Next-generation materials companies offer the promise of reduced environmental impact, but due to their infancy and new raw materials, the data to quantify this is lacking. One company looking to raise the bar for impact data is Spinnova. When I visited the pilot plant in Finland in October 2021, I learned about their new microfibrillated cellulose produced using renewable energy, which they claim would significantly reduce the impact of emissions compared to materials in place. But how much, I asked? And how can Spinnova fibers be accurately compared to incumbent products, such as cotton? At the time, Juha Salmela, CTO of Spinnova, replied “we are working to provide [that] information”.
Quantification of impact
And six months later, I have the answers to my questions. During a video interview with Salmela, he explained that Spinnova had worked with third-party consultants Clonet to assess both the carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of their fibers. What is a carbon footprint and how does it differ from a footprint, I asked, beginning to feel like a student in some kind of lesson in the anatomy of emissions. The carbon footprint is a measure of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a material or process, person or event, while the manual footprint considers use and efficiency more wide of resources. The methodology for this new metric was developed by Finnish Technical Research Center VTT and LUT University and is being evaluated for use alongside new EU regulations regarding impacts on textiles, according to Salmela. In the case of Spinnova’s next-generation fibers, there is a considerable difference between the results of the footprint and the handprint, as the latter represents Spinnova’s diversion of excess heat energy generated in its factory. to heat local homes and industrial facilities. This reduces local dependence on other energy sources (including burned biomass, for example).
Footprints against handprints
The carbon footprint methodology was developed to holistically assess and communicate the positive climate impacts of climate change solutions, rather than just measuring the negative impacts. Where Spinnova’s carbon footprint is 1.28 kg CO2e/kg fiber, its fingerprint is a net reduction of 6.5 kg CO2e/kg fiber produced, concluding that its production saves more CO2 emissions than it emits. How is it possible? Energy diversion is key: Carbon-neutral excess heat is the only by-product of Spinnova’s first commercial plant. When this surplus is reused in the local district heating network, it saves 3.2 kg eq. CO2/kg of emissions that would otherwise be produced when producing district heat. This, combined with an efficiency of more than 3 kg CO2e/kg in fiber processing, spinning and drying, results in the production being considered “climate positive”. To put this in a product context, where Spinnova is used instead of conventional cotton (which averages 4.6 kgCO2e/kg lint according to data used by Clonet), there will be a net negative impact of fiber phase of the product.
What does this mean for brands?
Knowing that brands are keen on comparing impact numbers between materials (even when the data isn’t strictly comparable), I dig deeper into this during the call with Samela. To the statement “Spinnova’s carbon footprint is 72% lower than conventional cotton” (1.28 versus 4.6 kgCO2e/kg lint), I pointed out the potential bias of using the data Spinnova primaries alongside the database’s global average figures. What level of confidence can be attributed to these numbers, I asked? Salmela explained that their bias mitigation tactic was to perform three independent carbon footprint calculations. “For Spinnova, the 3 results were the same, he declared; But for cotton, “there was only one database that [the required] cotton data” and independent carbon accounting specialists were commissioned to interrogate these figures to account for any variation between Spinnova’s emissions assessment protocol and global data processing. “The most important thing is that the [footprint assessment] of 1.28 CO2e/kg fiber is good as is [independent of comparison to cotton or other materials]— that’s why we gave the exact number,” concludes Salmela. And it’s a bold, leading move; As Spinnova points out, a similar fiber, Tencel, was invented in 1972 and its CO2 footprint has still not been disclosed.
Fiber level data
Spinnova’s high level of confidence in its data and its insistence on transparency means that emissions and water use data will be attached to every ball of Spinnova fiber that leaves its production plant. A QR code will allow brands to access this data and plug it into the assessment tool of their choice (the Higg MSI, for example) to determine the impact reduction achieved when using Spinnova. Brands blend this new fiber with cotton (ARKET launched such a product yesterday) and can determine exactly the emission reductions achieved based on the percentage of Spinnova fibers used. This has even enabled the creation of carbon-neutral textile blends: the required percentage of Spinnova needed to offset cotton emissions in the textile is calculated, and then the fibers can be blended accordingly. It’s not hard to see how appealing this will be for brands looking to market their materials’ “carbon neutral” sustainability credentials to an increasingly wary consumer who is tired of greenwashing. On this subject, Salmela declares that “greenwashing is something that we don’t want to be part of” and that is why I waited (patiently) for six months for this emissions data, which Spinnova did not not published until they were convinced of its rigor and reliability*.
Reduction of impacts beyond the fiber
Regular readers of my articles will be used to my pointing out high emission levels from textile dyeing and finishing. Does Spinnova just plug into legacy infrastructure without impact mitigation in the later stages, or does it provide other impact mitigation opportunities? Salmela says their fibers can be dope-dyed before blending with cotton (for example), further reducing total water and energy consumption. In fact, Salmela highlights some of their most successful exchanges with brand partners, where this solution is exploited to create unique and interesting blended fabrics (where variation in color and texture of the blended textile is a key characteristic of the end fabric).
show rather than tell
While Spinnova’s footprint and handprint data is a huge step forward in quantifying the benefits of this next-generation textile, there is still work to be done. Salmela explained that once full-scale production is underway at the end of the year, data on emissions and water consumption will be refined. For now, adjustments and analysis continue, but with proof that the world is better off with Spinnova fiber than without it.
*[Clonet used the Ecoinvent database; ISO 14067:2018 standard: Greenhouse gases, carbon footprint of products, requirements, and rules of the definition; And the Carbon handprint guide: V. 2.0.}