Man-made fibers made from wood pulp and natural plant materials could hold the key to developing a truly circular fashion industry, provided that the sector's sustainability standards are enhanced.
That is according to a report out last week from Forum for the Future and the Textile Exchange, which sets out how the man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCF) sector could revolutionize the wasteful textile and apparel sectors.
The report argues that MMCF — which includes materials such as lyocell, viscose and modal that comprise roughly 7 percent of global fiber production — offers "unique prospects" for achieving a circular fashion industry.
MCCF waste fibers can be turned into new fibers without the quality loss typically associated with recycling natural fibers. This sets the fiber apart from other materials coveted by the fashion industry, which wastes roughly $500 billion in value every year due to the disposal of clothing that is barely worn and rarely recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Opportunities for deeper, systemic change are being lost in the absence of a holistic approach to addressing these interrelated challenges within the full value chain.
However, the "vision statement" warns that the MCCF sector must surmount considerable social and environmental challenges to meet its full potential, including tackling the deforestation and biodiversity impacts caused by raw material sourcing.
Sally Uren, chief executive officer at Forum for the Future, said: "While progress is being made on traceability, innovation and sourcing practice [in the sector], opportunities for deeper, systemic change are being lost in the absence of a holistic approach to addressing these interrelated challenges within the full value chain."
As such, the report outlines a series of priorities, ranging from material sourcing to disposal and reuse, that it hopes the industry will adopt in order to curb its environmental impact and boost recycling rates.
"By aligning behind a shared vision for a resilient and sustainable industry, the MMCF industry could lead the transformation of the apparel and textile sector, as well as make a positive contribution to other industries that source this versatile fiber," Uren added. "We now invite actors from across the industry to explore how they will work together to achieve this vision."
The vision document asks the MCCF sector to set goals to restore ecosystems, ensure a carbon neutral value chain and adopt regenerative landscape approaches as it sources raw materials for its fibers.
It also asks that companies commit to producing "with zero harm" by managing chemicals and other inputs, delivering net zero emissions across their operations and adopting closed-loop production systems.
By aligning behind a shared vision for a resilient and sustainable industry, the MMCF industry could lead the transformation of the apparel and textile sector.
And it asks the sector to design, incentivize and implement circular value chains that result in zero waste, ensuring that companies take steps to manage the impact of their products after they are sold.
Finally, it calls on the sector to uphold community and individual rights and distribute economic value equitably.
LaRhea Pepper, managing director for Textile Exchange, said the recommendations in the report came at a time when the global fashion industry was undergoing drastic changes. "2020 is kicking off a decade of change and the launch of the MMCF Vision is a big driver of the change that is needed," she said. "We must reduce carbon emissions from fiber and material production by 2030."
The vision was developed over a year with input from over 50 stakeholders ranging from producers, suppliers and brands to NGOs and standards organizations. Japanese chemicals company Asahi Kasei, the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, Target, and C&A helped fund the project.
The report will be discussed at the Textile Exchange's forthcoming MMCF Round Table, and then in early November, industry stakeholders will reconvene to give updates on progress against the vision.