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Natural fibers, unconventional uses

October 8th, 2018 / By: / Feature

Bio-based technologies show promise in addressing textile sustainability concerns.

Using innovation to address environmental and performance nonwoven issues, Performance BioFilaments Inc has developed a nanofibrillated cellulose that can be used in nonwovens. Photo: Performance BioFilaments Inc.

The introduction of new regulations and standards can create a ripple effect that extends far beyond the industry or material group that it is directed at. Europe adopted a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy earlier this year and is seriously considering the introduction of New Measures to Reduce Marine Litter, a move that is largely aimed at single-use plastics. The market for disposables such as wipes is predictably taking note; however, the impact is felt across a broader field of applications that includes automotive and apparel.

We are seeing three direct impacts already. The first is a growth in material auditing, the second is a focus on natural and waste fiber innovation for performance applications, and the third is renewed interest in biotechnology with interested parties showing a keen desire to push the technology into production. With environmental impact paramount, it is not surprising that nature and natural fibers and materials are playing a central role in these developments.

Addressing the trends

The United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) members are drawn from brands, wholesalers, retailers and importers, and as such, it is a representative of a wide industry cross-section. The association’s 2018 Benchmarking Study shows a shift in sourcing practices predicted with sourcing in more socially compliant and sustainable ways rising to the fore.

The majority of respondents, some 85 percent, have said that they plan to allocate more resources to sustainability and social compliance over the next two years. This year, 59.3 percent of respondents say that they conduct their own audit and use third-party certification to audit suppliers. This figure is up 10 percent over last year, so there is clearly a trend emerging, and it’s already influencing sourcing choices.

Although respondents express greater interest in sourcing from Bangladesh (currently listed fifth in the survey), the industry is voicing concern that “risk of compliance is still seen as a notable weakness in Bangladesh.” These findings are in sync with the growth of increasingly sophisticated material auditing technologies that take account of factors such as carbon footprint, labor, and conflict materials (those where the proceeds are directed towards funding conflict).

EcoVadis is a collaborative platform that provides sustainability ratings for global sustainable procurement with the aim to “reduce risk, drive innovation and foster transparency and trust between trading partners.” They are one of a growing number of companies drawing on advances in digital technologies such as Cloud Analytics, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to manage complexity with the objective of assisting their clients in turning data into positive actions.

Replacing leather and plastics

The automotive industry is no stranger to change driven by environmentally driven legislation. They have seized such events as opportunities to innovate—whether in developing light-weight composites or hybrid and electric cars. Alternatives to leather have become a focus because of its well-documented environmental impact with hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and chromium produced during the tanning process alone.

Companies like Ananas Anam produce an artificial leather using fiber derived from pineapple leaves that’s been used in the blue cruiser solar car developed at the University of Bochum.  At the luxury end, Maserati have teamed with luxury menswear designer Ermenegildo Zegna to introduce Zegna Mulberry Silk seating inserts as part of their bespoke interiors for the Ghibli, Quattroporte and Levante models.

SCT Materials is developing ScobyTec BNC, a natural biopolymer that the company hopes will offer a breathable, biosustainable alternative to leather for a range of applications, including automotive interiors. Bacterial nanocellulose (BNC) is a microbial design that utilizes tannins and carbohydrates to feed symbiotic cultures of microbes and yeast within a highly controlled environment. Nutrients are adjusted during the growing cycle to optimize the desired qualities of the product with the goal to achieve high mechanical strength within an ultra-fine fiber network structure using a proprietary process. As the market for electric cars grows, so will the expectation that all aspects of the car are environmentally friendly.

The Amsterdam-based Fashion for Good’s Plug and Play Accelerator works to find and scale innovative technologies and business models that have the greatest potential to reshape the apparel industry for good. Biotechnology has been slow to mature, but the move to find alternatives to plastic may be the impetus the technology has needed. Potential biotechnology alternatives to plastic are the focus of a number of awards to start-ups this year with food waste and disruptive technology featured strongly.

Frumat in Bolzano, Italy, has addressed food production waste to develop an artificial leather material. As the Tyrol region of Italy is one of the world’s largest producers of apples, it also generates significant waste. The result of Frumat’s work is “Pellemela,” a product that uses 50 percent recycled apple fiber and the remainder is polyurethane. It is designed for a range of market applications from automotive to home furnishing and footwear.

Another Italian company, Orange Fiber, is using citrus fruit byproducts to create natural fabrics, while reducing waste created during the industrial pressing and processing of oranges. The company has patented its nanotechnology production process with the resulting silk-like cellulose yarn capable of being used on its own or in combination with other materials.

Researchers at Columbia University and New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) have launched Algiknit, a start up producing textiles from kelp. Using an extrusion process, a biopolymer mixture is converted into a kelp-based thread that can be used in conventional textile structures or utilized in 3D printing to reduce waste further.

Linking raw materials to solutions

Depending on the region, 35–60 percent of the world’s forests continue to be cut down in order to manufacture products, according to Canopy, a not-for-profit environmental organization that looks to harness the power of the marketplace to help protect the world’s endangered forests.

Winner of the H&M Global Change Award 2018, Circular Systems S.P.C. (Social Purpose Organization) is developing waste-to-fiber platforms that utilize agricultural waste streams such as banana trees, flax and hemp stalks, sugar cane bagasse and pineapple leaves. These five crops alone the company sees as offering the potential raw material to produce 250 million tons of fiber per year. The organization is using three technology solutions:

  1. Agraloop bio-refinery, a future-state regenerative technology that processes food crop residues into high value biofiber
  2. Texloop, a textile recycling platform to maximize value in recycled textile products
  3. Orbital Hybrid Yarns, a patent-pending technology that enables high performance and quality yarn derived from recycled textile and biofiber inputs.

Performance BioFilaments Inc. is utilizing a mechanical refining process to produce nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC) from certified managed forest sector feedstock. The company is producing wet-laid nonwovens using up to 10 percent of the NFC fiber. It’s also being used as a bridge between glass fibers in nonwovens offering more customized pore size and an increase in strength because of the bonding.

That concern over the environmental impact of plastics should drive innovation in natural fibers is not unexpected; links to food and forest waste in driving fiber developments is less obvious. So also is the shared interest coming from end-user industries, such as automotive and fashion, that’s helping to drive new approaches as the need for performance and strength are aligned with aesthetic and haptic qualities. The more the fiber and fabric manufacturers can collaborate with end product constituents, the more innovative—and ubiquitous—these more sustainable products are likely to become.


Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.