As the world population keeps growing and living standards improve in many third world countries, there is an ever-increasing demand for textiles and textile fibres. The global textile market currently amounts to about 90 Mtons per annum, but is projected to exceed 140 Mtons by 2025.
As textile production became industrialised in the 17th and 18th centuries, cotton was the predominant fibre, and is probably the oldest and best known textile fibre. Today annual cotton production numbers hover slightly above 20 Mtons, with little prospect for significant growth. Why? Cotton is after all a crop and a bio-asset.
Cotton is, however, a very demanding crop in terms of water consumption and the need for pesticides. As cotton fields are typically located in areas with high population density, sparse water resources tend to get strained and extensive irrigation programmes needed. Biocides and pesticides carry health risks, that may seem acceptable for food production but less so for textiles. Ultimately people’s need for food tends to outweigh the desire to dress better. Therefore cotton seems destined to remain at its current volume level, or even decline somewhat.
It is quite remarkable how rapidly synthetic fibres have surpassed natural fibre usage in textiles. In the early 1990’s, synthetic (oil based) fibres accounted for less than half of global textile fibres. Now they have a dominant position with almost 70% of total volume, with polyester the world’s most common textile fibre. Not exactly a desirable trend from environmental and sustainability perspectives.
The picture gets even worse when we consider the damage done to life on the planet through plastic micro particle contamination of the water. Both laundering of garments and their ultimate disposal through the waste stream cause oil based synthetic micro particles to enter nature and thereby also ultimately the human food chain. This is a problem that will continue to grow unless strong action is taken.
Regenerated fibres based on cellulosic raw materials (mainly wood, but also bamboo and other alternatives are possible) are serious alternatives to over-cultivating cotton fields or allowing the synthetics to become even more dominant. Sustainable forests and the pulp industry connected to them have ample capacity to sustain growth in the textile sector, as offer a far lower environmental load than either cotton or persistent growth in fossil fuel based fibres.
Although there are several ways to produce regenerated cellulosic textile fibres, the viscose technology route remains dominant due to its cost effectiveness, with over 90% of a global 6 Mtons total. China is by far the largest producer with close to 4 Mtons and out of it over 90% is based on viscose fibres as seen in Most of the viscose is produced in China; ≈ 4 Million tons.
Unfortunately viscose is not without its own environmental and health issues. The production process relies on carbon disulfide (CS2), which can be defined as a nerve agent and recognised health hazard. This largely explains why viscose plants are no longer given operating permits in the EU or other first world locations, and existing plants in China are coming under heavy scrutiny by local authorities. Making viscose production independent of CS2 would pave the way very significant growth in cellulosic textile fibre production and usage.
What can be done? There are several ways to move forward with green initiatives and sustainable solutions. These are a few thought about what ought to be done within the textile industry:
Firstly. Consumer awareness is an ever increasing trend. People are looking for sustainable solutions. This applies also for textiles. Brand owners are aware of this and are searching for green, sustable solutions for their products. There is a compelling reason for change.
Secondly. In order to reinforce the influencing effect of the above, regulators have to play their part. By creating incentives or even directives, development in the desired direction can be advanced. Biofuels are a good example – the entire market was effectively created by regulators. EU targets like E5 and E10 are already history. Despite all resistance, biofuels are now integral to the normal business system. A similar route could work for textiles. The EU could set new standards for textiles by requiring biogradability or/and bio-components inside textiles and garments sold in Europe.
Thirdly. Not surprisingly, considering the global need for sustainable natural textile fibres, many different technologies are under development. All reaching out to use cellulosic material for textiles.
Jukka Kantola, CEO of NC Partnering and KaiCell Fibers, Finland