Construction, furniture and paper – wood is truly a versatile raw material. It is also taking big strides in an unexpected direction.
Environmentally-friendly and inexpensive, viscose and other textiles made from wood fibres are becoming more popular as an alternative to cotton. "It is extremely promising," says Sirpa Valimaa, who is part of Stora Enso’s Biomaterials team.
Viscose, also known as artificial silk, was patented in the late 1800’s. While it has been around for some time, it is not until recently that is has become a contender to cotton and polyester – the world’s favorite raw materials for garments. It isn’t without merit.
For one thing, viscose transports humidity much better than cotton. As any jogger will testify, a sweaty T-shirt will stay wet on your back all day. A shirt made from viscose will feel dry within minutes. Production-wise, viscose also has an advantage. While it takes almost 12 000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton, you can make 26 kg of viscose with the same amount of water.
"The world is using more and more textiles, and there is a growing demand for sustainable materials, such as fibers from wood,” says Ms. Weronika Rehnby who works with sustainability issues at TEKO – Swedish Textile and Clothing Industries Association. "We are looking for renewable and reusable material, and in that respect viscose produced in a sustainable way is a very good alternative”.
So where does fashion enter the picture? Is it really possible to make something fashionable from a tree? Not only is it possible, it is already being done. "Viscose, lyocell and tencel are all made from fibres. While fast-growing bamboo and eucalyptus have traditionally been used, spruce and birch are also viable alternatives. The challenge for the industry is to come up with sustainable processes," says Sigrid Barnekow at Mistra Future Fashion, a research programme working to develop ecologically adapted textiles and create a new and more sustainable way of fashion.
As societies worry about what is known as “peak cotton,” viscose and other alternatives are gaining popularity among garment makers. "We are very optimistic about this new trend", adds Sirpa at Stora Enso. She emphasises however that Stora Enso does not limit itself to finding an alternative to cotton. "There are many other uses for textile pulp," she says and points to ongoing trials with making cellophane, sponges and even casing for sausage.
Others are equally positive in their outlook. Sigrid Barnekow of Mistra Future Fashion thinks that textile pulp can be a new important focus for the forest industry. "Currently, viscose accounts for 4% of the total market in Europe. We believe the demand will grow even further," she says.