through research, accelerator programs and funding for new and disruptive ventures. In addition, Planet First, a $100m initiative by H&M Foundation and Hong Kong Government’s Innovation & Technology Fund to invest in ground-breaking cellulose manufacturing technologies. Fibre2Fashion and YnFx are great market intelligence sources on the key trends evolving in the sustainable textile space, as well as new market entrants and planet positive innovations around fashion.
What does the global venture landscape look like for early-stage start-ups?
Global venture activity for alternative fibre companies in 2019-21, from venture capital and corporate venture capital was significantly high. Among the highlights, Infinited Fiber Company, a Finnish technology company that recycles cellulosic materials into biodegradable fibres, raised EUR 30 million from corporate VC fund investors including Adidas, Bestseller, H&M Group and Sateri. Evrnu, a US-based apparel company, developed Repolymerization technology converting cotton garment waste to create renewable textiles and raised $9.1m in Series A funds from Tamar Capital, Giant Leap Fund, Radicle Impact and The Mills Fabrica. Re:newcell, a Swedish company that created dissolves used cotton and other natural fibers into a biodegradable raw material pulp also raised early funding from Mills Fabrica and Almi Invest, and is now a public company on Nasdaq Nordic stock-market.
The space is becoming driven by material science companies who are keen to invest in R&D technologies to prove differentiated ways to extract value from recycled materials and bast fibres. Other examples include Bastcore, Circ, Circular Systems S.P.C. and Natural Fiber Welding, and the key corporate players investing in this space (along with those outlined above) include Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss and Patagonia.
On consumer adoption, brands are seeing the younger generation clientele demanding more sustainable and environmentally responsible products. A consumer survey among 5,000 consumers in five countries conducted by Boston Consulting Group in 2019 found that 75% of respondents rated sustainability as very or somewhat important in their purchasing decisions. This research also shows that 38% of consumers, particularly GenX and millennials, actively switched from their preferred brand to another because it credibly stands for positive environmental and/or social practices.
It’s a very exciting time for the circular economy space, and given India’s huge, existing footprint in the textile space, we are optimistic that we will be seeing some very interesting sustainable textile innovations which will espouse the planet positive ethos and help in achieving net-zero emissions.
Written by Priya Shah, GP, Theia Ventures