Buyers at Intertextile Shanghai.

SHANGHAI — Sustainable textile products created using technical innovations packed booths and proved popular talking points at the biannual apparel fabric fair Intertextile here — but not all segments of the market were buying.

Sustainable solutions were highlighted at the fair in the “All About Sustainability” zone, which housed both international and domestic exhibitors of environmentally friendly textile products and innovations. The fact that the textile industry is the second most-polluting industry in the world is starting to hit home for brands and consumers alike. However, many exhibitors at the show confessed that it was still mainly buyers from premium brands they were targeting and attracting rather than mass-market, high-street labels. At least for now.

“Right now, we are very happy if high-end brands accept our concept. We don’t need to fight in the low-cost price [segment]. But it depends on quantity — if we increase our production, then our price will be cheaper. Something new always starts from high-end brands and finally goes to lower-end brands. We are at the very, very beginning,” said Rio Okabe, general manager of Toyoshima, a Japanese textile trading company offering eco-friendly yarns, fabrics and garments that are naturally dyed using leftover food residues.

Looking to the future, Toyoshima plans to offer its eco-friendly products at prices suitable for the mass market and has a goal of increasing quantity, which currently stands at one ton every month, and lowering cost prices by 2030, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals.

Another highly technical, specialized Japanese company is eco-friendly fiber producer Asahi Kasei. The company manufactures Bemberg, a regenerated fiber made from biodegradable cotton linter, which Asahi Kasei claims degrades in landfills after two to three months when at 35 degrees Celsius and 80 percent humidity. The use of Bemberg with its partners’ fabrics is already popular as suit interlining, with the company name-checking Gucci, Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss as buyers. The fiber is also used in outerwear fabrics supplied to H&M, Uniqlo and Zara, according to the company.

“We are intending to go to high-end customers. Our production scale is limited. We are just one factory in Japan. The top market is our target, but sometimes it is not enough, so we go to the next classification as well,” said Saburo Mukai, global strategy promotion at Asahi Kasei.

The company has also partnered with Bembric-producing factories in India, where it is already a familiar material used in saris and dupattas. Asahi Kasei aims to help educate and support its Indian partners and influence the sustainable growth of the fiber industry in that country.

“We are not just concentrating on our product or process to be sustainable, but with our circular economy, it means our partners as well. We are making them be sustainable,” said Mukai.

Education is the name of the game, it seems, when it comes to supporting sustainable manufacturing processes and the eco-friendly textile industry. The fair organizer has also taken this on board.

“Our prime target is not asking the companies to exhibit the products. We are more focusing on the education purpose. We invite those custom companies, those certification companies, to join. Plus, we offer space to do the seminars and have some brands to do the displays. So our target is not to have the business purpose, but to have a more educational purpose,” said Wendy Wen, senior general manager at Messe Frankfurt Hong Kong, the organizer of Intertextile Shanghai.

Wen agreed, however, that she is mainly seeing demand for sustainable products in the premium market. “When it is the right time, maybe some more elements will change the market as well as our platform,” she said.

One eco-friendly Chinese company that is producing for the mass market is Sateri, the biggest manufacturer of viscose in China and one of the top three producers in the world, with a total annual capacity of 800,000 tons and mills across the country.

“We look at the entire value chain from pulp sourcing to the final product, so it is a holistic look at the entire supply chain. We source most of our pulp from sustainable certified sources. At the manufacturing level, we are looking at the manufacturing process, looking at the environmental performance, as well as social performance. Looking at greenhouse gases and also looking at labor,” said Sharon Chong, vice president of sustainability at Sateri.

Chong claimed that the stringent environmental regulations recently enacted by the Chinese government, which have caused many textile manufacturers to be shut down, are stricter than many other places in the world. The government regulations, which started to be seriously imposed last year, prompted many big players in the viscose industry in China to form an organization called The Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV) in March 2018. It is currently made up of 13 members, 11 of which are producers and two are trade associations. All of the 11 manufacturers are Chinese-run companies, but they collectively make up more than 60 percent of the global production of viscose, meaning that they have the greatest capacity to be able to transform and change the market.

“Where you see real change is actually here in China — they are the ones who can make the real impact,” said Chong. “In recent years, because of the strict environmental regulations, some viscose mills have had to shut down and that’s why the industry came together collectively to form this coalition. There is a road map that has reviewed all the sustainability standards out there and selected a basket of international standards that looks into responsible sourcing, responsible production, and responsible product. So that is an ambition we are working towards,” she said.

This is just one homegrown example of the private and public sector in China collaborating to drive the textile industry toward sustainable manufacturing processes.

Of course, some would say that selling sustainably manufactured, eco-friendly textile products to the mass-market is paradoxical, when in actual fact reducing textile consumption would make the biggest positive impact on the environment. However, in the short term, dramatically reducing consumption might be an unrealistic expectation to place on consumers.

Salil Shahane, marketing manager of Paradise Textiles, a yarn, textiles, and garments company producing in Taiwan, China, Egypt, Jordan and Vietnam, agreed. “While we do believe that, in the longer-term, recycling is the solution, right now, about 70 percent of textiles are not being recycled, and that is the big challenge that we see. We feel that there is a problem to be solved right away, and there is a problem to be solved in 15 to 20 years. So, we are also working with a few partners who recycle here in China to bring their services to the U.S. and to Europe,” said Shahane.

The company showed its patent-pending Biofuze technology, a synthetic-polyester material, which the company claims will naturally biodegrade in landfill conditions within a year due to an active catalyst that helps rapidly accelerate biodegradation. Shahane disclosed that the company, which also offers recycled polyester, developed this new biodegradable technology after realizing that the responsibility of recycling was being increasingly left to the consumer, which was not a process that they believed would create the most sustainable solution.

“What we decided was that we will also make the product biodegradable. So, even if it is not handled in the best manner at the end of life, it still does minimal damage to the environment. In places like the U.S. and Europe now, landfills are regulated. So when textile waste goes into landfills, not only is it being managed properly, but it is going to also end up producing energy at the end of the day. When we say sustainable, we want to have the maximum value while having minimal damage or impact on the environment. Now, whether we get energy out of it, or whether we get the polyester back out of it by creating recycled polyester, that depends on where we are in the cycle,” said Shahane.

Buyers attending the fair were eager to see new, sustainable products and industry innovations, with a view to buying the latest apparel fabrics. “One of the main things I’m here for is sustainable products. I’ve been in the sustainable industry for about three years now and I remember when I first got [to China] asking people for recycled polyester was just something unheard of, and now everybody has it,” said Felipe Arias, chief executive officer of I Too Fashion, a trading company buying for U.S. and South American brands.

“I think China has been catching on quickly because of the technology. China has been one of those countries that’s been trying to advance in their technology to try and make more sustainable fabrics and processes. I definitely think China has been playing a big part in advancing that just because of pricing. I think sustainable materials is something that is going to be staying with us. I think it’s the future for fashion,” said Arias.

Of course, not all attending the fair had a mandate to buy sustainable fabrics, and there were plenty of exhibitors with extensive product offerings that did not include such materials. Turkish textile company Dogan Tekstil showed at Intertextile Shanghai to pick up trade from European buyers, rather than Chinese or other international ones through leveraging the company’s quick manufacturing and delivery time. The company claims that it can deliver to Europe within two weeks, thanks to its geographical location on the doorstep of Europe, as well as undercut Chinese manufacturers’ prices on cotton fabrics.

“I think that mass-market people, they care about the price mostly. I believe the price will always be more important than eco-friendly things,” said Murat Dogan, member of the board at Dogan Tekstil. Dogan also shared that it had been a successful fair for the company, and that he had met lots of new customers, taking multiple orders.

Visitor figures to Intertextile Shanghai increased by 15 percent in the same period last year, with 94,661 visitors from 110 countries and regions flocking to the fair. Held over three days at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in the city, the fair ran in tandem with the Chic Shanghai fashion fair, which was also held in the convention center. Exhibitor numbers took a dip, however, with 3,273 attending this year, which was down 3 percent on the spring edition last year, according to the fair organizer.