The Lycra Company has been involved in a series of eco-minded projects recently. Among its most recent initiatives, it has entered into an agreement with Qore to enable a worldwide large-scale commercial production of bio-derived spandex and has also recently released its first sustainability report Planet Agenda Update.
How do you feel right now? It seems that Lycra is pretty busy launching many new projects meant to reduce the industry’s environmental impact.
It’s a busy time as we try to stay ahead of the pack as far as bringing innovation and then always sustaining our strong values in what you do versus a lot of competitors that are a bit more commoditizing. It takes a lot of work to achieve what we have been focused on.
How long did it take to achieve this agreement with Qore?
Qore is a joint venture that involves Cargill, a US multinational mostly active in agriculture, and Helm, a chemical specialist from Hamburg. The overall project is a collaboration between two major global companies – Qore (that brings the expertise of Cargill and Helm), and The Lycra Company.
We at Lycra have actually been working for a long time on various bio-derived solutions, and were the first fiber company that filed a patent for bio-derived product from fermentation of biomaterials to make spandex. Since 2014 we have been working to find a solution that could be really scaled at a reasonable price that could support our fabric manufacturers with Lycra.
How was this achieved?
After that we have been in discussion for a couple of years with Qore for this collaboration and they will be the first one to supply bio-derived BDO, which gets converted into PTMEG, the ingredient which makes up 70% of the content of our spandex. This will allow us to make a large part of our Lycra production from bio-derived materials in the future.
That first project was not so scalable. We had one product, one SKU, but it could only be done in small batches. If it’s not something that can be scaled, it’s not of interest today.
Could most of the stretch you produce be made with this new material in the future?
The first commercial production with Qore is expected for 2024, as they are building the first plant in Eddyville, Iowa. That plant in itself is able to produce a fairly large quantity of BDO, as when it will be completed and operating it will have a capacity of at least 65,000 metric tons per year, which will allow us to make bio-derived Lycra fiber at scale. It could be much bigger, and it could reach all of our production, but I think it is something that will happen overtime as we are looking at it fairly holistically…
The first commercial production is going to start in 2024 when that plant will be completed. That plant in itself is going to provide a lot, and that might reach to cover a large quantity of our Lycra production.
This bio-derived material is a critical component though we also aim to sustainability in other ways as we also consider key aspects, like, for instance, the durability of the product, therefore we also aim to prolong the life of garments using our fibers, plus are also looking at other aspects like bio-degradability and compostability.
We are now mostly focused on recycled and bioderived products, but we don’t want to take away any opportunity that we see. There are needs that maybe are a bit different among all of our business units that also include hosiery, diapers, bathing suits and more.
Among direct benefits, we feel we can bring more value to the customer, brands and retail. That should bring more loyalty from our customers, differentiate our product and bring more sales.
Indirect benefits include that we continue to advance in innovation and are hiring new talents to the company. It also helps with investors in lot because many companies look at ESG and at investments that need to follow certain criteria in terms of sustainability and integrity. So it just creates a virtual circle around the company that is extremely positive as well.
What about the performance of this next generation of stretch fibers made with Qira when compared with the traditional ones?
What is very exciting to us for this technology is that it could change from the petrol-based industry of today to one based upon bio-derived materials. Though, the technology we developed with Qore allows bringing a change without changing the properties of Lycra. You still can have a full depth of all of our derived fibers in different weights and variants, but the quality and the performance of bio-derived Lycra fiber is equivalent to original Lycra fiber.
Could you mention any strength and weakness of the new stretch fiber made with Qira?
Among strengths, the petrol-based market fluctuates a lot. Only in the last 18 months - between the highs and lows - it reached a 300% variation. As this new material is based on feedstocks, we expect its prices to be more stable because of the bio-derived function of corn, for instance. Sometimes it can be more expensive, sometimes less, but it’s going to stay pretty much the same.
Can it be used for any type of garment?
It can be used for anything. Obviously it will work specifically for some of our key partners or brands as we are working with some of them in order to bring innovations first, but it is going to be across all garment categories.
Is this new fiber more expensive than the regular one? And would it also have an impact on the final cost of the garment for the consumer?
It depends. As it is a commodity, it depends on how the market behaves.
Lycra is a premium product versus generics, but considering it is a commodity, the added cost to a full garment is a very minor component of the full cost. It simply brings an added value to the product, but not a higher price.
The actual production of the fiber will start from 2024. For this, we are still working on all the certifications. Though it will be properly certified.
Is a bio-derived fiber also bio-degradable?
No, a bio-derived fiber does not mean it is necessarily also bio-degradable. The Qira product is derived from field or industrial corn, which is a renewable resource.
Bio-degradability refers to the break down or decomposition of an item through microbial action into basic elements found in nature.
A bio-degradable fiber will take a series of steps to fully bio-degrade. That’s something we are working on and that could be part of a total solution ultimately, but I think there are a lot of different perspectives between different brands and retailers.
Some people are not interested in bio-degradable fibers because with most garments still going to landfill, they still stay in the landfill for a long time.
Being able to recycle, for instance, is also important, and we have created variants of Coolmax and Thermolite made from PET bottles and from waste of textile factories.
Others are more interested in extending the life of their garments … Levi’s, for instance, is selling a lot of second hand garments, and they have a lot of concepts around longer wear life apparel.
We think that more retailers and brands are going to be looking at suppliers like us who are trying to extend the lifetime of their garments with better fibers and better technology. But most important is that brands achieve their goals of decarbonization of their industry.
Our approach to sustainability is wide. In this report, we will publish specific goals and disclose what we are doing around sustainability in general as a company. And as far as process I actually signed the commitment letter for Science Based Textile Initiative which is connected to several UN objectives and as stated in the Paris Accord to reduce by 1.5° C global warming.
The Qore agreement is an important part of our confidence level because raw materials play a key role for the total carbon footprint of spandex and this change from petrol-based to bio-derived-based we believe we can reduce the carbon footprint of spandex by as much as 44%.