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Chemical Brands Could Emerge From the Shadows and Go Mainstream

If a small EarthColors® label sown into a Primark sweatshirt is anything to go by, chemical brands stand a greater chance of consumer recognition thanks to sustainability.

That the global fashion chain is highlighting the range of natural dyes made by Switzerland’s Archroma is still a relatively rare example of an additive getting recognition in an end product. Most people won’t have a clue about which high-performance plastic is used in their phone or EV, or the brand of wall insulation in their home, even that crucial ingredient in an alt-burger. If you do supply polymers to Apple, you can’t even talk about it.

The textiles market does have a history of acknowledging innovation in synthetic fabrics. DuPont developed nylon and Lycra® is a household name. And there are other examples elsewhere like Corian® worktops. But more chemical makers are seeing an opportunity to get brands directly in front of the consumer as retail strives to validate green agendas.

“In terms of visibility and the minds of the consumer, often the products we make are way upstream and don’t have that recognition downstream at the consumer level,” said Jon Woods, VP of Fibers and Analytical Support Technology at Eastman Chemical Co. “It will just grow with this whole world of circularity.”

Eastman is a case in point. The 102-year-old company has turned something of a poster child for molecular recycling of plastic waste. In just a few years, the narrative has switched from cracker spreads to carbon and polyester renewal, including sustainable yarns for clothing.

The textile industry is a tough nut to crack when it comes to material-to-material recycling. Clothes can be a mix of natural and synthetic materials. Then there are additional layers of complexity in the form of dyes, which can need pre- and after-treatments, plus any performance coatings to make fabric wrinkle-free, low odor, or soft to touch. Apparently you may need to sort by color too. It’s a big ask, even for the state-of-the-art molecular recycling technologies that can break down polyester and mixed-plastic waste back into reusable virgin-grade feedstock. There isn’t the ability to recycle clothing on a sufficiently large scale yet and some estimate more than 134 million tons of textiles will end up in landfill by 2030.

“Blends are making things very difficult,” Archroma CEO Heike van de Kerkhof said. “Clothing brands really need to be careful with greenwashing. When they talk about a sustainable clothing line, they need to now underpin it with information on what ingredients are used and where they are from.”

The ability to innovate and supply differentiated products is essential to stay in the game, van de Kerkhof said in an interview with chemicalESG.

Primark is just one of a 100 global clothing companies Archroma works with as fashion houses look to reduce water and energy usage and replacing unsavoury chemicals that have been around for years. Archroma has developed a non-toxic indigo dye to replace the aniline-based variety invented by BASF more than 100 years ago and since then signaled as potentially carcinogenic to workers and dangerous to aquatic life. The product has caught the attention of the world’s denim labels and Archroma is working on brand placement.

Archroma is also targeting the automotive industry while EarthColor is gaining traction in the home-textile market, the CEO said. Once again, the brand is there on the bedlinen.

There are still product areas in need of an upgrade, including fabrics for safety gear, aerospace and healthcare that currently rely on PFAS chemistry. 

“We do not believe currently that there is an alternative for these segments. Water repellency, we and others have commercialised. The issues are around oil repellency and also bacteria and viruses,” van de Kerkhof said. “We are working on it.”

Fast fashion presents a particular dilemma. Chains can bring out as many as 12 collections a year and it’s a rollercoaster for suppliers. You can be brought in for one collection and spend a lot of time on technical applications development, only to find you are out of the next collection, according to van de Kerkhof.

If sustainability is going to move the needle, fast fashion will need to be onboard, said Ruth Farrell, general manager of textiles at Eastman.

“We all love those Mara Hoffman, Stella McCartney brands but, let’s face it, it’s not the high-street, it’s not making a measurable difference,” Farrell said in an interview. “Probably the biggest challenge we are all having is sustainability costs money.”

Farrell, a former DuPont executive, pointed to recent studies showing an increase in consumers who are willing to pay more for eco-friendly textiles and has noted a genuine commitment to sustainability goals among the clothing chains. To deliver on those, ecosystems will need to be formed spanning the fiber and feedstock makers all the way down the value chain to the final clothing brand. Although molecular reforming processes do well with complex textiles, multiple recycling technologies will be needed, Eastman’s Woods said.

Fortunately, the textile industry has always been receptive to chemical innovations and brands, Farrell added. On the branding front, Eastman has Naia Renew, a cellulosic yarn mostly made from sustainably sourced wood pulp, but with 40% recycled plastic waste content.

Naia stock is sold out against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, which has helped sharpen minds around sustainability over the past 18 months, Farrell said.

“The relationship between textile and chemical companies has always been a good one,” she added. “If you look at all of the big textile breakthroughs, a lot of them have had a science/chemical company behind them, be it nylon, Lycra, or Kevlar. There’s never really been that sort of anti-chemical or anti-science in the textile industry.”

Perhaps the difference going forward will be any chemical innovation helping advance sustainability stands a greater chance of getting recognised on the final consumer good.

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