The majority of garments originate from a decidedly un-sexy place, the petrochemical industry. Petroleum-based synthetics make up 63% of total global fiber production, yet only 8% of brands know their supply chain to the chemical supplier level. It’s time to shine a light into the deepest part of the value chain, and bio-synthetic innovation is the torch that can lead us. Bio-synthetics have the power to end the fashion industry dependency on petroleum, and if they are designed rationally, bio-synthetics can close the open loop in the circular economy: microfiber pollution.

Brands are increasingly looking to the circular economy to meet sustainability targets, but there is no circular solution for microfiber pollution. Standard washing machines release millions of microfibers – tiny plastic particles – into the water system in a single wash cycle. The microfibers that shed off clothes made with traditional synthetic fabrics (PET, PA, PU, PP, PTT) are a big issue due to the non-biodegradable composition of these materials—meaning these microfibers survive through wastewater treatment facilities and persist to pollute the ocean.

These tiny particles are a huge problem for the fashion industry in particular. A Patagonia-led study discovered that thousands to millions of microfibers can come off a single garment. The numbers add up quickly, every year, washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of microfibers into the ocean, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic water bottles. A study off the coast of British Colombia, found that over 70% of all plastic particles were fiber shaped. And across the continent, a group of researchers studying the Atlantic Ocean found that fibers comprise 90% or more of microplastic particles.

When in the ocean, microfibers not only critically endanger marine life, but they end up back in our own food chain. They’ve been found in one-third of fish caught for consumption, table salt, tap and bottled water, beer, even in honey. Out in the environment, these microfibers act as sponges, soaking in other toxic chemicals. But the impact isn’t limited to the oceans. The sludge from wastewater treatment facilities is often used as fertilizer, resulting in microfibers being found in crops. In fact, these fragments of clothes pollution have been discovered in human stool samples—sorry if you’ve just had lunch—but we are literally eating our hats.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good hat. The fashion industry excels in product design innovation, and nobody is looking to force a stop to that creativity.  But unfortunately, very few companies bring the same level of innovation to the deepest part of the synthetic textile supply chain: raw materials, even though synthetics make up the vast majority of clothing sold today.

Synthetics dominate the market because they are high performing materials; with a synthetic, we have the power to design the end fabric functionality from the molecule up. But the industry standard of material design– using petrochecmicals as the bases to build non-biodegradable end results – does not fit with the fashion industry’s move towards more sustainable practices throughout the lifecycle of its products.  The time has come for new materials. In the case of synthetic textiles, this means considering the design—the molecular structure—of the materials that the brand utilizes. This means thinking about the material end-of-life at the start of its life.

In fact, the time for new synthetic materials was probably decades ago, because the lack of them has been working against fashion’s sustainability agenda for far too long.  We’ve seen innovation in using recycled textiles and in downcycling plastic water bottles to fibers. But the drastic hole in the circular economy that these approaches overlooked is the microfiber pollution issue—polyester (PET), nylon (PA), and other traditional synthetic textiles still pollute our oceans each time the end consumer washes the garment—whether made from recycled sources or not.

Or as The Guardian concluded, “Breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all.”  Other industry stakeholders, such as the Surfrider Foundation and an increasing number of municipalities, call for a complete systems overhaul. Michael O’Heaney, executive director of Story of Stuff states that that new fabric formulations are the only true answer, “If we can put people on the moon, we can make fabrics and clothing that don’t pollute the environment and threaten public health.”

This growing consumer awareness is only heightened by COVID-19, as we saw supply chain issues enter the mainstream media. In an April 2020 survey across more than 2,000 UK and German consumers, McKinsey & Company found that two-thirds state that it is even more important to limit impacts on climate change, and 88% of respondents believe that more attention should be paid to reducing pollution,  67% consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63% consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability in the same way.

The bottom line is, recycling traditional synthetic textiles or downcycling plastic bottles to synthetic textiles does not provide a circular solution, as they will always leach toxic fibers to the environment. Whether recycled or not, the origin of all traditional synthetic textiles is still oil. We need to move to more earth-positive supply chains.  But we can’t ask the industry to stop using the synthetics it relies on without providing a high-performance solution. This is where bio-synthetic innovation can come in. 

A bio-synthetic material uses a renewable bio-based source, such as agriculture or agricultural waste, instead of petroleum. These agricultural sources are processed to create monomers—which are synthesized to make a long chain, or polymer. 

However, not all bio-synthetics are created equal. Bio-PE, Bio-PET, Bio-PA, and Bio-PTT are a few examples of bio-synthetics that do not biodegrade. Which cuts to the heart of a contradiction in the way these materials are named: just because they originate from bio-based sources does not mean that naturally occurring processes can break them down, due to the molecular structure of these polymers. Some companies that make these types of materials try to get around this intrinsically non-biodegradable dilemma by placing a chemical additive in the material to accelerate the breakdown process in a landfill environment. But this “sped up” process will still take a number of years (~2-5) in a landfill, and still doesn’t solve the microfiber pollution issue.  

And it’s worth noting that the bio-based versions of some of these materials are actually more polluting than the petroleum-based versions, as some of the bio-based inputs require multistep, carbon-intensive processing. For example, PET is composed of terephthalic acid (TA) and mono ethylene glycol (MEG). Deriving TA from a bio-based source such as corn or wheat stover releases roughly 2x more CO2 than deriving TA from petroleum.

By using intrinsically biodegradable polymers—materials that break down through naturally occurring processes—new bio-synthetics have overcome these limits, and now it’s possible to create synthetic textiles that are biodegradable. For example, at Kintra Fibers, we make performance yarns based on PBS (polybutylene succinate), a material that is both bio-based and biodegradable. This means any Kintra fibers released in washing clothes will break down into CO2 and water in a wastewater treatment facility. Other bio-based and biodegradable polymers include PLA (polylactic acid) and PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates).

Unfortunately, most of the biobased and biodegradable materials have not yet reached commercial availability.  And in my role at Kintra Fibers, as we move toward commercialization, I’m in the position to give the industry some insights into why.

There are three roadblocks that stand between material innovation and commercialization. First and foremost, the material itself must be as high-performing as traditional synthetic materials. Innovators can’t ask brands to stop using traditional synthetics without a high-performance alternative or, preferably, something that performs even better. Second, innovators must be able to function as a direct drop-in to the traditional synthetic manufacturing supply chain, which will allow them to scale and offer the pricing that brands need. The burden of new infrastructure buildouts and process evolution cannot fall on the brand or their suppliers, or else existing synthetics will remain the only logical choice.  Last, innovators must be able to fill demand. This means there must be enough bio-based sources available to supply large order quantities, otherwise truly sustainable products will always be relegated to offshoots and capsule collections, rather than the mainstream.

That being said, material innovators and brands will still need to meet halfway.  As powerful as the science is, the real world-changing power lies with the brands, and their decision to source a new and innovative raw material in place of existing synthetics.

One industry misconception that may be a barrier to bio-synthetic integration is the question of the land and water usage required to produce the materials, and the types of crops/farming practices involved. These are important considerations, however, the total global land usage for the entire bioplastics industry was only 0.004% of total global land area in 2018, and is forecast to be 0.007% in 2023, even with a significant growth rate in the bioplastics market. This represents 0.1% of total arable land. And as we saw earlier, not all polymers are created equal, some have easier processing steps and higher yields, which means they will require less land and water to produce than their counterparts.

Yet some brands hold off on making the switch, but this is exactly where brands and innovators have a synergistic relationship. The large order quantities of brand partners give the innovators the power to select the best crops and farm partners to work with, bringing a farm-to-fabric story for a brand’s synthetics. The desire to use the best agricultural sources is admirable, but it can only be achieved with scale. By starting with the available sources, brands and innovators can work together to find regenerative farm partners, or even crops that will allow the material to be carbon-negative. But it is a journey, and the first step is to stop using petroleum, as soon as possible.  And with the effects of climate change prevalent right before our very eyes—I write this from Los Angeles as the west coast is burning—we don’t have time to wait.

Raw materials are responsible for 38% of industry emissions, and if we factor yarn/fabric production, this increases to 52%. Sourcing better materials is the best way to decarbonize the industry, and as consumers continue to demand greater accountability for the impact that brands and retailers are having on the planet, new materials that are sustainable in both their production and disposal are going to be an important tool.

In this case, what is good for the planet is good for business too. By choosing a new material to work with, a brand not only bolsters its positioning with the climate- focused generation, but can write itself in the history books as the brand that ushered the fashion industry from an era of climate change to climate stability.