The organization released its annual preferred fiber benchmark report Wednesday outlining fiber uptake, sourcing setbacks and more, affecting the textile supply chain (and fashion’s broader sustainability aims).
Last year, global fiber production saw an all-time high of 113 million tonnes (it was 109 million tonnes in 2020) after a slight decline due to COVID-19 the previous year, per the report. Fifty-four percent of the growing global fiber production is fossil-based synthetics with a near 61 million tonnes of polyester underpinning the growth (up from 57 million tonnes in 2020). For context, cotton is the second-highest volume fiber at 24.7 million tonnes and trailed at 22 percent of global fiber production in 2021.
If not checked, global fiber production is expected to grow to 149 million tonnes in 2030, which is out of bounds for what’s sustainable in fashion because of exhaustive resource use.
More glaringly, “The report shows that it’s unlikely for the textile industry’s fiber and materials market to stay within the 1.5-degrees Celsius pathway without reducing growth, a major acceleration of transition to preferred fiber [those that deliver reduced negative impacts and measurable beneficial outcomes] and materials and innovation.”
Textile Exchange said this should be a major warning sign to producers.
“We need to rapidly accelerate the replacement of virgin fossil fuel based materials with lower-impact alternatives,” Beth Jensen, Climate+ strategy director at Textile Exchange, told WWD. “At Textile Exchange, our vision is a world in which these solutions are the accessible default.” These lower-impact alternatives include recycled polyester or regeneratively grown natural materials, per Jensen.
Under its Climate+ strategy, Textile Exchange’s mission is to help the industry achieve a 45 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that come from producing fibers and raw materials (known as tier 4 of the supply chain) by 2030. Textile Exchange also has its 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, which brands like Levi’s, Nike and H&M, have signed as well as designers like Mara Hoffman, Eileen Fisher and the like. The challenge asks the companies to commit to sourcing all of their cotton by recognized programs, like Better Cotton.
That being said, replacing virgin materials is only part of the bigger picture. Less than 1 percent of the global fiber market came from pre- and post-consumer recycled textiles in 2021, though the growing greenwashing around recycled capsule collections gives the false impression otherwise.
“Our climate modeling clearly shows that materials substitution is just one lever that will be needed in order to achieve the 2030 target of 45 percent GHG reduction in raw materials production, to stay on a 1.5 degree pathway,” said Jensen. “In addition to accelerating the replacement of virgin fossil fuel based materials with lower impact alternatives, including innovative solutions, we also need to reduce the amount of new materials being extracted and produced overall.”
Though Textile Exchange acknowledges its modeling is one of many scenarios, the need for slowed growth is a clear necessity across potentials. By its model, slowing growth to even 1 percent (instead of the business-as-usual default which assumes a 3 percent growth from 2019 to 2030) can knock off 80 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, while material substitution assumes a much higher reduction of 170 to 180 Mt. Of course, fashion will also need to address the innovation gap to unlock the scale of buzzy regenerative materials (mushroom leather and the like) that captivate both consumer and brand.
Though socio-political factors — weather, costs and sourcing issues — dented some fiber uptake (the report covered the wide span of fibers), the report noted a positive trend toward certifications. The number of certified sites increased sharply, up from 29,699 in 2020 to 48,868 in 2021, per Textile Exchange’s portfolio. This includes sites certified to the Global Recycled Standard, Organic Content Standard and Responsible Wool Standard, among others.
Enduring widely throughout the detailed report, Textile Exchange maintains that as “the window to protect the 1.5°C pathway narrows, we’ve got to keep raising the bar.…Everybody needs to be — and can be — part of the solution.”