Story | 06/28/2024 11:52:43 | 5 min Read time

True or false: The bio-based feedstock for textiles is volatile and unpredictable

The answer: False, or it depends. The fossil-based feedstock is also getting less and less secure.

Over the past ten years, the textile industry has awakened to challenges related to material sustainability. In just 20 years, the production of textile fibres has doubled, production of polyester fuelling the growth.  

So far, the production of polyester has heavily relied on fossil fuels. To mitigate the climate change, a shift towards more sustainable raw materials is needed. As a result, brands and producers now race to find alternative sources for materials. 

To solve the problem, a vast variety of new solutions is needed. Focusing on only one solution, raw material or source, can both burden the nature and be an unpredictable and short-sighted strategy for brands, textile manufacturers and material producers. But building on multiple solutions, using raw materials efficiently and utilising all possible waste streams are ways to ensure the availability of alternative feedstock in the long run.

In just 20 years, the production of textile fibres has doubled.

Are materials for sustainable fashion competing with food production?

Fashion industry is not alone in its quest for more sustainable material sources. There is a growing competition for the scarce natural resources as the world is searching for renewable alternatives for fossil sources for energy, fuels, and chemicals. At the same time, the world’s population and the standard of living are growing, and it is important that the new feedstocks of fabrics don’t compete with food production. 

The first biofuels and hence also bio-based plastic and fibres were produced using crops that are also used for food, such as corn and soy. The more advanced, second-generation feedstock include raw materials that don’t compete with food or feed: these include wood, residues and by-products from forestry and agriculture.

Wood-based synthetic fibres are a great example of using the by-products and waste from pulp production. UPM provides feedstock for both viscose (cellulose) and synthetic polymers like polyester or polyolefins (wood-based glycols or renewable, wood-based naphtha).

It is important that the feedstock of fabrics doesn’t compete with food production.

Will there be enough forests for sustainable fashion?

With 150 years of experience in forestry, UPM selects carefully what kind of raw material it uses. UPM sources wood from sustainably managed forests.

This is one of the reasons why UPM’s new biorefinery was built in Leuna, Germany. The biorefinery is located close to mixed forests with abundance of beech trees. Beech is a native species in Germany and the parts of the tree that are used at the biorefinery don’t have many high-value applications: they are typically burned for heating purposes. 

When there’s market demand for the sustainable and certified wood like there now is in Leuna, the forest owners have an incentive to practice sustainable forest management. With the factory, UPM is committed to buying the wood for decades.

With 150 years of experience in forestry, UPM selects carefully what kind of raw material it uses.

Can the sourcing of bio-based materials really be traced back to their origin?

Tracing the source of raw materials is rather new in fashion industry. Take, for example, cotton: it’s traditionally collected from several locations, mixed together and sold in stocks, without keeping track of the origins.

Compared to this, wood-based raw materials can be systematically traced from the certified forest to the products. UPM uses and promotes recognised forest certification schemes such as FSC™ (FSC N003385) and PEFC (PEFC/02-44-41). For these certificates, companies are assessed by third party actors, and they ensure that the wood is coming from sustainably managed forests. 

It’s more transparent for consumers if brands adhere to global, established certification systems instead of creating their own sustainability labels. In the EU, there’s new regulation on the way. It requires all textiles entering the market have a digital product pass with data on the origin of the material.

Wood-based raw materials are systematically traced from the certified forest to the products.

How about the predictability of fossil-based feedstock – is it any better in the long run anyway?

We’ve seen quite recently that the production of crude oil can been very volatile, due to geopolitical or other reasons. What’s clear is that fossil-based feedstock is limited, and its use is getting increasingly difficult to justify.

 

These experts were interviewed for the story: Gerd Unkelbach and Sebastian Funtan (UPM Biochemicals), Katri Pylkkänen (Finnish Textile & Fashion)

 

*The term bio-based is used here for all materials that are produced using substances derived from living organisms such as plants (source: Collins Dictionary). Many bio-based or bio-attributed plastics are chemically identical to fossil-based plastic and are not, for example, biodegradable.

 
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