Sustainability of Biosynthetics Report

How biosynthetics can be part of the fashion and textile industry’s journey towards a regenerative and circular future

At Textile Exchange, we are on a mission to drive a 45% reduction in the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from producing fibers and raw materials by 2030. We’ve landed on this target in line with what is needed from our industry to help limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Currently, virgin, fossil-based synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon account for the majority of global fiber production and related GHG emissions. They are a fundamental focus area for us because if we are to protect the 1.5°C pathway, we need to transition away from the extraction of virgin fossil fuels. This means holistically assessing the alternatives on offer, including existing preferred materials like recycled synthetics, and new areas of innovation, like biosynthetics made from natural, renewable sources such as agricultural waste, food crops, or plants.

With performance and technical properties that allow them to be used as a replacement for traditional synthetics, biosynthetics can be derived from sources like corn, sugar beet, sugarcane, wheat, and more. At Textile Exchange, we see their potential to move the industry away from non-renewable resources and to reduce climate impacts when compared to their fossil-based counterparts.

But, like all materials, we need to treat them with care and nuance. We’ve got to fully understand the impacts of different crops or residues in their regional contexts and manage them responsibly. This means going beyond greenhouse gas emissions, assessing their impacts on areas like water, soil health, biodiversity, and livelihoods too, as well as conducting further research on microfiber shedding.

To push for progress in this sector, we not only need bold goals, investments, and actions, but a holistic approach to measuring sustainability. With the required knowledge and data we need to do this, we believe that biosynthetics can be part of the industry’s broader journey towards a regenerative and circular future.

This guidance document has been developed by Textile Exchange in partnership with the Biosynthetics Round Table, to encourage discussion around the sustainability of biosynthetics and share the interim findings with a wider audience.

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Key takeaways

  • Biosynthetics can, and should, be made from different crops. Plants such as corn, sugar beet, sugarcane, wheat, cassava, castor, and agricultural residues can be used to make biosynthetics. But there is no one perfect source. Instead, impacts should be assessed according to the region, production methods, and technology used, and a range of feedstocks is likely to be best.
  • We’ve got to think beyond GHG emissions when assessing their impacts. Multiple factors influence the overall impact of a biosynthetic material, including land-use changes, circularity potential, social aspects, and impacts on other areas like biodiversity and soil health. That’s why it is recommended to look at data beyond the traditional Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) method.
  • Biosynthetic doesn’t always mean biodegradable. A biobased material is not necessarily biodegradable: these are two completely different qualities. A biobased material means that the feedstock from which the material is made comes from a renewable, biobased source rather than from fossil-based non-renewable resources. A biodegradable material refers to its circularity properties, where the material has a chemical structure and specific functional groups that enable it to be broken down by micro-organisms into carbon dioxide and biomass.
  • We don’t have to choose between biosynthetics or recycled polyester. For the fashion and textile industry to meet its climate targets, we’ve got to use every tool in our toolkit. When it comes to biosynthetics and recycled polyester, it’s not about choosing one or the other. In the future, it’s even going to be important to develop recycled biosynthetics, helping to close the loop.
  • Biosynthetics are part of the industry’s journey towards a regenerative and circular future. Knowledge development and better data will be required to assess which biosynthetics are best, and in which context. When managed responsibly, we believe that these materials can not only help lead the transition away from the extraction of virgin fossil-based resources but play an active role in a regenerative and circular future for the industry.
Download The Sustainability of Biosynthetics Press Release