Plant-based polyester fibers are quickly emerging as one of the hottest trends in the textiles space.
From a historical standpoint, textiles have undergone various stages of evolution, from being a small-scale domestic industry to its current supremacy in the global economy. Textiles have transformed dramatically from their first stage, dubbed the ‘cottage stage’, which included the production of natural fibers such as flax, wool, and cotton on a domestic basis, to more innovative operations in the Industrial revolution.
As technologies such as looms, wheels, and spinning processes emerged throughout history, textile production began to shift focus from conventional natural fabrics to synthetic or “man-made” fibers, most notable among them being polyester fibers.
Polyester is among the most common synthetic fibers used worldwide. The early origins of the polyester fiber market can be traced back to 1941 when the first viable version of the material was developed by British chemists J.T. Dickson, and J. R. Whinfield, and named Terylene. However, the material was popularized in the 1950s, by DuPont, under their brand Dacron, which went on to become the most predominantly used fiber across the industrial sector, surpassing even cotton.
Polyester fabric has many beneficial characteristics, including high strength, resistance to stretching, shrinkage, creasing, insects, as well as most chemicals. Specific properties, however, can vary based on the type of polyester fiber, including crush, oil, or flame resistance.
Used primarily for home furnishings and clothing, polyester fibers have gained massive popularity over the years, being used either alone or blended with other fabrics such as cotton, wool, flax, or rayon.
New polyester fabric innovations revolutionizing the apparel sector
Polyester is particularly popular for the production of apparel and clothing. The material, either by itself or in blends, can be found in nearly every type of apparel, from regular loungewear and daily wear to specialized sports apparel. Common polyester fibers blends include polyester-cotton blends for shirts and polyester-wool blends for suits, among others.
Polyester manufacturing technology has undergone significant transitions over the years, with novel solutions making differentiation between synthetic and natural fibers considerably challenging. One of the primary stages of this transition was the emergence of microfibers, facilitated by technology advancements that enabled the extrusion of the material in fine multifilament yarns. This, in turn, enhanced the aesthetics as well as the performance of both the fiber and the fabric.
This transformation further aided in the integration of high-tech polyester fibers in the production of high-performance active sportswear. Also, polyester microfibers came to be considered ideal for creating fabric with characteristics similar to silk.
Another notable transformation in the polyester fibers manufacturing domain was the evolution of the recycling process. Recycled polyester, or rPET fibers, developed using PET or clear plastic water bottles as the raw material, have given apparel manufacturers an innovative and more sustainable source of material, that would otherwise go into landfills. For instance, recycled polyester is used extensively in the production of textiles like fleece, preferred by outdoor clothing brands concerned with their ecological footprint.
According to studies, the apparel industry is aiming towards doubling the use of these polyester fibers by 2030, particularly fabrics derived from the emerging fiber-to-fiber technology, that leverages green chemistry to facilitate the breakdown of used polyester and reform it without sustaining any loss in quality. This concept of “infinite recyclability’ offered by the use of rPET fibers has attracted the attention of many notable apparel brands looking to bolster their growth strategy in a more sustainable way.
Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, alongside myriad other fashion businesses have gained prominence in recent years for their use of recycled polyester in their products. likewise, Japanese company Teijin made considerable progress in this regard, by setting up its own polyester recycling system to recreate the fabrics for use in clothing.
The emergence of plant-based polyester fibers as a key sustainability step in the textiles domain
The textile industry has faced considerable scrutiny over the years, owing to its large carbon footprint. The use of synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, has faced significant backlash due to their adverse impact on environmental health. Studies suggest that polyesters, especially, account for almost 80% of chemically produced fibers across the globe.
As ethical concerns continue to push apparel and fashion companies away from petroleum-based fiber solutions, major industry players are taking targeted steps to adopt more sustainable textile materials in their offerings. For instance, H&M has made a commitment to switch to sustainable materials completely by 2030. Similarly, Fast Retailing, operator of casualwear Uniqlo, has initiated the use of biofibers in its products. Furthermore, in 2020, the company also revealed its participation in the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, designed to bring about a 30% decrease in GHG emissions from the apparel sector by 2030.
Polyester fiber production has historically involved the use of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, both of which are derived from petroleum. In an effort to avert the potentially hazardous effects of these materials, various technologies are cropping up, to examine more eco-friendly methods of deriving the raw materials. For instance, extraction of ethylene glycol from sugarcane has been gaining considerable traction in recent years, paving the way for the production of more sustainable, plant-based polyester fibers.
Companies across the globe, such as Japanese materials company Toray Industries have already taken cognizance of this technology, leveraging it to initiate a breakthrough designed to mitigate carbon emissions and reliance on petroleum sources. The company, in collaboration with U.S-based biofuels company Virent, has used the process to develop what is hailed as the first 100% plant-based polyester fiber in the world. The production of this novel material is facilitated by the creation of a biologically derived terephthalic acid version, constituting nearly 70% polyester content, using inedible parts of corn and sugarcane.
The eco-friendly, plant-based polyester fiber demonstrates durability and processing ease similar to that of conventional polyesters and is geared towards use in automotive interiors, sportswear, and many other applications. As similar efforts by numerous polyester fiber industry vendors gain momentum, the textiles market is likely to undergo a major transformation in the years ahead.
Saloni Walimbe is a Content Writer for Global Market Insights, Inc.