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Can Fashion Kick Its Virgin Synthetics Addiction?

The industry won’t meet its collective climate targets if it sticks with materials born from new fossil fuel extraction, Textile Exchange argues.

Can Fashion Kick Its Virgin Synthetics Addiction?

Polyester and its petrochemical ilk are in everything from cheap (re: disposable) outfits to upmarket Arctic-grade parkas.

The future of synthetics in fashion — think polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane — isn’t zeroing out synthetics altogether, a recent report from Textile Exchange claims. Rather, it involves doubling down on replacing virgin versions with planet-friendlier alternatives that don’t require fresh fossil fuel extraction. It also necessitates pumping out less new stuff.

Such a shift would butt up against industry norms, the sustainability multistakeholder organization conceded. Polyester and its petrochemical ilk are in everything from cheap Instagram outfits to upmarket Arctic-grade parkas. Getting rid of them entirely would not only be next to impossible but also place unprecedented stress on natural ecosystems that are already near breaking point, particularly at current churn rates. At the same time, a more considered phase-out is necessary if the sector hopes to slash greenhouse gas emissions related to fiber and raw material production by 45 percent by 2030, the report said.

A ‘Two-pronged’ Approach

Despite the high stakes, the use of nonvirgin petrochemical-based fibers appears to be stalling. Textile Exchange’s latest Materials Market Report found that recycled polyester’s share of the materials pie fell by 1 percent to 14 percent in 2022. This could be a reflection of the economic duress that brands are increasingly being subjected to or a byproduct of increasing production volumes, said Beth Jensen, its senior director of climate and nature impact. The latter weighs almost as much on the sector’s climate burden as its fossil fuel use, said Jensen, who calls for a “two-pronged” approach to a singular problem.

“We must start to look at the volumes of new materials that are being produced overall because if we just keep replacing, but on the same trajectory in terms of new extraction of new materials that we’re doing as an industry, we’re still not going to achieve our targets,” she said, noting that the organization will be publishing a deeper dive into rethinking growth and decoupling value creation from resource extraction.

Feedstock, of course, also matters, the report said. Besides recycled polyester, budding opportunities such as biosynthetics and carbon capture technologies deserve closer scrutiny, not to mention deeper investments.

But even fashion’s idea of what recycled polyester entails could use some recalibrating, Textile Exchange said. While the vast majority of the material also known as rPET is the product of bottle-to-textile recycling, the concept has come under fire because it’s easier and more efficient to recycle old bottles into new bottles than convert bottle-based textiles into new textiles.

“Trying to eliminate virgin fossil-based inputs — that’s the priority,” Jensen said. “But we also need to perpetuate the true circular economy. All this textile waste already exists. How do we as an industry lean into using that in a responsible way versus continuing to use [what is] essentially another industry’s feedstock? The Coca-Colas and Pepsis of the world are going to be increasingly using those bottles as well.”

To put it another way, by hijacking the bottle industry’s waste material, fashion is stymying efforts by food and beverage companies to bump up their recycled content by 30 percent by 2030, as per European Union regulations.

The Problem of Scale

A flurry of investments in platforms such as Ambercycle, BlockTexx, Carbios, Circ, the Green Machine, Worn Again and, most recently, Syre, notwithstanding, textile-to-textile recycled polyester remains in its embryonic stages. Swedish recycler Renewcell collapsed, but its stock in trade was in man-made cellulosic fibers, not synthetics. Production of man-made cellulosic fibers hit 7.3 million metric tons in 2022, compared with 63 million for polyester, according to Textile Exchange. With petrochemical-based materials, fashion simply has more skin in the game.

“Given the increasing usage of polyester and other synthetics, it does seem that large companies like H&M are investing in synthetic textile recycling and setting aside cellulosic textile recycling,” said Tiffany Hua, an analyst who specializes in alternative materials at Boston-based consultancy Lux Research. “While the goal is to ultimately reduce polyester use, the recycling of synthetics is still critical given the long degradation timelines and problematic microplastic issues.”

Another advantage that textile-to-textile rPET has over its man-made cellulosic counterpart is that the former has a more established and expansive downstream infrastructure, one that provides greater customer and partnership opportunities, Hua said. If textile-to-textile polyester plays at a lower price point than recycled cotton and other man-made cellulosic fibers, then all the better. She thinks that the industry will “slowly move” from bottle-to-textile polyesters toward textile-to-textile recycling as advanced recycling technologies scale over the next five to 10 years, she said.

“I expect to see efficiencies and unique business models pop up to reduce the costs of T2T polyester,” Hua said. “In the longer term, I do expect increased activity in alternative bio-based synthetics that can displace at least a portion of current synthetics but much of this relies on the pace of research and development of these bio-based solutions.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t hurdles for textile-to-textile rPET, said Edwin Keh, chief executive officer at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, which developed the Green Machine, the first technology to separate polycotton blends at scale, with the support of H&M Foundation. Though the elimination of fossil fuel-derived virgin synthetic materials “seems to be a given,” there are scientific challenges that must be overcome to ensure no compromises in performance and an “acceptable short-term cost impact” to consumers, he said. This could require legislation, whether in the form of manufacturing incentives or eco-design guidelines.

“Textile-to-textile recycling is the way to go with synthetics, but a lot more investments in reverse logistics and scale-up, especially in infrastructure, is necessary to make this happen,” Keh said. Right now, companies are more focused on short-term financial performance so there have to be more incentives for investments in the long-term sustainability of businesses.”

When HKRITA’s Open Lab breaks ground in the neighborhood of Tseung Kwan O in early summer, it will house an industrial-scale Green Machine, along with an AI-powered smart garment sorting system that has achieved 90 percent accuracy. Even so, rules around the blending of fibers in garment manufacturing will be helpful. Monomaterial products, for instance, will “make recycling much easier,” he said.

What’s certain, Keh said, is that the future of synthetic materials has to be divorced from fossil-fuel sources. Because virgin synthetics are “mispriced,” the cost of their creation, processing, collection and reuse need to be accounted for with some kind of “environmental tax.”

“In Singapore, you need a ‘certificate of entitlement’ to own a car,” he added. “In practice, this means for every new car on the road, an old one is replaced. Perhaps in the management of finite resources like virgin fossil fuel-derived synthetic materials, we can consider similar controls.”

A Move to Natural

Textile Exchange’s assertion that nonvirgin synthetics have a role to play isn’t universally shared. Some factions of the fashion industry want to see the complete elimination of fossil fuels. Even so-called “responsible” brands, they say, rely heavily on petrochemicals.

When New Zealander Jeremy Moon founded Icebreaker in 1995, it was with the intention to “​disrupt an industry that was basically distracted by synthetics,” said Neil Baker, senior global creative director at the now-VF Corp.-owned brand. There was a time, after all, when wool was considered a performance fiber for activewear because it’s breathable, antimicrobial, odor resistant, quick-drying temperature regulating, fire resistant and UV resistant — all without the chemical finishes that synthetics are typically drenched in.

But as the company grew to service different customer needs, petrochemicals started creeping in, whether it was putting nylon in the core of the wool to make it stronger or using polyester to create super-lightweight shells for running shorts.

In 2017, Icebreaker decided it couldn’t inspire people to “move to natural,” as its tag line touts, if it was investing in synthetic materials. It decided to be “plastic-free by 2023.” It failed, but just barely. By the end of last year, Icebreaker reached 96.14 percent of its goal, which came at a significant expense to the company.

The biggest pain point? Elastane, the stretchy bane of textile recyclers everywhere that is also difficult to replace, meaning that items like underwear still need a trace amount of the stuff to keep them where they’re supposed to be. While Icebreaker worked with its spinners to create a different type of twist in the wool that would give it more natural elasticity, “for now we don’t have anything that can give you the same spring that you would get from elastane,” Baker said. The label is experimenting with bio-based synthetics but these are only a “stepping stone” because they stop biodegrading at a certain point, meaning it’s “basically like a plastic” and therefore “not the end goal.”

Other labels have had more luck. In January, Kowtow bid “goodbye to plastic“ by using only organic cotton textiles and threads in its garments. Mover’s plastic-free sportswear has given plastic buttons, plastic threads and elastic cords the boot. Community Clothing boasts “pure organic, natural, biodegradable plant-based technology” for its athletic gear, which features cotton drawcords, cotton and rubber waistband elastics, cotton fabrics and water-based inks. Notably, however, none of them traffic in swimwear, which has few viable solutions that don’t involve polyester or nylon in some form — unless the wearer doesn’t plan on getting wet.

Shaking off synthetics, even in more natural formulations, isn’t an easy task, said Caroline Priebe, founder of Driftless Goods, a plastic-free outdoor brand that wants to show the likes of Patagonia how it can be done. Case in point: Though she found a wool mill outside of Boston that had the Chargeurs-sourced wool fleece she wanted, it was fused with either an acrylic or polyester backing. It took some convincing before the mill would make a fully wool version, and even then there was a period of trial and error because the all-natural version was less stable.

“This was a new development for them and I get it, it stabilizes the fabric and makes it a lot easier to use,” Priebe said. “So it’s not straightforward to remove that, to be honest. We had to teach the cutters to cut it and the sewers how to sew it because it’s really unstable and it’s tricky.”

Driftless Goods also uses regenerative wool from Shaniko Wool Company. It’s a bit more expensive, she said, but that’s because “everyone in the supply chain is getting paid what they’re supposed to get.”

Beyond fleece jackets, Driftless Goods is working on categories such as weatherproof shells and compostable garden clogs, all without fossil fuels. Relying on recycling plastic isn’t the answer, Priebe said, because it’s logistically complicated, energy intensive and has an average global success rate of 9 percent. There’s little that you need fossil-fuel fibers for, she added — “maybe for extreme outdoor sports needs, but that’s not my wheelhouse. Not everyone is climbing K2, most of us are walking our dogs, taking hikes and getting coffee.”

Cheap Chic

The problem, Jensen said, is that polyester remains generally the cheapest option for people, and when financial crises bite, it’s going to win out. It’s for this reason that she hopes that policy, especially brewing EU policy, will play a decisive role, since voluntary commitments can only “go so far.” And when it comes to alternatives to virgin synthetics, brands need to realize that they need to do more than commit to a certain amount of offtake but also work to build the right relationships at each step of the supply chain to effectively integrate the new option.

Whether textile-to-textile recycling, biosynthetics or carbon capture — or a combination of all three — makes the most sense for a brand can vary wildly depending on the company and how it’ll be applying said materials, she noted, but the crux of Textile Exchange’s report is that these are urgent times and that investment is of the essence, not just in the technology but also the infrastructure that can make the transition from virgin petrochemicals happen. Bottle-to-textile recycling — again, less than ideal — can only be a bandaid solution for so long, Jensen said.

“It’s really just kind of promoting the sense of urgency of the climate crisis we’re in and how this largest-volume fiber that’s used in the industry is contributing to that in large part because we haven’t scaled enough alternative options beyond new virgin,” she said.

Capitalizing on what is an inflection point isn’t be a matter of altruism, Jensen said. If nothing changes, and the industry doesn’t meet its collective climate targets, what happens next will material impact business. It’s one of the things Textile Exchange was hoping to get across in its joint report with the Boston Consulting Group and Quantis last year about the 133-million-ton preferred fibers gap that is looming in a mere six years.

“This isn’t just a nice-to-have to invest in; this is a supply chain resiliency play for your business,” she said. “That, in conjunction with some of the additional pull that will come from policy, I think, is how we hope to continue to move the industry forward on this.”

Ultimately, Textile Exchange wants a reduction in the production and use of all new materials, whether petrochemical or natural. If synthetics appear to be at the forefront of this call to action, it’s because of the “intensity of the source that they come from,” Jensen said. Regulation could supply both sticks and carrots such as quotas on recycled product content and extended producer responsibility schemes that fund recycling programs, she added.

“There’s been so many emissions already expended to create all of these materials and products,” Jensen said. “How can we make sure that we’re using that?”