If someone were to remake the 1967 Oscar-winning film The Graduate, they might also want to rewrite one of its more famous lines. At his college graduation party, young Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is pulled aside by Mr. McGuire, a family friend, who offers him a sage piece of advice. “I want to say one word to you. Just one word,” McGuire confides. “Plastics.”
Today that one word might be “biosynthetics.”
Since the 1990s, synthetic fibers produced from non-renewable, fossil-fuel origins have dominated the market, with its share only expected to grow according to a recent report by Textile Exchange. The Texas-based Textile Exchange (textileexchange.org) is a global nonprofit that is building “a community that can collectively accomplish what no individual or company can do alone.” And what it wants to accomplish is a phaseout of fossil-fueled fabrics. The report makes the point that fiber’s potential lies not in virgin synthetics but increasingly in biosynthetics, fibers that are wholly or partially derived from bio-based resources, such as corn, sugar beets, hemp and even eucalyptus trees.
You’ve read numerous examples of biosynthetic development in the pages of Specialty Fabrics Review over the years. But, according to the report, polyester’s market share was about 52% of total global fiber production in 2020, while biosynthetics barely registered.
Of course, market dominance is primarily attributed to polyester’s easy availability and almost limitless uses, while biosynthetics are not produced on a wide enough scale to be competitive—yet. And biosynthetic textiles need to follow a few more rules than traditional textiles. For instance, they must be responsibly sourced from renewable biomass, have no negative impact on the ecosystems, and can decompose or be recycled at the end of their use.
The key will be not in finding whether bamboo makes better fibers than hemp, or whether pineapple leaves are preferable to mycelium. Unlike polyester, it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. The key will be in finding what alternative fabric or textile is best suited for a particular use and then planning production accordingly.