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Brands do not want to compromise on style when shifting to circular materials

Mar 01, 2021
Brands do not want to compromise on style when shifting to circular materials

Infinited Fiber Company is a Finnish biotech founded in 2016 to commercialise a breakthrough recycling technology that can turn cellulose-rich raw materials – like cotton-rich textile waste, used cardboard, or wheat or rice straw – into high-quality textile fibres with the look and feel of cotton. The patented technology has been validated by leading brands and is ready to be scaled. Infinited Fiber Company won the Europas 2020 Hottest Sustainability Tech Award, and was listed on the Global 50 to Watch by Cleantech Group in 2019. Petri Alava, CEO & Co-founder, Infinited Fiber Company sheds light on why conscious clothing is becoming a popular choice, the growing market for regenerated fibres and more.

What is the status quo on sustainability in the global textile industry? Do you see textile companies and brands really pushing for it?
What we see is a huge amount of interest in doing things in a more sustainable way and breaking away from the status quo. All the brands and manufacturers we are dealing with are really excited about the prospect of what our technology offers: a premium-quality, circular alternative to the conventional textile fibres that are based on virgin raw materials. Brands have also made public commitments to circularity – around 12.5 per cent of the global fashion market have done so by signing the Circular Fashion System Commitment. We are particularly seeing the push for change from the leading international brands, and this is mirrored in their supply chains. Lately we’ve also seen increasing interest from the leading Asian brands. So, from this perspective, we see that yes, brands are really looking for ways to make the industry more sustainable.

Illustrative of this are also the big, collaborative initiatives that are digging deeper into this topic – like the EU New Cotton project that we are leading here in Europe, and the Global Fashion Agenda -led Circular Fashion Partnership in Bangladesh, where we are participating as a recycling technology partner.

How did Infinited Fiber Company come about? What kind of research went into developing fibres from waste?
The cellulose carbamation technology on which our innovation is based has been around for decades. But finding ways to use it to create novel textile fibres out of textile waste began around 10 years ago at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Infinited Fiber Company was founded in 2016 to commercialise this technology. We have obviously done a huge amount of further research and development to perfect the technology for textile-to-textile recycling in the years since, and we’re happy to say that our technology is now ready to be scaled. The total investment into R&D so far has been in excess of 25 million euros.

What are the challenges a textile company encounters when going circular?
We are a technology research and development company that is providing a technical solution for creating circularity in the textile industry. This being the case, I think the textile companies themselves are best placed to respond to the question of what challenges they face.

Our job in this equation is to make the change to circularity as easy as possible for them with our technology, which offers a solution for the waste that’s created at the end of a garment’s life and a circular raw material with which to design garments in the first place. Our objective is to provide a technology that enables the textile companies to offer their customers the products they want without compromise to style or quality. This means offering a premium textile fibre with a natural look and feel, a circular fibre that blends easily with other fibres, and a fibre that allows designers to design the clothes and textiles they want for the customers they want to serve.

Driving the change towards circularity will likely require some flexibility in the pricing and positioning of the new solutions that are entering the market. It will take some time for these new technologies to reach the optimal level of competitiveness, and meanwhile there is a need for everyone to cooperate and be a little bit flexible to make the change happen. And, of course, there is a need to rethink the supply chain, to minimise waste already at that stage, and then minimise the deadstock and also recycle that back into the system in the best possible way. These are all important steps that also provide economic benefits.

What according to you is the current market size for regenerated fibres? Do you see this market growing?
Mechanically recycled textiles have been around for a long time already. But because regenerated textile fibres are a very new innovation, the market for them is only really now starting to be created. Given the strong commitments from the global brands, and the strong push from consumers for more sustainable clothes, my view is that this segment of the textile fibre market will grow very quickly to become really substantial in the coming years as the technologies are ramped up.

An important factor is that brands are very conscious of not wanting to compromise on style or quality when shifting to circular materials. We’re very happy that with our 100 per cent circular Infinna™ fibre, we hit the brands’ sustainability targets and also meet their material quality requirements.

What kind of textile waste is used to recycle at Infinited Fiber Company? Where does the textile waste come from?
Infinna is a cellulosic fibre, so what we use is cellulose-rich textile waste. These are textiles like cotton, viscose or linen. However, our technology is extremely robust and far less sensitive to impurities than for example viscose production, and it can also tolerate non-cellulose fibres like polyester or elastane, which are cleaned out in the process.

A unique feature of our technology is also that it’s not reliant on just textile waste as raw material. Other cellulose-rich waste streams – like cardboard, paper, or even wheat or rice straw – can also be used as feedstock. At our pilot operations we have been using textile waste collected through local campaigns here in Finland.

Can you tell us in brief about the production process? Is the technology or process behind producing fibres patented?
Yes, our technology is patented. When looking at textile waste as the raw material, the process is the following. Before it comes to us, the textile waste is collected and sorted by type. Non-fibrous materials like buttons, zippers and so on are then removed, and the textiles are disintegrated to fine shreds. Next, the cellulose-based fibres are separated from fibres like polyester and elastane, and any textile treatment chemicals, dyes and so on are removed from the cellulose. The next phase is carbamation. Here, the remaining cellulose reacts with urea and a stable, dissolvable cellulose carbamate powder is born. The cellulose powder is then turned into a honey-like liquid and any remaining impurities are filtered out. The new fibre filaments are born when the cellulose crystallizes during the wet spinning process. The fibre filament is cut, washed and dried, and the high-quality, cellulose carbamate staple fibres – Infinna™–are ready for the next phase in the textile manufacturing supply chain. In practice, this means they go on to yarn spinners or to nonwovens manufacturers.

In terms of water and energy consumption and production cost, how does using textile waste fare when compared to using virgin fibres?
Each fibre is of course very different and the fibre type alone doesn’t make one material more sustainable than another. What matters is how the fibre is produced. This means that making generic comparisons that are relevant is extremely difficult. Generally speaking, however, we can say that producing Infinna out of textile waste uses a fraction of the water needed to cultivate the same amount of conventional cotton. Using textile waste also saves agricultural land for growing food and prevents huge amounts of pesticides and fertilizers from polluting the soil and waterways. Using textile waste also keeps biomass in circulation rather than allowing it to be released as methane at landfills or as carbon dioxide through incineration. And compared to petrochemical based fibres like polyester, a major benefit is obviously that by using existing textile fibres to create new ones, you eliminate the need to drill for more oil.

Looking at the manmade fibres, we can say that the water and energy consumption for Infinna production are more or less on par with viscose fibre production. Cost competitiveness depends particularly on scale. We foresee that when our technology is taken into the scale of a modern viscose mill, we can be very competitive. Today, our focus is primarily on creating value. The brands need new, circular and more sustainable materials so that they can deliver the products that the millennials are demanding. And what this consumer segment wants to express, in particular, is that they care about the future. Value is more precious than price – but of course the price to value ration must be right.

What factors are driving the demand? Which are the major markets in terms of geographies and applications?
I think the realisation that we are running out of land and other natural resources to continue producing virgin material-based textile fibres is an important driver. At the same time there is the reality of overflowing landfills, and the growing consumer demand for more sustainable products. Europe is clearly leading the way with legislation that is supportive of circular practices, and the market here is the most mature in terms of the infrastructure and different component needed to make circularity a reality. But other regions, including Asia, are following close on Europe’s heels.

At the end of the day, it’s of course the consumers that are driving the demand for circularity and sustainability. In particular, it’s the Gen Z and Gen X populations who want to express themselves and their values through the clothes that they wear. When we speak about these populations, we’re talking primarily about streetwear – the fashion that these people (and, increasingly, more mature people as well) are buying and wearing every day. So, clearly, it’s denim, sweaters, T-shirts, and so on. And from what we are seeing, we expect that Asian youngsters will increasingly also be driving this change strongly – they are equally conscious consumers, and they can also afford to make choices based on their values. There is interest in the home textiles segment as well, for sure, but this is not yet at the forefront, leading the change in the way fashion is.

Which are your major markets for Infinna Home, Fashion, and Nonwovens?
Infinna is soft and natural and has the look and feel of cotton. It is really versatile. You can use it to make single jersey, French terry, denim, shirting fabric – essentially anything you could make with cotton. The applications that we have demonstrated most are in the fashion sector, but we see the potential across all of the markets you mention. When it comes to nonwovens, the major benefits of Infinna include it being biodegradable, containing no microplastics, and feeling soft and pleasant on skin. Fashion and home are some years ahead of the nonwovens in their sustainability pledges, but we do see this market also becoming an important one in coming years.

What new fibres and materials are you working on? Do you have any major announcements or collaborations this year?
Our R&D teams are constantly busy with all kinds of things! But we’re not working on a new fibre type. Cellulose carbmate fibre – or Infinna – is a unique new fibre, and our efforts right now are focused on making it more widely available on the market – on meeting brand demand. To this end, we expect to be making decisions during this year on what path we’ll be pursuing first to establish commercial-scale production. So stay tuned for new on that.

At the same time, we are also working on refining the technology for the other potential feedstocks, like cardboard and paper waste. And our collaboration with the brands of course continues, too. Much of what we’re working on we cannot talk about just yet, but the months ahead do look very busy for us.