Rice straw, banana stems and other agricultural waste could soon go from farmer’s fields to the fashion runway. A new study shows that there are enough usable agricultural residue streams from farming in South and Southeast Asia for the production of natural fiber textiles at scale.
'Spinning Future Threads', as the study is titled, from the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), the World Resources Institute (WRI), Wageningen University and Research (WUR), commissioned by Laudes Foundation, found large quantities of agricultural residues in eight countries. The researchers looked at more than 40 crops to find the most suitable for fashion fibre production.
“To reduce its growing dependence on fossil fuels, the fashion industry must prioritise and accelerate its transition to a circular and regenerative system,” says Anita Chester, Head of Materials, Laudes Foundation. “There is an incredible opportunity to create value out of waste. This report looks at the huge potential of agricultural residue as a possible feedstock for textile fibre, outlining not just suitability but also the hotspots. We do hope this will help fashion, working in collaboration with food, fast track alternatives to tip the scales in favour of the planet and its people.”
Potential use for agricultural residues
Global fibre production has reached well over 100 million tonne per year in 2019 and is expected to rise even further. Agricultural residues can potentially be blended with man-made and natural fibres to produce innovative materials called agro-residue based textile fibers. The fibers are known to have similar characteristics to existing materials in the fashion industry. The research focused on South Asia and Southeast Asia, because these regions are known for both their production of crop waste and textiles.
“The textile industry is in need of more sustainable and renewable feedstocks in order to improve its current negative impact on the climate,” said Paulien Harmsen, Senior Scientist at Wageningen University & Research. “We need more biomass as input for textiles to transform the current textile industry. However, when using new biomass residues for textiles we face a number of challenges, such as the availability and suitability, but also technological, economic and social challenges. Ultimately, not every biomass source is suitable for textile applications, but this study shows a promising insight in our first steps towards sustainable textiles.”
Producing agro-residue based textile fabrics using the feedstocks identified by this study also would create important societal benefits. “Agro-residue based fibres are promising innovations that could unlock the next fashion revolution,” added Vivek P. Adhia, India Country Director, ISC. “It’s time has come, reaping triple benefits of sustainable fashion, improved rural livelihoods and reduced environmental impacts. Building critical links between industry and farming communities will help facilitate this transition more quickly. It is important to design the system right, upfront, addressing considerations on reliable feedstock availability, robust local value chains, customizing technology fit-for-purpose and advancing consumer awareness.”
In addition to economic benefits, recycling residue into textile fibers would have important climate benefits. “Achieving climate resilience requires innovative social and environmental solutions, as well as enabling government policies,” says A. Nambi Appadurai, Director, Climate Resilience Practice, 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.”
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The study proposes a roadmap for collaboration and innovation for fashion and food industries to come together to enable this alternative feedstock to help the fashion industry build long-term sustainable value-chains.