Here, Shaw’s Kellie Ballew and Eastman’s Ruth Farrell discuss the opportunities created by Eastman’s Naia™ Renew textile, and the need to show the market that sustainability and circularity can be achieved without compromise.
As part of an ongoing effort to highlight organizations making a positive impact on people and the planet, Kellie Ballew, Shaw’s VP of Global Sustainability, recently interviewed Ruth Farrell, Eastman’s global marketing director of textiles. The two discussed the company’s approach to sustainability and its textile brand Naia™ Renew — which is helping the fashion industry become more sustainable.
How do you define sustainability at Eastman?
RF: Eastman is a global specialty materials company that produces a broad range of products found in items people use every day. For us, sustainability is about creating more value than the resources we use. When that is applied to how we're looking at sustainability in our textiles business, we have a big, lofty goal to make sustainable fashion accessible to everyone. We want to democratize sustainability in the world of fashion and give everybody the ability to make a choice for sustainability.
At Naia™, we look at sustainability in a holistic way — how we source our cellulosic yarn, not using hazardous chemicals. We have closed-loop manufacturing and we're constantly looking at our carbon and water footprint. We look at the start and end of life for our products — their biodegradability and how we can incorporate waste plastics as part of our feedstock. Sustainability factors into everything we do; so, for example — as we think about literature and collateral, we're opting to use digital tools. Even our trade show stands incorporate materials that are recyclable and that can be reused. The wood that we use on the trade show stand is donated to an NGO that makes toys. We are trying to walk the talk and be sustainability focused in everything that we do.
And for Eastman overall, the vision around sustainability is through the power of innovation to address big, urgent challenges that are really about making a better place for future generations. Our 2020 sustainability report is a great reference, and outlines our commitment to reduce greenhouse gases through a focus on mitigating climate change and mainstreaming circularity — as well as caring for society and looking holistically at sustainability.
Tell us about Eastman's recent recycling innovations, focused on hard-to-recycle plastics.
RF: Naia is a cellulosic acetate fiber that is used primarily in women's wear. It’s a wonderful, versatile fiber with a huge amount of opportunities for design — including high-end, elegant wear; comfortable daywear, loungewear and sleepwear. We launched Naia about three years ago into women's wear with a focus on responsible wood pulp sourcing, safe and environmentally-sound chemical use, a low carbon and water footprint, and biodegradability. But we recognized that the challenge around waste was becoming a growing and very serious issue. We wanted to tackle circularity. In September of 2020, we introduced Naia™ Renew — which is sourced from 60 percent wood pulp and 40 percent recycled waste plastics. Naia Renew recycled content is achieved by allocation of recycled plastics using a mass balance process.
With Naia Renew, we are using complex waste plastics — plastics that don't have viable recycling solutions in the market — and we are diverting them from landfill with a fiber solution that creates a huge opportunity to design beautiful fabrics in the world of fashion, but to do so at commercial scale. And that’s hugely exciting.
We have been talking to a lot of brands; and we were thrilled at the start of December when H&M launched its Conscious Exclusive collection, which has garments made from Naia™Renew. The theme of the collection is waste can be beautiful. It’s a wonderful message, because it just shows that sustainability and circularity are so important if we're going to move the needle around climate change. Eastman was proud to partner with H&M, because it has a similar vision around making sustainable fashion accessible to everyone.
What market drivers / trends led to this solution? What global problem(s) were you addressing?
RF: When we launched Naia three years ago, the main focus was on responsible sourcing. People were also focusing on chemical usage, and brands were starting to look at the sustainability profile of the fibers that they were using in their collections.
Everything has accelerated with COVID. The consumer has a heightened awareness and an appreciation of nature, and that is translated into them actually stopping and really making conscious choices around sustainability. When we launched Naia, we did research — and around 19 percent of people were looking at garment labels, really understanding what they were purchasing and what they were wearing. I guarantee you it's changed. Every shop that you're going into as a consumer has a sustainability element to their offering. COVID has been a terrible experience, but it certainly has given sustainability a different place in people's minds; and brands have really crystallized their intentions around that. Brands are coming out with very ambitious targets and timelines to achieve those targets. The conversation has become much more real and personal.
Sustainability used to be niche, and now it is becoming mainstream. The conversations we used to have were always with the sustainability department; and now that conversation has moved out of the sustainability department and involves category managers, designers and others within brands. There is the energy to really start taking action and move towards incorporating sustainability at the brand level in a meaningful way.
What role has collaboration played at Eastman in your efforts to address the global plastic waste problem?
RF: The role of collaboration cannot be underestimated. No single company is going to be able to bring about systematic change. With the work that we're doing with Naia Renew, we're co-developing — because we're trying to bring solutions into the market that the consumer is going to buy. At the end of the day, you've got to create a solution that is commercially viable and yet has that sustainability profile that you know is making a difference.
And it is not just collaboration with the brand, it's collaboration with the whole supply chain. As we start bringing in waste recycling, be it plastics or textiles, there is a whole infrastructure that needs to be developed — and it’s so important to build that infrastructure at scale. We're about making sustainable fashion accessible to everybody and making a measurable impact. And you can only do that if you actually build it at scale. Eastman has made the investment. It's not a pilot; our investment is at a scale which can truly make a measurable difference.
Engagement with NGOs and associations is important as a way to bring education and awareness-building to these efforts, but also to create certifications that are relevant to help people trust solutions. Eastman does a lot of work with associations, which has been hugely helpful to try to move the needle. We work with Textile Exchange, and we are part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.
What are some of the biggest surprises or hurdles that you have encountered, as you focus on innovation around non-recyclable materials?
RF: There are so many misperceptions out there around recycling and circularity. In our own industry of textiles, there are false perceptions that recycled materials or products have some level of degradation — that the quality is not as good, that the hand-feel of a fabric with recycled material is not the same; or maybe some of the attributes, like drying time or performance, are not the same. There’s a sense that you have to compromise because you've chosen a sustainable solution.
The reality is, you can have a good recycled polyester or a bad recycled polyester. We can 100 percent tell our brand customers there is no difference between Naia and Naia Renew. Naia Renew uses recycled content, and it's indistinguishable from Naia — exactly the same quality. We really need to get out there in the market that sustainability does not mean compromise. Circularity does not mean compromise.
If the value chain does the work it needs to do, sustainability does not mean compromise.
This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition program. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw for their efforts, visit the landing page for this blog series.