Natural fiber, synthetic fiber or hybrid? In which material does the future of a sustainable clothing industry lie?
In May 2019 - almost exactly two years ago - the 22nd "EU Forum on eco-innovation" took place in Vienna. For the first time in the history of this European Union forum, the EU addressed a challenge in the international textiles and clothing industry during this two-day event. The program included lectures, workshops and panel discussions on the subject of “Closing the Loop – delivering circularity in the textiles sector”. I was also allowed to contribute and present the concept behind BREDDY'S under the title "changing the system".
It was very exciting to see who took part in this two-day event, which organisations, officials, which nations but above all which brands were represented (and which were not represented). Even more exciting, however, were the different proposed solutions and concepts that were presented.
One of the most impressive lectures for me was the presentation of the Cradle to Cradle concept presented by the Austrian manufacturer WOLFORD. WOLFORD had developed a Cradle to Cradle concept and brought it onto the market shortly before. The remarkable thing about it: WOLFORD has opted for a technical cradle to cradle cycle - and has therefore used polyester as the most important material for reasons of sustainability.
Around 250 experts sat in the event hall, each of whom deals with the issues of sustainability in our industry on a daily basis. I had expected that at this point there would be objections that synthetic fiber cannot be a solution. But nothing of the sort happened.
And so the question arises: Can the use of synthetic fibers be justified in terms of sustainability, or even make sense?
A few numbers
According to a study published in 2011 by the World Wildlife Fund, around 7% of the oil produced annually worldwide is used for further processing into plastics, of which 10%, i.e. a total of 0.7% of the world production volume, is used for production of textile fibers. 93% of the output is incinerated, used for heating, cooling, driving machines and for global transport. Textile synthetic fibers are in turn processed into end products in a wide variety of areas. In addition to the clothing industry, customers include the automotive industry, the furniture and home textiles industries.
The main arguments for using synthetic fibers are durability and – at least as far as polyester is concerned – the low manufacturing costs. The issue of durability actually makes sense in many areas of application. Products made of synthetic fibers usually have a much longer wearing time than natural materials. Wherever technical textiles are used, there is often a lack of suitable alternatives of natural origin. In view of the problematic manufacturing circumstances of many natural materials and the associated damage to humans, animals and nature, natural materials are not always better per se. (I wrote my last blog post on May 14, 2021 about the devastating conditions under which a large part of the cotton fibers produced worldwide are produced)
The main point of attack is the contribution to the pollution of the world's oceans by microplastics and the endless decomposition time of synthetic fibers. Not to be forgotten are the problematic circumstances under which the raw material oil is extracted worldwide.Environmental disasters, such as the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, are not unproblematic if “only” 0.7% of the oil production is used for textiles
I know I'm treading on thin ice with this discussion. But I too am of the opinion that the answer to the question of the use of natural fibers versus synthetic fibers depends on the different circumstances in production, application, wearing time, reuse and, last but not least, disposal. And therefore cannot be answered unequivocally. There are countless examples of how natural materials can be very problematic to produce and reuse. Anyone who has ever dealt with the question of reusing shoe leather in a Cradle to Cradle approach will confirm this.
We are therefore still required to develop alternatives to the currently market-dominating materials cotton and polyester in order to have better alternatives available for the future. There are already different approaches, including cellulose-based fibers or bio-based plastics. Innovations such as polyamides from castor beans, leather substitutes from apple cores or cellulose fibers, fibers from coffee grounds or citrus fruit peel are among the materials of the future. And I'm already looking forward to the developments we will get to know in this regard over the next few years..