Synthetics need a makeover, according to Textile Exchange.
Since the ’90s, synthetic fiber produced from non-renewable, fossil-fuel origins have dominated the market, with share only expected to grow with global fashion production. But in Textile Exchange’s latest report, fiber’s potential lies not in virgin synthetics but increasingly in biosynthetics. And fossil-fueled fabrics need a “phase out,” according to the report.
Biosynthetics are synthetic fibers that are wholly or partially derived from bio-based resources, like corn, sugar beet, sugarcane, wheat and castor, which have already populated sustainable lines from H&M to Allbirds in recent years.
According to Textile Exchange, polyester had a market share of around 52 percent of total global fiber production in 2020, or approximately 57 million tonnes of polyester. In comparison, the market share of biosynthetics — which often aren’t totally clean of fossil fuels — is nominal. Bio-based polyester had a market share of 0.03 percent of all polyester fiber produced globally in 2020.
The reason for this dominance is the lost cost of fossil-based synthetics, relatively limitless properties and limited expansion capabilities in natural fiber production. Biosynthetics also vary widely in scale and access.
While multiple contributors were behind Textile Exchange’s latest report, the organization affirmed its belief in a “global 100 percent fossil-free synthetic textile industry that protects and restores the environment, while enhancing lives.” All recommendations in the report align with Textile Exchange’s Climate+ strategy, building upon recommendations on regenerative practices, carbon sequestration and circular solutions.
To get to this vision, Textile Exchange outlined the nuance (be it around concerns of productivity, food security, GMOs or biodegradability), best sourcing practices and strategies for getting fashion within the 1.5-degrees Celsius pathway in reducing global temperature rise, with biosynthetics as a lever for change.
But it isn’t the only one, of course — hence the organization’s safeguarding of a “portfolio approach” to a bio-based circular economy.
When it comes to misnomers on biosynthetics, the report affirmed the focus should not be on finding the “perfect feedstock,” rather on continuously improving the best available option for a specific application in a local context. It also accentuated the importance of ensuring waste residues are truly waste and not displaced from other sources.
As for responsible sourcing practices, the report pointed to working definitions from The Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance/World Wildlife Fund, which referred to “responsibly sourced bio-content” as content that “at a minimum must be legally sourced; derived from renewable biomass; pose no adverse impacts on food security; have no negative impact on land conversion, deforestation, or critical ecosystems, and provide environmental benefits — including near-term climate benefits compared with fossil-based plastic.”
The report also touches on terminology relevant to the increasing interest in biosynthetics, including potentially unfamiliar measurement terms like land-use change, or LUC, how a conversion of land area affects impact, and references thought leaders like the Nova-Institute and standards like that of The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, or RSB.
Somewhat contentious topics, like fiber scoring in the Higg MSI (which has been heavily criticized in the past by natural fiber advocates) and microplastics were also mentioned.
Recommending that one biosynthetic material’s scores not be generalized for all biosynthetics, the report noted, “A commonly asked question is why biosynthetics score worse than fossil-based synthetics in the Higg MSI. The Higg MSI Raw Material Source score is often referenced in a way implicating that biosynthetics score worse than fossil-based synthetics.…In the first phase of this tool, biosynthetics will not be included. This decision was made due to prioritization needs (focusing on large volume materials) and challenges regarding impact assessment for biosynthetics compared to fossil-based and recycled synthetics.”
Textile Exchange concluded that the biosynthetics transition needs to happen faster with all players at the table, requiring “significant efforts” and investments by industry, policymakers and society as a whole.