Looking Beyond to Find Planet-Friendly, Future-Wise Materials
A little bit of everything is generating reason for optimism in 2023 within the textile business. Supply chain headaches are subsiding while excitement about product innovation in the pipeline is on the rise. Companies are adjusting to a new era of hybridization with execs sharpening leadership skills to better accommodate today’s at home/in office workplace. Together these factors are giving industry momentum a boost and brightening the mood of the marketplace. “After a couple of years of many challenges, we feel the market is slowly recovering and we see some lights in the tunnel,” said Polygiene CEO Ulrika Björk. “The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing recession had a disruptive impact on our business, as for everybody else.”
Areas of business Polygiene plans to prioritize include improving the inventory situation and ironing out supply chain snags. “The lockdowns and the disturbance in the supply chain had a severe impact on stock levels, but we can now see the orders are picking up again. Inventory has been high through the value-chain the past 6-12 months,” shared Björk. “We can see the freight costs and the availability for shipment is almost back to 2019 years levels again, which is very positive for everyone. When it was at its peak the price for a container to China was 4-doubled the price compared to pre-covid.”
Simon Whitmarsh-Knight’s recent travels to see mills in Asia followed by visits to brands and retailers in North America have provided the exec with a sense of both the upstream and downstream market. Hyosung’s global marketing director - textiles, stated, “I’m seeing a mix of pragmatism and optimism. The first half looks quite difficult, but the mills are already seeing green shoots of recovery for the second half of the year. “
Whitmarsh-Knight believes the military term VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous, is quite relevant. “Lots of things are changing, and there are lots of challenges – around inventory and retail confidence. But good product is coming through, there’s an increased focus on sustainability and a feeling that we’ve gotten through the worst.” The company continues to invest in capacity, where needed. “Last year, we started production in India; this year we’re increasing production of post-consumer recycled nylon to reflect industry needs.”
Kristin Draper, president of Draper Knitting, describes the mood of the marketplace as cautiously optimistic. Draper Knitting sources predominantly domestic materials, and as such international supply chains have not been a challenge. Draper explains that the real challenge is in the maintenance of machinery and the lack of parts or people to repair these parts. “What used to take days is months and longer at times. This can cause a piece of machinery to be out of production for six months to a year, it’s a whole different ball game!”
For Concept III Textiles president Chris Parkes, the priority for the year ahead is “making sure we meet the demands, requests, wants of our customers so that they get what they need for 2023.” Also key is a focus on 2024/2025, “as new product needs to be put into the marketplace.”
Driving innovation is also a primary focus at NexTex. “Making sure this textile innovation can be achieved in the desired hemisphere will be handled based on our customers’ needs,” explained NexTex CEO Chad Lawrence, who described the current mood of the marketplace as “hesitant.” He added, “We’re waiting to see how the consumer reacts to inflation.”
Eco Tech of Tomorrow
Material suppliers agree that functional fabrics made from sustainable, renewable resources and manufactured responsibly are the future of the industry. However, challenges still exist, and performance remains key.
Lawrence explained, “Innovation is more than just eco textiles. Textiles which function to solve a problem will lead our conversations, however, these can be achieved using sustainable fibers and responsible practices. In other words, sustainable fibers and responsible practices are part of the goal but not the goal in and of themselves.”
NexTex has recently created its first bio-based nylon. The textile has superior one-way transport performance while being a blend of cotton, Lenzing Modal, and bio-based nylon. “We will continue to grow our portfolio of fabrics that contain either recycled polyester or bio-based nylon synthetics,” stated Lawrence, who noted that the company’s natural fiber collection, which is extensive, will continue to grow.
Draper agrees that eco-performance textiles lead the way. She remarked, “Even ‘unsustainable’ businesses are looking to be more sustainable through the use of natural materials or giving items a second life.” Draper Knitting continues to perfect its Draper Wool Bar Collection. The offering now features Shaniko’s RWS Wool and is completely processed in the U.S.
Draper makes a strong case for the natural fiber. “Wool, the first performance fiber, is making a resurgence not just for its inherent values, like its excellent insulation properties but now for its sustainability story and its bonus features like being, naturally anti-microbial and naturally biodegradable.”
Parkes believes that “we are just at the tip of the iceberg” in terms of eco-textile innovation. “There is not enough recycled poly in the world to switch all poly (to recycled) so we need to find other solutions. That’s what we are all working on,” commented Parkes. “There is a long way to go and it will be exciting. There is not one true solution.”
Concept III and its partners are making progress. “For Fall ’23 we have a large program where we have added three percent recycled textile waste into a fleece fabric from Kingwhale’s pilot plant in Japan. The waste is textile scrap, shearing waste and also garments and we were able to produce 50 tons of recycled waste chip.” Parkes explained, “We need to get to 50/50 up from that three percent. A waste stream exists.” But how do we move the needle? According to Parkes, lower the price, build a bigger plant, and the industry needs to make recycled textile waste a priority. Parkes added, “It will take time. Will we get there? I hope so.”
For Hyosung, multi-functional polyester and nylon are now available in recycled versions. Recycled spandex, and an increasing focus on bio-based innovation are top of mind. “It’s been a race to recycled, and to a certain degree a clear route on the map exists; bio-based is a new path,” said Whitmarsh-Knight. The company launched its bio-based creora spandex last year. The product uses 30 percent renewable resources and has 23 percent lower carbon emissions.
The industry has eyes on “regenerative” as the next step in the journey to circular textiles. “People have jumped onto regenerative, however there is a lot of misinterpretation of the word,” commented Whitmarsh-Knight, who mentions that the Savory Institute is introducing Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) as a way to give a metric against a regenerative claim.
Challenges on the Horizon
When asked if “eco performance” textiles are the future of the industry, Polygiene’s Björk responded, “I still believe that the biggest issue is not eco performance materials or sustainable materials, even if that of course is important too. The biggest challenge as I see it, is overproduction and overconsumption. This is by far more important to address than only focusing on materials and sourcing. To prolong the lifetime of everything that is produced – this is the solution to reach the global goals of decreasing the carbon footprint of the world.”
Björk continued, “As an ingredient brand and a technology company, we believe that chemicals can contribute a lot to a product’s lifespan. Polygiene Freshness technologies is a great example of how we enable consumers to participate in the mission of consuming and protect clothing from over washing. An LCA that we recently ran with Sweco, a leading European engineering consultancy, we can prove that the environmental benefits by far outweigh the small costs to add our technology into a fabric.”
Another major hurdle for the industry is agreeing on what sustainability means. A plethora of certifications, organizations and eco-experts have emerged in recent years resulting in more confusion than clarity. Execs suggest that perhaps the time has time for consolidation around a few key topics, whether its garment recycling or chemical impact or regenerative. A collective decision on how to invest in the infrastructure needed would loosen some of the current bottlenecks, provide industry-wide direction and speed innovation. A growing sentiment among textile suppliers is that if the industry is confused about what sustainability means, then the consumer has no chance.
What it Takes to be a Successful Leader Today
Ulrika Björk, Polygiene:
“Transparency, honesty, and trust are key if you should survive in this industry. Working with chemicals demands a strong regulatory and compliance work and this is where I never compromise. And of course, walk the talk and truly live our mission of Mindful Living.”
Simon Whitmarsh-Knight, Hyosung:
“Create a vision, provide direction, have a purpose and engage the team to contribute to that. Hybrid dispersed teams are here to stay – employees like the flexibility but on the other hand need to feel included. Leaders and the team have to create a culture of inclusivity. It’s easy to say, but not simple to do. Leaders need to think about individual needs and the needs of the team at the same time. How to do this? We’re still learning, still evolving and trying to find our way.”
Chris Parkes, Concept III:
“Listen. Think out all potential scenarios. Commit.”
Chad Lawrence, NexTex:
“True innovation and staying power…aka perseverance. You can’t fake innovation, it’s either real or it’s not.”
Kristin Draper, Draper Knitting:
“Juggling lessons! Before Covid, we knew how to run our businesses well, we have all survived personnel gluts and droughts through the years, supply chain issues, inflation, and some folks who have been around a while, shortages of natural resources and parts. But now throwing all of those things at us at once and just surviving is a real feat! If that is not enough, now remember that you need to watch your social presence, do whatever you can to protect the earth and look for ways to improve yourself, your business, and your business practices. So, keep your eyes open, your ears open and your mind open to new ideas and the future.”