Technology to weave a cleaner and greener future in textiles

The textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. How can the textile industry be made more eco-responsible? What role can synthetic biology (*) play in a greener business? Fine Spinners, AMSilk and Pili, three leading technology companies, discuss the business side of eco-responsibility and innovation.

Today's generations buy and throw away faster than any previous generation, driven by a society consumed by the tyranny of image, addicted to social media and drip-fed e-commerce services with 24-hour delivery. Fashion and its supply chain is the third most polluting industry, just behind food and construction. It emits between 5% and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Excessive water and pesticides, high carbon footprints, and the release of microplastics are some of the main problems. Robust recovery and recycling processes are not always available everywhere in the industry. Textile waste management remains extremely complex and labour intensive. Regulations and bans are difficult to implement in this highly globalised and fragmented sector. All available tools must be considered. What is the best industry configuration? What contributions can technology make?

A sustainable cotton by Savraj Bedi, C.E.O. at Fine Spinners

The world's cotton production is currently about 118 million bales (1 bale = 200 kg). Uganda is one of the largest suppliers in Africa. About 90% of the cotton produced is exported worldwide as raw fiber, with very little local value added in the country. Cotton is often seen as a heavy burden on the environment, mainly because of the high-water requirements, but also because of the use of pesticides. Only 30% of the total cotton supply is sustainable. The textile supply chain is one of the most complex and complicated.

Fine Spinners is a fully integrated textile company in the cotton sector. Established in 2014 and based in Uganda, they employ 3,000 people in factories in Kenya (polyester and viscose) and Uganda (cotton), work with 15,000 farmers and export to Africa, Europe and the US. All their cotton is produced in a sustainable manner and takes into account human rights. The company owns its entire value chain (i.e. spinning, knitting, weaving and garment units). Such vertical organisation allows them to minimise carbon emissions through the simplification of supplier interactions and the reduction of transportation needs.

Technology plays an important role in improving and reducing the impact of the value chain worldwide. Cloud-based development, machine learning can help interpret actual demand for the coming seasons (especially in terms of colours) and avoid unnecessary waste.

Synthetic Spider Silk by Benoit Cugnet, Head of Fiber Business at AMSilk

AMSilk (for Advanced Material Silk) was born as a start-up at the University of Biotechnology in Munich in 2008 with the idea of developing spider silk, which has been showed to be up to five times stronger than steel. Breeding spiders to produce silk on an industrial scale is impossible because spiders are cannibalistic. Inventing a technology to produce spider silk on an industrial scale without spiders was made possible by using DNA sequencing and biotechnology. Today, AMSilk is in its development phase and active in many markets. The applications for their silk biopolymers are almost limitless: textiles (fiber), cosmetics (collagen) and medicine (protection for medical implants).

By leveraging the work of Dr. Thomas Scheibel on sequencing spider DNA, AMSilk selected a particular DNA sequence from the European garden spider for its specific silk properties (strength, toughness, elasticity) and found a way to teach E. coli bacteria to produce silk proteins. Once these E. coli bacteria are encoded, the micro-organisms are placed in very large vessels. They are fed with suitable non-food biomass and heated to low temperature. At first, the microbes multiply and completely fill the containers. After 24 hours, they are sent a signal and suddenly start changing behaviour to produce the silk protein. Production is complete after 24 hours. The pure silk protein can then be harvested, cleaned, dried, and processed into pure silk powder. This process is called biological fermentation. The powder can be customised to produce the desired fiber, from superfine to super strong. The bacteria used are considered safe by the authorities. The finished products no longer contain GMMs (genetically modified micro-organisms). They are truly environmentally friendly and AMSilk believes that they will contribute significantly to a future zero-carbon society.

The company’s business model is to establish strategic and well-established partnerships for bio fermentation and spinning. They do not claim to be experts in everything. They are currently in a growth phase and their medium-term goal is to make the product much more widely available by following their expansion plan. They are convinced that nature has all the answers.

A green indigo by Jérémie Blache, C.E.O. at Pili

Pili, a Toulouse-based company is decarbonising the colour industry. The company focuses on industrial applications such as textiles, paints, inks, coatings and plastics.

They create chemical building blocks through fermentation (which are usually sourced from petroleum or coal) and turn them into colours. Their combination of biological fermentation (synthetic biology) and green chemistry can be applied to many colour applications. Fermentation is used as an alternative to oil or chemistry to avoid polluting methods, especially in the field of dyes and pigments. It allows the production of aromatic molecules that are difficult to find in nature. There are no ecotoxicological problems with their activities.

Knowing that 73 pairs of jeans are sold in the world every second, how can Pili meet client demand for indigo? Increasing production is a question of investment, not technique. This means that there are no technical barriers to produce more but significant investments are needed. And it takes 3 to 5 years to develop these dyes.

In conclusion

Although massive behavioural changes at the macro level are needed, it is very interesting to see, all the efforts being made to make the supply chain more sustainable. Different technologies are available today and it is the combination of all these technologies that will enable the industry to move forward.

Synthetic biology offers innovative approaches to designing new biological systems or reshaping existing ones for a cleaner, greener future.

While the high-tech part of the industry is mainly funded by family businesses (that are not accountable to shareholders), the sector is receiving more and more money. However, investors need to show stable commitment in the long run.

This has never been done before and there are many challenges, but there is still a lot of expectation about what the technology can deliver.

(*) Synthetic biology is “a field of science that involves redesigning organism for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities” as defined by National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

To know more on the subject:

Natixis CIB Research webinar held on November 15th, 2022


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