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Materials

Exclusive: Toray develops 'first' 100% plant-based polyester

Japanese materials group eyes sustainability shift in apparel industry

TOKYO -- Japanese materials maker Toray Industries looks to start mass production of polyester made entirely from plants, a breakthrough poised to cut reliance on petroleum and slash carbon emissions, Nikkei has learned.

Toray developed what is being described as the world's first 100% plant-based polyester jointly with Virent, a U.S. biofuels startup. Production is set to begin in the early part of this decade, people familiar with the matter said.

Textiles have come under global scrutiny for their large carbon footprint. Polyesters in particular account for 80% of chemical fibers produced worldwide.

Ethical concerns are pushing apparel companies to shift away from petroleum-based fibers. H&M said last year that it will switch completely to sustainable materials by 2030.

"In the U.S. and Europe, you are increasingly unable to do business unless you use environmentally friendly material," said the head of a Japanese textiles trading firm.

A spinning mill in Malaysia run by Toray, Japan's top textile company by sales. (Photo courtesy of Toray)

Fast Retailing, the Japanese operator of casualwear chain Uniqlo, already uses biofibers in some of its products. In January, the group joined the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which targets a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by 2030. More than 90 companies have signed on to the charter.

Both the terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol that form polyester are derived from petroleum. Technology already exists to extract ethylene glycol from sugarcane, and Toray uses the plant-based alternative in some of the fibers it sells.

Virent is able to create a biologically derived version of terephthalic acid, which constitutes 70% of polyester content. Inedible portions of sugarcane and corn apparently will be processed to make the chemical.

The plant-based fiber is said to have the same durability and ease of processing as conventional polyesters. Toray and Virent envision the material being used in sportswear, automotive interiors and other products.

Toray, Japan's biggest textile company by sales, plans to quadruple supplies of environmentally friendly material by fiscal 2030 compared with fiscal 2013 as demand for such products grows.

In the U.K. alone, purchases of ethical clothing rose 16% in 2018 to 50 million pounds ($65 million) -- 12 and a half times as much as in 1999, according to Ethical Consumer, a magazine.

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