Carbon Capture and Utilization for Clothing: How Emissions Can Shape the Future of Synthetic Textiles
By Holly Stower and Shelby Brodman
Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, have a wide variety of uses in apparel and textile applications. Unfortunately, they are derived from petroleum sources and cannot be broken down by microorganisms at end-of-life, which results in them persisting in our natural environment via microfibers. The oil, chemical and material manufacturing industries have been optimizing synthetic textile production for almost a century and according to the European Man-Made Fibres Association (CIRFS), this process has grown rapidly over the last forty years.
The increase in production of synthetic textiles is mostly driven by fast fashion and has not been replicated in natural fibers, such as cotton and wool. However, natural fibers can also have a devastating impact on the environment and the European Parliament estimates that 2,700 liters of water are required to produce a single cotton t-shirt. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of water one person consumes in two and a half years. As consumer pressure for more sustainable practices increases and clothing brands become more aware of their environmental impact, many are noticing the detrimental effects of synthetic textiles on the environment and are moving to fibers with better end-of-life options.
The Covid-19 pandemic has allowed for a reset in the fashion industry. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), consumers are purchasing less, buying high-quality made to last items and expecting more from brands in terms of sustainability and ethical supply chains. Textile innovators are taking this one step further, approaching this opportunity by developing “emission-to-textile,” a process in which textiles are produced using waste methane and carbon dioxide emissions.
This process offers several environmental benefits over traditional synthetic textile production, including:
- Actively removing CO2 and CH4 emissions, which can then be used as a resource
- Moving away from unsustainable processes such as oil acquisition and refinement
- Potential for biodegradability at end of life.
This insight outlines the market attractiveness and business activities of innovators and incumbents in the “emission-to-textile” and plastics market.
The global synthetic fibers market was estimated at $61.4 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $88.5 billion in 2025. While the fashion industry has yet to see an industry-wide boom in investments for sustainable alternatives, they are under increasing stakeholder and consumer pressure to do so. It is estimated that about 63% of all textiles are derived from petrochemicals, all releasing a considerable amount of CO2 emissions. “Emission-to-textile” technology has the potential to displace the market for synthetic fibers.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has made it clear that technology which actively removes emissions from the atmosphere will be crucial in meeting the 2°C global warming limit, as outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. To date, this space has been driven by venture capital investment. However, innovators in this area expect larger, leading companies to adopt and accelerate this approach given the amount of consumer pressure, especially if favorable environmental incentives are adopted.
Innovators are harnessing the power of waste emissions, not contributing to them. These technologies can actively remove CO2 and CH4 emissions from the atmosphere and use them to produce synthetic fibers. Cleantech Group spoke to Benoit Illy, Co-Founder & CEO of Fairbrics, who explained that the company will be able to build a pilot line and increase production to 20 tons of fiber per year once they complete fundraising in 2021. This will be enough to manufacture approximately 100,000 garments. Although the technology behind these companies might sound futuristic, the technology behind Fairbrics and Mango Materials simulate natural processes by mimicking the work of plants, trees and even ancient bacteria. Fairbrics uses solely CO2 emissions and water to replicate the natural process behind plant fiber. However, instead of sunlight, they use electricity. Mango Materials utilizes bacteria which consume methane to produce biodegradable PHA. This has similar properties to traditional plastics and can be used in textile fibers to replace polyester.
For other innovators, like Econic Technologies, new technologies can be retrofitted into existing chemical manufacturing plants. This allows Econic to work with established chemical and textile manufacturers-instead of competing with them, as well as accelerating their cost-effectiveness. Cleantech Group spoke to Leigh Taylor, Head of Sales and Licensing, who explained they are “not looking to be new players in this industry. There are lots of large, established chemical producers and we’re looking to work with them to spread this technology as far and wide as possible to get the maximum benefit.”
The companies in this field have emerged this year with accelerator support and private investments:
- March 2020: Fairbrics was selected to join Fashion for Good Accelerator Programme’s seventh cohort. Fairbrics, a developer of synthetic fabrics manufactured with waste CO2, combines chemistry and fashion to produce polyester directly from CO2.
- July 2020: Mango Materials, a developer of PHA from methane emissions, received a grant for winning The Schmidt Family Foundation’s Coastal Pollution Challenge. The funding will be used to expand the use of PHA in environmental applications, encouraging the growth of bacteria which consumes nutrient pollution. Mango Materials also commissioned their launch facility in 2020, supporting them on their path to producing larger volumes of material.
- September 2020: Newlight Technologies, a developer of polymerization technology to convert greenhouse gases into plastics and synthetics fibers, completed their $45 million Growth Equity round, which will be used to scale the production of their ocean-degradable plastic alternatives.
- November 2020: Econic Technologies, a developer of catalysts to enable production polycarbonate polyols from CO2 emissions, secured $4.2 million in a Growth Equity round to support the commercialization of Econic’s catalyst technology. This round was led by Future Fund, OGCI Climate Investments, and IP Group. In addition to the $9.45 million Growth Equity round secured in February of 2018, Econics opened a large pilot facility aimed at scaling their technology.
The incumbents in this space are oil, chemical and material manufacturing giants like German-based Covestro and Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Aramco. In July 2019, Covestro announced their own sustainable alternative to elastic fibers called “cardyon,” which is made with CO2-based thermoplastic polyurethane. The technology behind cardyon, funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), has the potential to be utilized in textile and medical applications. In April 2018, Saudi Aramco announced that their Converge polyols technology is market ready. Converge polyols technology takes waste CO2 and combines it with hydrocarbons to create polyols for a variety of applications, ranging from automotive, plastic and wood coatings to textiles and leathers.
At Fairbrics, Illy explains, “the biggest difference in the market today is cost,” when speaking on market drivers and challenges for sustainable alternatives to synthetic fibers. He also said that their technology is “very different from the energy market, where you can get carbon credits just for offsetting emissions. It’s not the case for consumer goods, but we hope legislation will change because even if you fix CO2 for a few decades, it will have an effect on what we’re facing in the coming years.”
Ultimately, for innovators to succeed in this market at least one – or a combination- of three things needs to happen:
- Additional environmental incentives need to be put in place.
- Innovators need to be able to utilize or leverage existing manufacturing processes to keep costs low (eg. Econic Technologies).
- Fashion and clothing brands need to be willing to spend on premium sustainable alternatives.
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Innovators in this space believe using carbon emissions as feedstock can also improve the biodegradability at the end of a product’s life. Taylor, from Econics, explained “[they] have an understanding from a theoretical level that the inclusion of carbon dioxide in the [fiber] chain could be beneficial in helping to try and address the end-of-life problem.” Mango Materials and Newlight Technologies have found this to be true, as their products have proven to be biodegradable and marine-degradable, a huge win for the future of “emission-to-textile” technology.
Over the next several years, we expect to see promise for technologies displacing synthetic fibers. Their environmental benefits combined with consumer pressure have placed innovators in an advantageous position to shape the future of synthetic textiles going forward. This new generation of sustainable synthetics will help mitigate the 0.19 million tons of microfibers entering the ocean every year from the production of synthetic fibers.