Fibre Shift Jul2019

Global Fibre Shift: The Rise of Synthetics and What the Future Holds


The global fiber demand is growing – day by day, year by year – and there is no looking back. Global fiber consumption has increased from 29 million tons in 1980 to 94 million tons in 2017, and the growing market has brought with it a remarkable change in the consumption patterns attributable to a number of factors.

The industry has been witnessing a gradual shift from cotton to synthetic fibres over the past few decades. More than half of the global textile and apparel product pie comprises of items made out of synthetic fibre and its use is growing faster than cotton textiles and apparel. Polyester fibre consumption, especially, has been steadily gaining momentum with highest CAGR of 6 per cent from 1980 to 2017.

Cotton – The Default since Decades
Cotton has been used to create clothing since millennia, and is used worldwide because of the perfect combination of its inherent lightness, softness and breathability. Cotton was universally adopted in history due to abundance in its availability and easy accessibility to everyone to address an important gap in their clothing essentials. It was the best option available with all the required properties; cotton was economical and suitable for all seasonal needs. In the present day scenario, cotton is the world's most commonly used natural fiber as well as the foremost profitable non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for millions of people worldwide and employs a significant strength of labour in developing countries.

However, cotton production growth was not able to keep up with the rapid growth in fiber consumption. Apparel fibre consumption (in Mn. Kg) has grown at a rate of 4.4 per cent from 1960 to 2017. On the other hand, global cotton production (in Mn. Kg) has grown at a rate of 2 per cent from 1960 to 2017, a figure not enough to keep up with the global demand.

Add to that some serious limitations that come along with producing it: cotton production is completely dependent on the availability of fertile land which is reducing rapidly as the population increases day by day. Cotton products are fully biodegradable but its production require large amount of water which in itself is a concern of paramount importance. Excessive use of pesticides for cotton cultivation is also making the lands less fertile for next crop cycle. As for land to store translation, cotton lacks compatibility with new age product categories like technical textiles, sportswear etc., whereas synthetics are excelling at it.

The Rise of Polyester
Over the past years, the reduction in global cotton consumption can also be ascribed to soaring prices. Reduced cotton production and higher prices have led to a decline in the global cotton consumption. Increased prices in cotton result in textile mills and clothing factories look for cheaper alternates. This makes polyester a good substitute for cotton. Polyester offers promising benefits to them due to easy availability based on need-based production, less expensive raw material, flexibility and versatility in application.

Polyester is a better suited and economical option to fulfil the demand gap for future: its manufacturing process is faster than cotton and requires lesser amount of water, which has turned it into the main synthetic fibre globally and has resulted in its rightful claim as the poor man’s cotton.

The applications of polyester fibres are widespread. It can be effectively used in home furnishings for products like carpets, curtains, pillow cases, upholstery, in industrial textiles, in automotive industries, and mainly in the garment industry. It is widely used in garment manufacturing because of its durability and tenacity. Since these fibres can be moulded into any shape, certain insulating properties can be easily built in the fibre. Polyester has also facilitated the evolution of new product categories such as technical textiles, sportswear and athleisure. However, it comes with its own set of disadvantages: polyester is rapidly draining the natural resources as its production requires 80 million barrels of crude oil per year. The non-biodegradable nature of polyester is responsible for increasing landfills and filling the water bodies with micro fibers.

Finding the Best of Both Worlds
In recent years, extensive research has been conducted to develop new environmentally friendly materials in textiles – that are not based on cellulose fibres like cotton, or produced synthetically from oil.

One of the most versatile natural fibers can be obtained from hemp but its connection to the Cannabis Sativa plant and recreational drugs has severely hampered cultivation, especially in the western world. Other innovations like stinging nettle fibres, coffee ground fibres, the pineapple fabric Piñatex (remarkably similar to leather), banana fibres, lotus fibres etc., all serve the sustainable angle but fail miserably at being cost-effective and uncomplicated when it comes to their manufacturing and end usage.

The Way Ahead
Although turning towards other natural fibers such as bamboo, jute, viscose seems to be one of the alternatives for this problem but these fibers have numerous other constraints like limited production and suitable for the production of a select few products which makes them unable to satisfy the global demand.

On one hand, natural fibres should be given preference as they grow from renewable resources but their production processes are resource-intensive. On the other hand, man-made fibres are made from chemicals and petroleum and their disposal, including biodegradability, is questionable. But their recyclability enables us to turn them into new raw material. So the imminent solution at hand is to take back polyester into the value chain which can be achieved through recycling.

Despite being an environmental threat, the ability of polyester to recycle is its major advantage. Due to this virtue, polyester is able to radically convert the otherwise linear process of garment manufacturing, consumption and disposal into a circular process – presenting us with a feasible model of sustainability. Instead of ending up as waste in landfills like 85 per cent of textiles & textile products, polyester can be recycled into new fibres and re-enter the lifecycle as a raw material.

circular economy

Polyester recycling has now become a globally integrated industry, with China accounting the processing of almost 75 per cent of global PET waste. The global recycled polyester market size was valued at USD 6.91 billion in 2018. Recycling is a one-step solution to catering to the global fiber need and maintaining the environmental balance at the same time.

The article has been authored by Vini Pargain, Consultant and Akshita Mishra, Associate Consultant.