According to a 2020 report by consultancy BCG and Fashion for Good, sustainable innovation will cost between $20 billion and $30 billion every year for the next decade. While it’s unclear where this money will come from, investing in more sustainable fibres — instigating change early in the supply chain — is emerging as a critical avenue for investment to drive meaningful change.
As a DuPont Biomaterials business, 20-year old fibre company Sorona has turned a formerly chemically based process into a bio-based one. Sorona is candid about its sustainability goals and partnering with others from the industry to innovate the textile industry in line with planetary needs. For instance, Sorona is a Textile Exchange member — a global non-profit that works with its members to drive transformation in preferred fibres and in responsible supply networks.
Today, 37 percent of the Sorona polymer is made up of renewable, plant-based ingredients, and it is less environmentally harmful than entirely non-renewable nylon — using up to 40 percent less energy and emitting up to 63 percent less greenhouse gas. Its applications range from textiles for both apparel and home, to carpeting and even automotive interiors.
Now, BoF hears from Sorona’s global brand and communications leader Alexa Raab to understand how the use cases for its fibres have evolved, the engagement tactics it employs for both brands and end-consumers, and plans for further innovation.
Why is transparency critical for the textiles industry, and for Sorona?
We launched our Common Thread fabric certification programme in March 2020. The irony isn’t lost on me that the timing was close to stay-at-home orders, when we noticed the industry was taking the opportunity to reflect on so many of the choices it was making. This fabric certification programme supported that change by helping to create clarity in a hazy supply chain. While Sorona is used in fabrics, what we create is a polymer chip, so we’re at the beginning of the value chain. This means that we see the value and importance in working closely with our mill partners and brands so they have the tools they need to communicate their sustainability efforts to the end-consumer.
To do that, transparency is key. Our hope is that consumers are able to purchase a garment that features a Sorona hangtag and know that there’s a certain level of performance that they can expect, as well as a certain amount of bio-based content. We work closely with our mill partners to achieve this transparency. We say, “If you’re creating certified fabrics made with Sorona, the expectation is that it has a certain amount of bio-based content, and will achieve specific performance expectations.”
We have launched five sub-brands with individual performance criteria. There is also a minimum bio-based content requirement. It is a pretty rigorous process, and we support our mill partners through that process.
What is your strategy to increase the adoption of the Sorona fibre in the industry?
To have a meaningful impact, sustainable materials must be adopted at scale. We also want to ensure that a biomaterial’s performance is equal to or exceeds that of the incumbent. We’re conscious of these concerns and are focused on developing an option that is scalable. That’s why we’ve introduced the Common Thread Programme and are stringent about scientifically testing the fabrics. What that means in relation to brands, if they are considering moving to a certified fabric made with Sorona, is that we commit to the performance and bio-based content.
We also took the next step towards building a more transparent, traceable supply chain, launching a Preferred Mill Network for trusted, certified mills. It complements our Common Thread Fabric Certification Programme and will help connect brands with mills carrying certified fabrics.
What new use cases for Sorona fibres have you discovered?
In line with spending time at home during the pandemic, and the rise in demand for athleisure and activewear, the most popular use for Sorona fibres is as a spandex replacement. Demand in this area grew exponentially in the past 2 years, as, unlike spandex, Sorona can be mechanically recycled. Recyclable fibres aren’t new in terms of innovation, but it is something that we are passionate about, as consumers and brands begin to rally behind the idea of a more circular economy and reducing garment waste overall.
Another way to reduce garment waste is to extend the life of the garments that consumers are purchasing. When you’re using Sorona for spandex replacement, we know that Sorona in your leggings can reduce the speed at which the products sag and overstretch. They’re going to see a longer life. Another one of our in-demand core offerings is Sorona faux fur. As couture fashion houses move away from fur, it represents an exciting opportunity for us to have the only commercially available bio-based faux fur.
Our newest launch is a home textile collection with Welspun India — including bath towels and bedsheets. Now, we are continuing to see brands ask questions about different ways that they can use Sorona — cosmetic brushes, for instance, is something that we’re seeing — because it can be blended into many different fibres. The possibilities are endless, and we work closely with our customers to help them understand from a technical standpoint what they can expect when they are using Sorona in different applications.
Can you point to a specific brand partnership that is emblematic of incorporating Sorona fibres into product?
One particular partnership that is particularly exciting is our work with Puma. They launched a lace-less soccer cleat with a compression band made of 100 percent Sorona thread. This is a new use way for Sorona to be used in footwear, and is something we are hoping to expand further.
We also hope to collaborate more with peer companies. In the past, we’ve collaborated with Eastman Naia, Repreve and with Lenzing and its fibre Tencel. When it comes to our peers, there is no “us” versus “them.” We receive emails regularly saying things like, “We saw you launched your preferred mill network. Please share your learnings, we would love to adopt something similar.” We have an e-hangtag functionality that we are adding to our brand websites — an idea we borrowed from another sustainable fibre manufacturer. I think everybody is committed to advancing the industry forward and it feels collaborative. We all want what’s best for the industry.
How are you educating and engaging brands and end consumers?
We work closely with our brands and our mill partners to help them understand what it means when you are using Sorona. When a mill is having a conversation with a brand, we give them all the scientific data so they can easily say, “Here’s why Sorona is an important choice.” We created a customer portal so brands can learn more if they don’t have the opportunity to have a meeting.
We also communicate our goals. We are committed to a scalable impact on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions globally. As it compares to nylon six, when you are manufacturing Sorona, you are using 30 percent less energy and then you are releasing 63 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. We show brands that there are tangible results in relation to sustainability goals when you are moving to a bio-based process.
I think, for the end-consumer, we are starting to be more active across many different communications channels. This can be through an increase in speaking engagements — we are active across social channels — but honestly, part of it is helping consumers understand what the jargon means. We are cognisant that we want to be clear about what we offer. We say, on our website, and even on Instagram, “Here’s what we mean when we say we are bio-based: we use the glucose from industrial dent corn in our polymer. That is how we’re bio-based.”
We are aware that this information can be confusing and we need to have real data to back up claims. We are in the process of developing a new lifecycle assessment and raising more visibility around our sustainability goals and achievements — what we mean when we say we are 37 percent plant-based and where we hope to go from there.