The Rise of Eco-Friendly Cellulosic Fibres

By Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Cellulosic fibres are widespread in the textile market and form the basis of materials such as viscose, but are they eco-friends or foes? Made from cellulose from the bark and leaves of plants, you would be forgiven for assuming the former – at least on their biodegradable credentials – but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a chemical-heavy extraction process that is far from environmentally friendly. Add unsustainable logging practices to the list and things are looking much more hostile.

So, what are cellulosic fibres and how are they used? 

Cellulose is a starch-like carbohydrate and the key component of plant cell walls, making it the most abundant organic compound on Earth. Its exceptional strength and difficulty to break down make it perfect for its role – to give plant cells structure and rigidity – yet pose a problem for those looking to convert it into fibres suitable for use in any industry. Typically, the task falls to chemical solvents – and environmental nemeses – such as sodium hydroxide, carbon disulphide and sulphuric acid, which dissolve the cellulose into a pulp before it it can be precipitated into filaments, or ‘regenerated fibres’.

A large variety of trees can be harvested for their cellulose and the regenerated fibres are then used in an array of areas, including paper and fabric production alongside gunpowder and bio-fuel! They entered into the textile market in the late 1800s under the name of ‘Artificial Silk’ (now, Viscose Rayon) which was lauded for its versatility and breathability, and never looked back. Today, viscose accounts for roughly 90% of regenerated cellulosic fibre use with global output projected to reach $16 billion per year by 2021! 

The not-so-friendly eco-fibres

Despite this popularity, viscose has come up against its fair share of eco-criticism, the principal being the careless handing of chemicals during the extraction process and unregulated deforestation. Both big no-nos for a fabric that is so frequently cited as environmentally friendly.

The US NGO, Canopy, found that cellulosic fibres are responsible for the logging of over 150 million trees each year, many from primary or endangered forests – a quantity that would wrap around the world seven times if lined up end to end! Eucalyptus and bamboo are favoured for their ability to grow without pesticides and at speed, as well as on marginal land, but still result in Boreal (high-latitude forests) and tropical forests being cut down to make way for plantations to produce enough pulp to meet demand.

The chemical extraction process that follows casts an equally damaging environmental blow through water, soil and air pollution, and claims other victims along the way. Urska Trunk from the European campaign, Dirty Fashion, found that “most factories were dumping untreated wastewater into their local waterways, lakes and rivers which pollutes not only the ecosystem, but also had really big impacts on the health and the livelihoods of people living around it. We found a growing incidence of diseases such as cancer in the villages around the production sites.”

A new dawn for cellulosic fibres

Fortunately, as environmental concerns rise so do those looking to find an eco-friendly alternative. Both manufacturers and consumers are calling for a cellulosic fibre-based material that ticks the sustainability box – the ace in a hand that already includes a water footprint 10-20 times smaller than cotton and a move away from oil-derived synthetic fibres. Here are some of the players making a bid for the finish line, with everything from plant-based alternatives to waste-to-cellulose converting microbes:

  • Lyocell, better known by its trade-name of Tencel, is the closest relation to viscose on the list, made from sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees grown without irrigation, pesticides, fertilisers or genetic manipulation. Its extraction process employs a quasi-closed circuit, a 97% recoverable dissolving solvent and a significantly less water-thirsty approach which gives it a drastically smaller environmental footprint. Talia favourites, Asha Eleven and Organic Basics have already joined the list of labels making use of this eco-wonder. 
  • The German company Smartfibre has adopted the Lyocell process for its own end in creating SeaCell, which moves away from a purely wood-based source and combines eucalyptus cellulose with fibre extracted from Icelandic seaweed. Sustainably harvested and in a way that encourages regrowth, its creators also boast that it retains all the healing properties of the seaweed from which it is made, including a host of vitamins, amino acids, minerals and antioxidants. Hello dewy, glowing skin! 
  • Orange Fiber made its debut onto the Italian market in 2014 to huge success, after designers and wearers fell for its silky, ethereal feel and even more innovative backstory. The patented fabric is made up of cellulose from citrus juice by-products (over 700,000 tonnes of which go to waste in Italy) and can be used alone or blended. Recognition include H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award in 2015, and an entire collection from Italian designer, Salvatore Ferragamo.
  • Another idea comes from Australian technology company, Nanollose, whose cellulose fabric has artfully managed to remove plants from the equation entirely. Instead, it relies on liquid waste generated from the food and agricultural sectors which is grown into cellulose through natural fermentation. This is then regenerated into the company’s breakthrough fibre, Nullarbor, which takes its name from the Latin phrase Nullus Arbor, translated as ‘no trees’. This tree-free approach requires less land, chemicals and energy, and is also highly traceable which makes it a seriously exciting contender on the sustainable cellulose technology scene. 
  • Also jumping on the waste train is Inspidere, which has developed its own regenerated cellulosic fibre called Mestic from dairy cow manure. Whilst this might not sound like the most appealing locomotive to be boarding right now, it is in fact, an inspired one, as it simultaneously tackles the agricultural problem of what to do with all that waste! Any gardener will know that it’s packed with nutrients but supply currently far outweighs demand, resulting in acute over-saturation of the soil and major environmental issues. The company also states that fermentable components are extracted from the different fractions of manure to produce organic chemicals used in the extraction process, making it a truly circular method! Who else smells a great idea?  

Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Alexa is the Content Manager at Talia Collective. Previously, she worked for a top travel PR firm with a focus on sustainability in London, before moving to Madrid to learn Spanish and cut her teeth as a freelance travel copywriter and PR consultant.