Next-gen materials companies offer the promise of environmental impact reduction, but due to their infancy and new raw inputs, data to quantify this is lacking. One company looking raise the bar on impact data is Spinnova. When I toured the pilot facility in Finland in October 2021 I learned about their novel micro-fibrillated cellulose produced using renewable energy, which they believed would achieve significant emissions impact reduction compared to incumbent materials. But how much, I asked? And how can Spinnova fibers be accurately compared to incumbents, like cotton? At the time, Juha Salmela, Spinnova’s CTO, replied “we are working on providing [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 has worked with third-party consultants Clonet to assess both the carbon footprint and carbon handprint–yes, handprint–of their fibers. What is a carbon handprint and how does it differ from a footprint, I asked, beginning to feel like a student in some kind of emissions anatomy lesson. Carbon footprint is a measure of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a material or process, person or event, whereas the handprint takes into account broader resource use and efficiency. This new metric’s methodology was developed by the Finnish Technical Research Center VTT and LUT University and is being assessed for use alongside new EU regulations regarding textile impacts, according to Salmela. In the case of Spinnova’s next-gen fibers, there is a considerable difference between the footprint and handprint results because the latter accounts for Spinnova’s diversion of excess heat energy generated in its factory to heat local homes and industrial facilities. This reduces local dependency on other energy sources (including burnt biomass, for example).
Footprints versus handprints
The carbon handprint methodology was developed to holistically evaluate and communicate positive climate impacts of solutions tackling climate change, rather than solely measuring negative impacts. Where Spinnova’s carbon footprint is 1.28 kg CO2e/kg fiber, its handprint is a net reduction of 6.5kg CO2e/kg of fiber produced, concluding that its production saves more CO2 emissions than it emits. How is this possible? Energy diversion is the key: carbon-neutral surplus heat is the only by-product of Spinnova’s first commercial factory. When this surplus is reused in the local district heating network it saves 3.2 kg CO2e/kg of emissions that would otherwise be produced in generating district heat. This, combined with more than 3kg CO2e/kg efficiencies in the fiber processing, spinning, and drying results in the output being deemed ‘climate positive’. To put this into a product context, where Spinnova is used in place of conventional cotton (which averages 4.6 kgCO2e/kg fiber according to data used by Clonet) there will be a net-negative impact from the fiber phase of the product.
What does this mean for brands?
Knowing that brands are keen to compare impact figures between materials (even when the data isn’t strictly comparable) I probed this topic during the call with Samela. To the claim “Spinnova’s carbon footprint is 72% lower compared to conventional cotton” (1.28 versus 4.6 kgCO2e/kg fiber) I highlighted the potential bias of using primary Spinnova data alongside global averaged database figures. What level of confidence can be attributed to these figures, I asked? Salmela explained that their bias mitigation tactic was to have three independent calculations conducted on the carbon footprint. “For Spinnova, all 3 results were the same, he said; But for cotton, “there was only one database that gave [the required] cotton data” and independent carbon accounting specialists were tasked with interrogating these figures to account for any variation between the Spinnova emissions assessment protocol and the handling of the global data. “The most important thing is that the [footprint assessment] of 1.28 CO2e/kg fiber is good as it is [independent of comparison to cotton or other materials]—that’s why we gave out the exact number” Salmela concludes. And this is a bold and leading move; As Spinnova points out, a similar fiber, Tencel, was invented in 1972 and its CO2 footprint still hasn’t been disclosed.
Data at the fiber level
Spinnova’s high confidence level in their data and insistence on transparency means that emissions and water usage data will be attached to each bale of Spinnova fiber that exits their production facility. A QR code will allow brands to access this data and plug it into their assessment tool of choice (the Higg MSI, for example) to determine the impact reduction achieved when using Spinnova. Brands are blending this new fiber with cotton (ARKET launched one such product yesterday) and can determine exactly the emissions reductions achieved according to the percentage of Spinnova fibers used. This has even allowed the creation of carbon-neutral textile blends: the required percentage of Spinnova needed to outweigh the emissions of the cotton within the textile is calculated, then the fibers can be blended accordingly. It’s not difficult to see how appealing this will be to brands wanting to market ‘carbon neutral’ sustainability credentials of their materials to an increasingly suspicious consumer who is tired of greenwashing. On this subject, Salmela states “greenwashing is something we want no part of” and indeed that’s why I waited (patiently) for six months for this emissions data, which Spinnova would not release until they were confident of its rigor and reliability*.
Impact reduction beyond the fiber
Regular readers of my articles will be used to me reporting the high emissions levels of textile dyeing and finishing. Does Spinnova simply plug into legacy infrastructure with no impact reduction in the latter phases, or does it offer further impact reduction opportunities? Salmela says their fibers can be dope-dyed before blending with cotton (for example), thereby further reducing the total water and energy usage. In fact, Salmela highlights some of their most fruitful exchanges with brand partners, where this solution is being leveraged to make unique and interesting melange fabrics (where the variation in color and texture of the blended textile is a key feature of the final fabric).
Showing rather than telling
While Spinnova’s footprint and handprint data are a tremendous leap forward for quantifying the benefit of this next-gen textile, there is still work to be done. Salmela explained that once full-scale production is running at the end of the year the emissions and water consumption data will be refined. For now, fine-tuning and analysis continue, but with the 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.}
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