Eco Entrepreneurs’ Next Steps in Leveling Up Production Capacity
The Challenge of Volume.
Innovation is rampant within the sustainability sector as new ideas for climate positive product and responsible production processes continue to define today’s textile industry. Now the challenge becomes the ability to bring these novel ideas to scale. It’s one thing to develop a promising green textile solution; the hitch is creating volume.
Jane Palmer, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” for 20 years, has run into this problem head on. After her previous business, a dye house specializing in plant-based products attained success but struggled in areas related to supply, Palmer developed her own bio-based pigment that could scale, and “make an impact in the industry,” said Palmer in a presentation during the virtual Catalyst Transformers denim event.
Her new venture, Nature Coatings, Inc., in Los Angeles, transforms wood waste, sourced from sustainable FSC certified forests, into high performance black pigment that Palmer says is a direct replacement for petroleum carbon black commonly used in a wide variety of applications.
Palmer and other textile entrepreneurs are increasingly seizing on scale-ability as a key attribute in ushering in a new era of environmentally responsible textiles. Figuring out how to ramp production to introduce quality, affordable eco products to a wider audience is an important next step for small companies on the cusp of larger success.
Circularity Brings Positive Change
Re:newcell, out of Sweden, has launched a technology that looks to fill a link in the recycling chain of cotton and viscose with satisfactory quality on a large enough scale. The company’s process creates a branded product, Circulose pulp that can be turned into fiber and fed into existing textile production, essentially creating a closed loop system.
“The industry needs technology that can scale up,” stated Jenny Fredicsdotter, of re:newcell, in a virtual presentation to the denim community this summer. “Our process is circular, not linear, and is currently up and running at our Kristinehamn plant.”
The re:newcell process is similar to recycling paper. Incoming waste fabrics are broken down using water; color is stripped from these materials using eco-friendly bleach. After synthetic fibers are removed from the mix, a slurry-like mixture is dried and excess water is extracted. What remains is a Circulose sheet. This sheet is then made into viscose fiber that gets combined with cotton and woven into a new fabric. The company’s plant has capacity to recycle 30 million garments annually, according to Fredicsdotter, who adds that a second plant is currently being built.
Company execs realize that its current capacity of approximately 7000 tons of biodegradable Circulose pulp per year “is a drop in the ocean of the textile industry production of millions of tons of dissolving pulp every year.” However, the technology is designed for volume, and “our method makes better fibers at scale,” concluded Fredicsdotter.
Indeed, in July re:newcell formed a collaboration with Levi’s. The organic cotton/ Circulose jeans will be available as part of the Levi’s Wellthread line in the 502 for men and High Loose style for women. This partnership comes on heels of a re:newcell partnership with H&M announced earlier in 2020. H&M’s Spring/Summer Conscious Exclusive collection features a jacquard weave day dress made of 50 percent Circulose recycled from used cotton jeans, and 50 percent FSC-certified wood; and was the first-of-a-kind material available at retail for consumers.
Nature Coatings, founded by Palmer in 2017, also advocates a closed loop circular system for manufacturing that accommodates scale. “We have refined the pigment manufacturing process and our new facility can supply substantial volume with high quality color,” said Palmer, who explained that she did a thousand formulations to get multiple formulas that could work across different applications. With regulatory standards increasing worldwide seemingly every day, Palmer stressed that Nature Coatings pigment is a head of regulations bound to come in the future.
The first product launch out of the gate to market was screen printing ink, but garments using Nature Coatings ink are now commercialized. New partners include Boyish Jeans and AGI mills, with pigments currently being tested with major mills located globally, according to Palmer.
“The goal is to make it easy for mills to adopt,” said Palmer, who added that new products in today’s market must be cost competitive, and perform as well or better than what is currently available. Palmer’s products are designed for industry, and are compatible with existing equipment and water-based processes in established supply chains.
“So far there have been unsuccessful attempts at scale. There is a challenge of the mechanical and chemical processing, and the challenge of growth in the domestic yield. The Chinese would love to find a U.S. partner, but so far there is not enough planted.”
— Guy Carpenter, founder, Bear Fiber
When Guy Carpenter was asked recently why hemp is taking so long to catch on if everyone is so keen on the fiber’s performance and sustainability properties, his initial response was, “I honestly don’t know.” However, Carpenter, founder of NC-based Bear Fiber and well-regarded in the industry as a hemp expert, quickly amended his comment to say, “So far there have been unsuccessful attempts at scale. There is a challenge of the mechanical and chemical processing, and the challenge of growth in the domestic yield. The Chinese would love to find a U.S. partner, but so far there is not enough planted.”
Bear Fiber is currently the only producer of a cotton-like hemp fiber, based on the firm’s proprietary methods, and is leading development of an American hemp farm-to-finished good supply chain.
But hemp is gaining interest from new investments. TX-based Panda BioTech looks to open a large industrial hemp processing facility. Despite a recent set-back when it’s initial site in Shallowater, TX failed to pass inspection, Panda BioTech now has eyes on other locations in the state including Wichita Falls. European ventures also have plans to open two facilities in the U.S., according to Carpenter, who said he is optimistic about the future of the domestic hemp market. “People are really interested to grow hemp.”
Evrnu CEO and founding partner, Stacy Flynn, admitted that bringing her product, NuCycl, to scale is difficult. “You’re dealing with the waste industry, the pulp industry and the fiber industry – all very conservative industries – and you’re trying to get them onboard,” stated Flynn in the question and answer session of her presentation during the Southern Textiles Association (STA) Summer Marketing (virtual) Lunch & Learn Series last month.
Evrnu’s NuCycl technology debuted in 2019. Evrnu recycles cotton garment waste to create fiber formulations with unique performance and eco advantages. These engineered NuCycl fibers, made with significantly less water and chemicals than conventional production, can be regenerated multiple times for reuse.
Progress is being made with testing and pilot programs in place, according to Flynn whose expertise is in sustainable systems and textiles. “We’ve had to train and show that suppliers can take this on. It’s not easy to influence change!” Flynn added, “But when you get partners comfortable with the technology they get inspired. Once we bring this to retail and consumers try it and recycle it, then they will support something new.”
Evrnu currently has four early adopters of NuCycl. Partners include Stella McCartney, adidas, Levi’s and Target. “We’ll likely go luxury first with Stella, then the mid-market with adidas and Levi’s and then the masses with Target,” explained Flynn, whose expertise is in sustainable systems and textiles.
According to Flynn another plus is that Evrnu is licensing the tech. She stated, “If you consider that paper pulp mills have idle capacity, our tech could take off.”
Suppliers Embrace Holistic Approach to Marketing Sustainability
With consumer eco-awareness at an all time high, and the entire world focused on health and safety, industry is doubling down on eco efficiencies and seizing this moment to tell their sustainability story in new and compelling ways.
Investment in digital tech to launch and/or enhance marketing initiatives has accelerated in the absence of in-person trade shows and other conventional avenues of promotion. Along with a virtual pivot, suppliers are creating online messaging that highlight individual benefits of living a healthier, eco-aware lifestyle, rather than leading with the science of sustainability and environmental impacts.
This holistic approach also applies to corporate responsibility. “The pandemic was a time to re-focus,” says Sagee Aran, Nilit’s head of global marketing. “It’s not the same world, the consumer wants to get more responsible product. We evaluated R&D and what was in the pipeline with that in mind.”
Planet Positive Progress
As Aran suggests, Nilit made good use of the “pandemic pause” hiatus to work on its corporate sustainability commitment with new products, production and promotion.
The Israeli company completed its conversion to cleaner energy from a new, on-site cogeneration power plant using natural gas at its main manufacturing facility. The move will reduce the company’s CO2 emissions by 40 percent, and emissions of toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide to zero. Notable, too, is that the new on-site cogeneration plant will also serve other businesses in the area, too.
The company, supplier of premium Nylon 6.6, has launched a new dope-dyed nylon product called WaterCare, another step in advancing its Total Product Sustainability (TPS) program designed to provide the apparel market with more eco-friendly products. According to Aran, the company also looks to bring a Wellbeing product to market that features bio-active attributes. There is progress on a biodegradable product and a new traceability platform is also in the works.
Making Sustainability Tangible
“Everybody hears about sustainability, recycling, and lowering water consumption, but we want to make it real, and in a way that customers and consumers can understand,” explains Unifi’s marketing director Cheryl Czukowski. “Even with lifecycle data, we try to translate the raw numbers and to speak in terms that people understand.”
To put Unifi’s recent recycling milestone of 20 billion plastic bottles into context, the achievement was portrayed in way that clearly illustrated scale. For example that 20 billion single-serve plastic bottles can “physically circle the earth approximately 100 times or fill the Empire State building more than 13 times.”
Hallmarking Repreve’s relevancy has been the marketing strategy from the get go. “Repreve started with two brand (partners) in 2008 and is now upwards of 900 globally,” Czukowski shares. “Mills understand that Repreve resonates with consumers and that adds value to brands’ product.”
The pandemic, however, threw a curveball in Unifi’s 2020 marketing campaign. “The Repreve mobile tour bus was all spiffed up for a maiden voyage in March, heading to Nevada for a basketball tournament, when we had to call it back from Oklahoma,” recalls Czukowski. Repreve sponsors TeamGreen, a Pac-12 collegiate program, and the Repreve bus served as an ideal marketing vehicle, literally, built around in-person physical contact with Repreve fabric.
How to tell the Repreve story virtually intensified. Czukowski points out two examples of current marketing efforts: a video on the Repreve website that offers a step-by-step visual explanation of the entire Unifi process; and the Repreve Our Ocean, a premium collection of fiber and resin sourced from bottles at high risk of entering the ocean. “Everybody is talking about the increasing problem of ocean plastics; it is a problem we all can relate to, and Unifi offers a solution.”
“You’re dealing with the waste industry, the pulp industry and the fiber industry–all very conservative industries– and you’re trying to get them onboard.” — Stacy Flynn, CEO and founding partner, Evrnu
The pandemic has absolutely heightened consumer awareness and interest in more sustainable textile treatments, according to Lisa Owen with Life Materials Technologies’ brand Life Natural. This was confirmed in a recent study conducted by the firm in which 65 percent of U.S. consumers (who do the shopping at big box retailers) responded that they would prefer an odor control treatment based on peppermint oil like Life Natural to either silver or synthetic organic odor control chemistries.
This “golden nugget” of insight, along with more insights gleaned from the proprietary survey about aspects of antimicrobials consumers value, will help shape Life Naturals consumer messaging and differentiate the company’s peppermint oil technology in today’s odor control market space, according to Owen.
A new Life Naturals video posted on the brands LinkedIn page reinforces the company’s message of peppermint oil chemistry as a “do no harm” technology. Without using words the video visually tells the Power of Peppermint.
A new Life Natural website is slated to launch soon with marketing directed at both consumers and customers. “We emphasize that our product comes from plants, is grown and harvested naturally, and is durably used in textiles,” states Owen, who adds, “We want to convert people from conventional tech, to tech of the future.”
Moving the Eco Needle
At DuPont Biomaterials, supplier of Sorona brand products, marketing acceleration during the months of Covid has run the course from introducing a new streamlined brand architecture to leveling up webinar participation to dipping a corporate toe into the virtual trade show scene. In addition, Sorona is now onboard with SynZenBe, an online virtual showroom, where Sorona sponsors 10 fabric mills. SynZenBe is described as the first end-to-end, transactional marketplace for textile sourcing, based in the U.S., the e-commerce business offers premium fabric from around the globe.
But from an engagement point of view with brands and mills, Sorona is just as busy as pre-pandemic, according to Renee Henze, global marketing & commercial development director, DuPont Biomaterials. “There’s no slow down in that. Brands are reaching out as they re-assess their sustainability business and that is translating into inquiries. Now we’ll see if this translates to consumers.”
The challenge going forward for suppliers is making sustainability accessible to all, both in terms messaging and manufacturing. Henze believes that the pandemic experience will likely result in more and better digital tools used by industry suppliers. But right now the jury is still out on the true value of virtual.
“Making quantities large enough so products are affordable has a big impact,” says Henze. But it takes big time investment, in the tens of million of dollars range, to bring a new fiber to the world of materials. “To go from zero to new means research, lab scale, pilot facility, etc.,” explains Henze, who is well aware of the money and time required to launch a successful product like Sorona. “You do all the tech, and then go to the next step and scale it, you might need to build a plant, which could be upwards of $300 million.”
Henze adds, “It’s about making 10 million garments not 10 garments to move the needle from a sustainability standpoint.”