Sustainable materials in the fashion industry: new data from Textile Exchange
In the fashion industry, raw material production alone is responsible for 38% of total fashion value chain emissions.
In fact, in terms of impact, the selection of materials is, together with the use of energy along the supply chain, the most important element in reducing emissions, as outlined in the Science Based Targets guide for the clothing and footwear sector.
In order to assess companies' progress in adopting more sustainable materials, Textile Exchange published its annual report 'Material Change Insights' on 20 April 2023, which analyses the progress achieved by the fashion, textile and apparel industry in the search for preferred materials. The report analyses data provided by participating companies, including brands, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers, through the Textile Exchange's materials benchmark for the year 2021.
What aspects should be considered in the materials selection process?
Selecting the best materials, from an environmental and human rights point of view, is by no means simple and there are many false myths about it. The analysis is complex and has to consider the impacts of all the processes involved in transforming the raw material into fabric, which vary from material to material. A biased assessment can lead to wrong conclusions.
The main aspects to consider when choosing materials are the following:
- Impact of the raw material: one has to assess the environmental and social impact of the materials used, such as recycled materials or those defined as preferred (e.g. from regenerative practices, bio-based, etc.).
- Impact of production processes: The impact of production processes must be considered, such as those related to chemical processes, the use of resources such as water and energy, waste management and the protection of workers along the supply chain.
- End-of-life impact: The impact of end-of-life also depends on the choices made regarding raw materials and production processes, such as the use of compostable, recyclable, durable materials, mono-materiality and the chemicals used, which influence recyclability.
In 2010, Textile Exchange introduced the term preferred to classify fibres and materials with environmental or social improvements over conventional options. However, in the current climate context, improvements related to harm reduction are not sufficient to achieve the targets set. The full potential of fibre and raw material production must be exploited to generate beneficial impacts on people and ecosystems, and begin to repair the damage caused.
For this reason, Textile Exchange has updated the definition to identify key indicators relating to climate, nature, animals, people and governance, which not only focus on reducing negative impacts, but also promote measurable positive outcomes.
Currently, a preferred material is defined as 'a fibre or raw material that, through a holistic approach to the transformation of production systems, provides consistently reduced impacts and increased benefits for climate, nature and people, compared to the conventional equivalent'.
Specifically, according to Textile Exchange, a preferred fibre or material is evaluated according to the following pillars:
- Sustainability criteria developed through a formalised multi-partner process.
- An industry-recognised standard that confirms its preferred status.
- A robust traceability system in place to track or trace the material through the supply chain and back to its origin.
- Objectively and scientifically tested or verified to demonstrate attributes of enhanced sustainability, e.g. through a peer-reviewed life cycle assessment.
- Potential for circularity.
Textile Exchange's Material Change Insights 2022: where do fashion companies stand with the adoption of preferred materials?
The Textile Exchange's Material Change Insight 2022 analyses data from 424 companies, including brands, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers, through the Textile Exchange's materials benchmark for the year 2021. It provides information on material adoption as well as alignment with climate and environmental goals and the transition to a circular economy.
Key indicators referenced in the Report include:
- preferred materials
- recycled materials
- greenhouse gas emissions
- land use
- circular business models
The results show an increase in the use of preferred materials compared to 2021. Currently, they account for 56% of the materials used by report participants, a 6% increase over the previous year. In addition, Europe emerges as the leader in the use of low environmental impact materials, accounting for 69% of the total in terms of geographical distribution.
There was also an increase in the use of recycled materials, accounting for 14% of all materials used.
In particular, the material categories analysed include:
- Cotton: the percentage of preferred cotton, both renewable and recycled, continues to grow. Currently, preferred cotton accounts for 66.16% of the cotton used, while recycled cotton accounts for 4.56%. Furthermore, the report shows that an increasing number of companies obtain 100% of their cotton from organic, fair trade and/or recycled sources.
- Wool: Preferred wool accounts for 12.50% of the wool used by companies, while recycled wool accounts for 14.15%. The adoption of recycled and preferred wool, with responsibility standards such as the Responsible Wool Standard or ZQ certification, continues to increase. However, the use of conventional wool is also growing.
- Man-made materials (lyocell, modal, viscose): the percentage of certified MMCF (man-made cellulosic fibre) has exceeded 40%. This is a category to watch because of ongoing innovation and the risk of deforestation associated with wood-based fibres. Despite the increase in certified MMCF, there is also an increase in the volumes of conventional MMCF supplied.
- Polyester: the percentage of recycled polyester used by participants is 35%, while partially biobased polyester has tripled, although the quantity remains below 30 tonnes. The growth of recycled polyester continues to outpace that of conventional polyester, up 27% from 10%. It is estimated that 36% of the raw materials used for recycled polyester come from non-textile waste, mainly plastic bottles, 38% from textile raw materials, such as factory rejects, while for the remaining 26% the origin remains unknown.
- Polyamide: there was a significant increase in recycled polyamide (12.5%), although it remains a low volume material for most companies. Despite recycling, biobased innovations are not having a significant impact and the adoption of conventional polyamide continues to increase.
The report also shows an improvement in the transparency of sourcing regions, with 47% of materials traceable back to the country of origin, and in the development of circular business models, involving 73% of companies, with rental being the most popular solution.
In terms of land use, crops covered by sustainability standards account for 18.3% of the total area estimated for three key land-based materials, namely cotton, wool and synthetic cellulosic fibres.
However, the report also indicates a 5% increase in greenhouse gas emissions in Tier 4 suppliers, after a decrease during the pandemic, indicating a return to normal levels of business activity.
The results show promising signs of companies' commitment to thinking and developing strategies for more sustainable sourcing. However, change is still happening too slowly and not systematically enough to achieve the Textile Exchange's 2030 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from materials production by 45%, while generating positive impacts on soil health, water and biodiversity.
To make progress, greater commitment is needed on three fronts: at the individual level by companies in the industry, at the collective level by companies working together, and at the external level by governments, financial institutions and other actors who define the context in which the industry operates.
Recognising sustainable materials is a complex challenge, often accompanied by misunderstandings. It is essential to consider the impacts of all textile raw material processes, taking into account the specificities of each material.
An analysis of data from Textile Exchange's 'Material Change Insights 2022' report showed significant progress in the adoption of preferred materials by fashion companies. However, there is still much to be done to reach the global climate goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts, and the Textile Exchange itself emphasises that working on materials alone is not enough to reach climate goals, it is necessary to focus on other aspects of the supply chain as well.
Increased commitment by companies, collaboration between industry players, and action by governments and institutions are therefore key to promoting more sustainable sourcing and ensuring positive impacts on soil health, water and biodiversity.
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