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Waste Not
Could Food Waste Be the Future of Fashion?

A recent study analyzes agricultural waste streams in Asia and charts a roadmap for establishing alternative textile value streams at scale; while Lenzing puts this into practice with a lyocell fiber made from orange pulp and wood fibers.

Ag waste-based textiles a sustainable fashion solution poised for growth

A farmer gathers rice straw | Image credit: DoDo Phanthamaly/Pexels

As the circular apparel market is projected to reach $77 billion in the next five years and new circular textile innovations seem to pop up weekly, a recent study shows that there are enough usable agricultural residue streams from South and Southeast Asia alone for widescale production of upcycled natural fiber textiles.

Spinning Future Threads — a joint report from the Institute for Sustainable Communities, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Wageningen University and Research (WUR), commissioned by the Laudes Foundation — analyzed large quantities of agricultural residues in eight countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. The research focused on South and Southeast Asia, because these regions are known for both their production of crop waste and textiles.

As the report points out, current textile production processes have disastrous effects on the environment. More than 60 percent of fibers used in apparel are oil-based and place a burden on natural resources due to unchecked, unsustainable production. Similarly, natural fibers such as conventional cotton — the second-most widely used textile fiber — rely on intensive agrochemical and water use.

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The researchers looked at more than 40 crops to find the most suitable for fashion fiber production; and the authors outline actionable recommendations for setting up alternative textile value chains based on the agri-residues with the highest potential — including rice, wheat and other grain straws; banana stems, sugarcane ‘trash’ and pineapple leaves. Currently, these waste streams are often disposed of through mass burning, causing heavy air pollution. The study proposes a roadmap for collaboration and innovation for the fashion and food industries to come together to enable these alternative feedstocks to help the fashion industry build long-term sustainable value chains.

“To reduce its growing dependence on fossil fuels, the fashion industry must prioritize and accelerate its transition to a circular and regenerative system,” says Anita Chester, Head of Materials at the Laudes Foundation. “There is an incredible opportunity to create value out of waste. We do hope this will help fashion, working in collaboration with food, to fast-track alternatives to tip the scales in favor of the planet and its people.”

In addition to the major climate benefits of reducing waste and pollution, recycling residue into textile fibers would have important economic and societal benefits including improved farmer livelihoods.

“Achieving climate resilience requires innovative social and environmental solutions, as well as enabling government policies,” says A. Nambi Appadurai, Director of the Climate Resilience Practice at WRI India. “The conversion of agricultural residues as feedstock to the textile industry is a step in the right direction. But moving forward, we must also build on the lessons learnt from our past experiences and ensure that the solutions empower farmers and support their livelihoods, simultaneously.”

More and more circular textile innovations using ag-residue-based fibers are cropping up — we’ve seen fabric and accessories from companies such as Crop-a-Porter, Agraloop and Able Made, to name a few — and expect to see many more to come.

Lenzing, Orange Fiber release limited-edition Tencel™ made from orange pulp, wood sources

Image credit: Luca Distefano/Orange Fiber

Speaking of which, Lenzing Group — a leading global producer of wood-based specialty fibers — recently partnered with Italian textile innovator Orange Fiber, which has patented the pulp production process for citrus by-products, to produce the first ever Tencel™-branded lyocell fiber made of orange and wood pulp. The resulting Tencel™ Limited Edition illustrates both companies’ shared vision to enhance sustainability in the textile and fashion industry and inspire the industry to push the boundaries of innovation.

“The introduction of Tencel™ Limited Edition leverages our leading edge in highly sustainable production processes and we are proud to collaborate on this special edition fiber series with Orange Fiber,” said Gert Kroner, VP of Global Research and Development at the Lenzing Group. “By upcycling waste materials such as orange peels in our products, we are taking proactive steps towards a more sustainable future and minimizing the environmental impact of waste.”

“Lenzing is an industry leader in sustainable fibers; and we are proud to partner with them to create this new material which will become a valuable resource for the textile and fashion industry. This pioneering production model can help revolutionize the fashion industry and empower brands who are looking for eco-responsible textile value chains,” said Orange Fiber CEO Enrica Arena. “With consumers becoming more eco-conscious, it is imperative for the industry to evolve in tandem and innovate with sustainable materials to stay efficient, competitive and save our planet for future generations. This virtuous synergy represents a fundamental step in our journey towards sustainable fabric production from renewable sources, validates our patent industrially, and enables us to increase our production capacity thus satisfying the needs of fashion brands.”

TENCEL™ Limited Edition in partnership with Orange Fiber will be showcased in a new collection of fabrics that Orange Fiber will present to the market in October 2021.