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At Eastman Naia, Enabling the Creative Potential of Sustainable Fibres in Fashion

Five years after its launch, cellulosic fibre brand Eastman Naia became a supplier of sustainable fibres to brands such as Patagonia, Zara and H&M. Now, BoF talks to Ruth Farrell, Eastman Naia’s textiles general manager, to learn about the brand’s new product portfolio and customer demand for ecological action.
The Eastman Naia Sustainable Design Award 2022 winning collection by designer Hanqing Ding.
The collection by designer Hanqing Ding, the special award winner of 2022 RISE UP Sustainable Fashion Design Challenge sponsored by Eastman. (Eastman Naia)
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Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for around 40 million tonnes of textile waste a year, most of which is either sent to landfill or incinerated, according to BoF and McKinsey & Co’s The State of Fashion 2022 report. Textile production, meanwhile, consumes vast quantities of water, land and raw materials. There is an increasing moral and financial imperative for brands to invest in more sustainable fibres early in the supply chain, as both consumer and regulatory pressure builds.

Cellulosic fibre brand Eastman Naia is one such company working to deliver a more sustainable solution. Creating a fibre derived from sustainably managed forests, wood pulp is brought into a closed-loop production process, meaning solvents are recycled back into the system for reuse. The end product is a bio-based cellulosic fibre or yarn used in fabrics for fashion and home textiles.

Cross-industry collaboration is a significant part of the company’s strategy to improve the sustainability of the textile industry. In partnering with traceability platform TextileGenesis, Eastman Naia provides a blockchain technology platform for brands to track the path Naia fibre takes from raw material to final garment.

Throughout its production process, a roster of sustainability certifications are applied to the company’s commitments. The business has earned certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the product itself has achieved Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification, while also receiving official certification as biodegradable and compostable by Tüv Austria.

Adoptions from brands ranging from Patagonia to Zara, H&M and Reformation, are bringing Eastman Naia fibres into the mainstream. Taking its efforts further, the company’s Naia Renew product utilises waste material en route to landfill at end-of-life. Using its patented molecular recycling technology to break waste material down into blocks and produce the same cellulosic fibre, Naia Renew reduces its carbon footprint by up to 35 percent.

Now, BoF sits down with Ruth Farrell, textiles general manager at Eastman Naia, to discuss the evolving use-cases of its products, the importance of gaining brand and consumer trust, and the innovations that are furthering its business goals.

Ruth Farrell, general manager, textiles at Eastman Naia.

How is the industry attitude towards sustainable fibres evolving?

RF: Brands today want to use sustainable fibres — the conversation has moved outside of the sustainability department and is now being had with designers. Corporations and brands are beginning to see the importance of sustainable innovation. We are now seeing brands commit to ambitious sustainability goals and science based ESG targets. The value chain — mills, spinners, and garment makers — is also becoming aware of the importance of sustainability and responding to that brand need.

The consumer, of course, drives a huge amount of this behaviour — but it’s important for governments to set regulations and guidelines for companies navigating this space, in addition to working alongside NGOs to accelerate the current momentum around sustainability.

No single person can take ownership of this — it has got to be all the parts of the value chain, from the fibre manufacturer to the brand, making a commitment to bring sustainable fibres to the market.

What are the use cases for Eastman Naia’s sustainable fibres?

RF: When we first launched 5 years ago, it was with our Naia filament yarn, which is designed for elegant, mid to high-end fashion — so, women’s ready-to-wear and linings. Our second product, Naia staple, is more focused on casual wear and home textiles.

Naia staple opened up a whole new world of application areas for us, including loungewear, sweaters and home textiles, and it changed people’s views of what cellulose acetate fibre can do. Our staple fibre achieved a cocooning cosiness in fabrics, as well as a lot of functional benefits such as quick drying time and reduced pilling.

How are you educating and engaging end-consumers about your process?

RF: Sustainable solutions are a continuous education, and the education process has itself changed over the years. At the start, we were doing a lot of work through trade shows, and then social media, and more recently, we have been doing a lot of work with design schools like the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to teach and inspire the younger generation about the use of sustainable fibres.

We also sponsor the Rise Up Sustainable Fashion Design Challenge — a fashion design contest in Shanghai where competitors from all over the world use our yarns and fibres to create new collections. It is informing for us to see what can be done with our products, but at the same time, it shows a broader audience that sustainable fibres are not a compromise, but instead a high-quality material option.

Brands today want to use sustainable fibres — the conversation has moved outside of the sustainability department and is now being had with designers.

The work of this new generation of designers demonstrates the opportunity that lies in using this different fibre to create a very different fabric, concept and design. It also informs our collaborations with brands, because they can see the possibilities of using Naia. It’s a huge education and awareness-building channel.

How does Eastman Naia approach ‘end-of-life’ product strategies?

RF: The Naia product portfolio is biodegradable and compostable. We are also trying to use more recycled content and have recently launched Naia Renew ES (Enhanced Sustainability) in partnership with Patagonia — which is a fibre sourced from 60 percent recycled content and 40 percent renewable wood pulp.

This programme is a key part of our multi-generational strategy to increase the amount of recycled content used to make our products, and we are also focusing on increasing the percentage of recycled textiles content so that we can start closing the circle.

What sustainability commitments and credentials do you believe to be the most significant in driving industry transformation?

RF: I believe that everybody needs to have a holistic view on sustainability. Over three years ago, we introduced our Naia Fabric Certification Program to provide brands the assurance that their fabrics are indeed made with sustainably sourced Naia fibres. More recently we adopted TextileGenesis as an additional traceability tool in our portfolio to reassure our value chain and brand partners about our processes.

Being in cellulosic, we must have a responsible approach to wood pulp sourcing, chemical usage, the manufacturing process, end-of-life, biodegradability, and recycled content. There are a number of certifications out there that target different elements of our process — but a holistic approach to sustainability is key. You can’t have a great story on responsible wood pulp sourcing and then create a negative situation with hazardous chemicals. A lot of the brands realise that, too.

CanopyStyle, for example, now has huge momentum, with over 500 fashion brand partners supporting them. They review fibre manufacturers producing cellulosics and rank them against a benchmark. We just learned that we have earned a Dark Green Shirt in their 2022 ranking and are very proud.

To promote sustainable practices and for brands to adopt them, you have to be able to deliver these fibres at scale.

I believe we all have the same ultimate goal, which is to make the fashion industry healthier and fix the past — that is hugely complex. For example, with sourcing recycled content, there is often no infrastructure in place for collecting, sorting, and creating those recycled feedstock streams, so we work with a lot of organisations to develop practical policies and guidelines, as well as pilot projects that can demonstrate that this can work. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but you try again. It’s a journey and working together will just get us there faster.

What new technologies are on the horizon at Eastman Naia?

RF: We are increasing the amount of recycled content feedstocks our system can handle through our carbon renewal technology. Essentially, we take feedstocks — for example, reclaimed carpets from landfill sites — and break them down into molecular building blocks. Like this we create a feedstock for acetic acid, which becomes the 40 percent of recycled content in Naia Renew.

The reality is that, to promote sustainable practices and for brands to adopt them, you have to be able to deliver these fibres at scale. To do that, we are investing a significant amount in our Kingsport facility to build out our carbon renewal technology, which will allow us to market these solutions at scale.

What excites you about the future of sustainable fibre innovation and adoption?

RF: The level of commitment to sustainability in the fashion industry. Across the value chain, from fibre manufacturers to mills, spinners, garment manufacturers and brands, we are seeing a commitment to sustainability goals as well as real action.

We are celebrating our fifth anniversary this month, and it is great to see unprecedented levels of interest in sustainable fibres. Governments, NGOs and the end-consumer are aware of the issue and seek to educate themselves. We have a huge way to go, but we are seeing an accelerated momentum that is just encouraging for the future.

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