Meat Regenerative Agriculture Supply Chain

Prime Future 120: Game over, polyester.


I don’t know if I’m just noticing it more, or if there has actually been a serious increase in buzz around the topic of sustainability and the fashion industry in recent months. Either way, sustainability at the intersection of textiles, agriculture, and oil & gas industries seems to be a *super* complex topic.

I’m no expert in any of this, but all roads lead to livestock so here we are…learning out loud.

Spoiler alert: there are reasons to believe livestock could be a big part of the solution.

Let’s start with a summary of the fashion industry’s sustainability problem, according to Bloomberg:

“The fashion industry might not be the first that comes to mind as a superuser of fossil fuels. But modern textiles rely heavily on petrochemical products that come from many of the same oil and gas companies driving greenhouse gas emissions. Today, in fact, fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output — more than international flights and shipping combined.

Eighty-seven percent of the total fiber input used for clothing is ultimately incinerated or sent to a landfill. Textiles are the second-largest product group made from petrochemical plastics behind packaging, making up 15% of all petrochemical products.

When it comes to the environmental impacts of the industry, fast fashion is often blamed. But high-end brands originate trends and generate demand for new styles, which are then mass produced by fast fashion companies for a fraction of the cost.

Polyester has overtaken cotton as the main textile fiber of the 21st century, ending hundreds of years of cotton’s dominance. The global market for polyester yarn is expected to grow from $106 billion in 2022 to $174.7 billion by 2032.

Polyester requires a large amount of energy to produce. In 2015, polyester production for clothing emitted 282 billion tons of carbon dioxide, triple that of cotton."

Or as this article framed it:

“Producing clothing and footwear leads to 8 percent of GHGs (greenhouse gases).

The first-mover innovators are guiding the industry out of its linear ‘make-sell-dispose’ approach towards business models that are more circular and eco-friendly. Business model innovations cover reduction, reuse, repair, recycling, and sharing. It transforms the way business is undertaken and value is generated by attempting to drastically limit the resources and material inputs required in the industry’s value chain and minimising the ecological impact of its activities. The new model adheres to the principles of sufficiency and a circular economy.”

Much of the fashion & sustainability “innovation” has centered around re-shaping buying habits, e.g. buying second-hand clothes or buying higher-quality pieces that last longer, with plenty of startups focused on changing how consumers shop for clothes more sustainably. And that drive to escape the fast fashion model makes sense.

But my original question when I started down this rabbit hole was, why is there not more focus on the actual materials used in manufacturing clothes? More specifically, why are natural fibers like wool not playing a central part in the fashion sustainability conversation?

Initial research led me to Woolmark, “the global authority on Merino wool and owns the Woolmark logo, a quality assurance symbol applied to more than 5 billion products.” According to their website, in 1955 ~95% of major textile fibers were natural (wool, cotton, cellulose) and 5% were oil based synthetics.

Today, it’s more like 30% natural fibers and 70% oil based synthetics. 😵‍💫

(Oh, and 10/10 recommend this 1-minute video from their brilliant campaign, “Wear wool, not fossil fuels.” The video is kinda weird but so well done.)

But where I geeked out is watching this 12-minute video about ALL of the potential fiber applications for wool, not just in fashion. Spoiler alert: there are a lot.

First of all, wool prices have been low for decades since they boomed with the Korean War (a lot of soldiers fighting in a cold region meant astronomical demand for wool uniforms to keep soldiers warm) and then bottomed with the post-Korean war erosion of demand for lamb meat AND the explosion of synthetic materials for clothing manufacturing, beginning with polyester.

In the video, the question is asked of what’s the advantage of wool and what are the advantages of plastics. The advantages of wool, among others, are that it’s biodegradable, fire retardant, and odor resistant. Meanwhile, plastics are….cheap.

Where the video gets really interesting is in the description of new technology to create pellets made of wool, Shear Edge, that can be made into thousands of products – basically any product that would otherwise be made from fiberglass. Shear Edge shows examples from kayaks to ice chests to pigments, which go into everything from cosmetics to industrial applications. Pretty wild stuff.

In a world obsessed with natural and renewable, how is a reversion to wool not an obvious mega trend in textiles manufacturing?

This will be interesting to see how it plays out. In 10 years, will natural fibers be at 40% of total textile fibers? 50%? Or are consumer purchase decisions not going to match what they say on surveys about sustainability as a driver of purchase decisions, and polyester maintains its dominance?

In the very real battle between what people say they want and what they are willing to pay for, which will win? TBD.

The most interesting question is, what innovations will drive wool costs closer to those of synthetic fibers to reduce or eliminate the price tradeoff?

Clothing mostly uses fine wool that is softer. Strong or course wool is what’s used for things like carpet, or used to be used for these more rugged or even industrial applications until plastic-based materials took off. And although higher quality meat characteristics tend to be correlated with stronger/coarser wool, that seems like the kind of problem that genetics companies must be tackling, right? Somebody(s) must be working on the beef x dairy equivalent for the sheep industry with meat x wool genetics?

The beauty of broadening applications for wool by applying new technology and processes is that it’s a classic example of using the whole buffalo, so to speak, with what seems like real potential to satisfy customer and consumer demand AND drive market value for farmers.

Or as the Woolmark guy put it “We are taking the waste of low-value wool, and deriving value for farmers with it.”

JR Simplot would be so proud.

And once again, what’s old is new? What a time to be alive 😉

This is obviously the tip of the iceberg so if you are working on any of these topics, please reach out – I’d love to learn more about what’s happening in this space and how and why. For all I know, I’m just a sucker buying the party line from an industry association because I want to believe livestock is the future of everything….

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