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All our clothing will be made from plants, just like in 1900

Published on
March 21, 2022

All our textiles were plant-based one century ago. Michiel Scheffer, programme manager Sustainable Textiles predicts we will relive old times: ‘In 2050, we will wear clothes made from known and new plants, and we will no longer produce fossil-based textiles.’

How can we achieve a fossil-free textiles industry in 2050?

Michiel Scheffer: ‘To begin with, we must use fewer pure materials and more recycled and repurposed materials. Furthermore, we must reduce the amount of textile we buy, especially in the western world. We currently use an average of 20 kilos of textiles per year per person, only 1 per cent of which is recycled. We must also shift completely from fossil-based textile fibres to plant-based feedstock. That includes excipients that are used to change the properties of a product. And finally, the textiles industry must transition its production process from fossil energy sources to sustainable energy.’

The large majority of textile fibres are currently made from petroleum. How can we change this?

We must reinvent the nineteenth-century textiles profession. Back then, we worked with materials such as cotton, wool, linen and hemp. We also need new sustainable resources, such as Miscanthus (elephant grass) and fibres derived from waste streams containing sugars. We will have to invest considerably in scientific research and production plants capable of producing textiles from the new plant-based feedstock. If we fail to do this, the industry will grind to a halt within decades, and we will have to make do with the materials that are available to us then.’

New textile crops require arable land. Can de earth accommodate this need?

‘Much land is currently needed to produce meat and animal feed, such as soy. If we consume less meat, this land will become available for other crops that we can use for textile production. I already mentioned Miscanthus as an example, otherwise known as elephant grass. This plant grows well and can be used for multiple purposes such as the production of paper, construction of sound barriers along the freeways, and as feedstock for viscose, a great plant-based textile fibre.’

Will we achieve a fossil-free textile industry in 2050?

‘It can be done, but we must hurry. We have a little under thirty years to make the industry sustainable and find new alternatives to fossil-based textile fibres. We must also realise that the textiles industry is not isolated. We must ensure that making the textiles industry more sustainable does not result in an increase in plastics and fuels made from the petroleum no longer needed for textile production. We must move away from fossil feedstock across the board.’