Banana stalks. Pineapple leaves. Squeezed oranges. Mushroom roots. Corn. Spoiled milk. Wood pulp. Soy beans. Chicken feathers. Things that go to the dump? Not so fast. These are the raw materials for new textile fibers, and they’re changing not only the sustainability footprint of fabric production, but the supply chain as well.
Each year the world produces more than 100 million tons of fiber, and manmade fibers have increased from 14 million tons in 1980 to 71 million tons in 2016. “We produce them in environmentally problematic ways, because if we use petrol from beginning to end, that’s bad for the environment. There’s not enough natural resources to supply those materials,” Yiqi Yang, PhD, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told Supply Chain Dive.
Development takes time, and the world can’t wait for a major disaster to start developing them. “That’s why the world needs alternative fibers, to make them more eco-friendly and sustainable,” said Yang, who teaches courses in textiles, merchandising and fashion design, as well as biological systems engineering.
The EPA estimates that in 2015, 11.94 million tons of clothing and footwear was produced, a steady increase from 1.36 million in 1960, and 6.47 million tons in 2000. Landfill use increased as well, as 8.24 million tons of these materials were tossed in 2015. That includes mostly textiles, rubber and leather. Another 1.35 million tons of sheets and towels were generated in 2015.
As a result, businesses are mining waste products for fiber production. They’re fermenting agricultural components not used for human consumption. And they’re taking scraps of material, which were formerly incinerated, and weaving new yarns. The developers are driven by a sense of purpose, but they’re also fashion insiders.
The alternative materials impact many parts of the supply chain, including sourcing, manufacturing and operations. Manufacturing sometimes has to be optimized for the new fibers. Buyers must understand the fibers’ properties, alone or in combination with others. There’s a lot of education involved at each level, and that’s not that easy when introducing a new material.
Alternative fibers now on the market
Qmilk: Don’t cry over 2 million tons of spoiled milk in Germany. While her factory can process 500 tons a year at full production, founder Anke Domaske is turning farmers’ unsold milk into Qmilk fabric (“q” for quality).
In 2011, Anke experimented by drying out spoiled milk and reconstituting it into dough, with additives to make it waterproof, but no chemicals. She extruded it into fibers thinner than hair. “You can eat the fiber. It’s that natural,” she told Supply Chain Dive.
As an added benefit, its natural anti-microbial properties make it good for medical use, and fabric woven with Qmilk fibers was comfortable for her father, who developed a textile allergy when undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia.
Qmilk went into production in 2015, and the nonwoven textile is now in Italy’s Tenderly facial and toilet tissue. The apparel cycle takes longer, at least two years from development to the sales floor, and Qmilk’s fibers will be in a German outdoor manufacturer’s collections soon.