Manufacturers Turn to Natural Fibers to Meet Demand for Sustainability in Wipes

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As with many businesses, the wipes sector is facing challenges on multiple fronts. Of particular concern for many discerning consumers and environmentally-focused companies is how the industry is striving to become more sustainable.

Global brands and private label manufacturers are developing new products to meet new sustainability and biodegradability demands by consumers and government agencies. We know from our work that cotton meets those requirements and many more such as product needs for materials that are natural, soft, safe, and hypoallergenic. Not only does purified cotton qualify for these needs, it’s also high-performing, with greater wet strength, high absorbency, and its ability to pick up and track dirt.

New product opportunities for sustainable, purified cotton include new consumer choices for baby, cosmetic, and femcare wipes. Let’s take a deeper dive on the issue of sustainability and wipes.

Disposable Nonwovens under Scrutiny

Disposable, single-use products are under intense scrutiny for their negative environmental impact, as many made from artificial materials are polluting our oceans and placing a heavy burden on landfills. This scrutiny cuts across many product areas–plastic straws come to mind as one of the most reputationally-challenged disposable, single-use products on the market, and both regulators and companies can’t seem to phase out their use fast enough.

Are nonwoven substrates that support an array of wipes applications next in the rush to natural fiber sourcing? It’s important to try to quantify use of naturals in the nonwoven wipes market. Smithers Pira, the industry leader in market research for this sector, benchmarked the global figure, which takes into account many undeveloped and developing markets, at 54 percent in the use of natural raw materials for the year 2013. That figure, according to Smithers Pira, is expected to rise to near 60 percent in 2023, with North American and western European manufacturers leading the way.

Let’s not travel too far without defining what’s “natural” in the context of wipes substrates. Natural would refer to the fibers used in these products, specifically fibers like purified cotton.

Multiple Perspectives of Sustainability in Wipes

Major sustainability elements to consider with regard to cotton and other natural fibers versus manmade, petroleum-based fibers used in wipes include biodegradability and each fiber’s cradle-to-grave environmental impact. Looking at the two groups from a biodegradability perspective is a rather simple analysis: cotton, as a natural fiber, will biodegrade back to its natural state from end product form, while engineered, manmade fibers that derive from petrochemicals simply will not.

Turning to life cycle assessment, both natural fibers and manmade fibers face sustainability challenges. For artificial, petroleum-based fibers, those challenges are perhaps insurmountable in the arena of disposables, as there is typically no recycling at the conclusion of the product’s use. Thus, artificial fibers begin as depletion of nonrenewable fossil fuels, undergo processing with harsh, pollutant chemicals, and end up as a death-defying element of the waste stream.

Cotton Steps Up to the Sustainability Challenge

Cotton farming has been confronted on sustainability from many perspectives, such as land use, water use, and the dual challenge of driving down greenhouse gas emissions while renewing the soil. Let’s address each of these sustainability areas for better understanding, since the marketplace is full of misconceptions and some outright untruths.

Land use for cotton has been questioned, especially in the context of depleting land available for growing food crops. While cotton products fulfill basic human needs, the US cotton industry has recognized the need for greater efficiency through precision farming techniques to maximize yield per acre. Over the last three decades, land use for cotton farming has decreased by 50 percent, while global production has steadily increased. The industry still believes that increasing efficiencies by 13 percent over the next 10 years will free up even more land for food crop production. A little-known fact is that cotton production commands only three percent of the world’s arable land.

Water use in cotton has been a controversial subject, but statistical data reveals that half of the cotton grown globally relies solely on rainwater to grow. As with land use, water use has sharply decreased over the last three decades, dropping by nearly 80 percent. Still, the cotton industry is taking measures, through advancing investments in irrigation and through better delivery systems and scheduling tools, to decrease water usage by a further 20 percent from current levels.

The industry has also set aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (by nearly 40 percent) and soil loss (by 50 percent) while increasing soil carbon (by 30 percent). Achieving these goals requires complex, multi-faceted strategies adopted by producers. These strategies include targeted use efficiency of artificially-produced nitrogen in fertilizers, perhaps the greatest means for reducing greenhouse gases, as well as conservation tillage practices and cover cropping to reduce soil loss due to wind and erosion. Those same practices–changing tillage and utilizing cover crops–also aid in the production of soil carbon for more sustainable fields.

Upping the Sustainability Ante with the US Cotton Trust Protocol

The most recent development to positively impact cotton sustainability for the wipes sector comes from the recently unveiled US Cotton Trust Protocol, an initiative of Cotton Council International. The protocol, launched in 2019 and expected to reach full implementation next year, will document US cotton growers’ embrace of technologies and techniques for meeting 2025 sustainability goals for the industry. The trust protocol aims to provide a tangible, transparent snapshot of US growing practices and their impact on cotton sustainability, as the industry collects data, measures, and verifies farmers’ efforts to increase yield while limiting environmental impact.

And with cotton, sustainability efforts aren’t confined to the producer community. Another key stage between the field and the consumer lies with the processor. In the case of Barnhardt, the company strives for sustainability improvements year after year, as it innovates on a generations-old concept referred to as bleaching. In changing its process, purification, Barnhardt has eliminated chlorine use in favor of hydrogen peroxide, a much gentler whitening agent for cotton that’s also easier on the environment.

While fibers like polyester will never achieve much in the way of sustainability, their consistent, predictable performance, combined with low prices, will still drive many manufacturers and price-conscious consumers to manmades. However, the number of consumers motivated by these purchasing attributes appears to be in sharp decline, especially in key North American and European markets. As consumers and other stakeholders ultimately shape the markets, manufacturers and their suppliers will be compelled to move to more effective sustainability measures in the very near future. Cotton will continue its efforts to achieve both higher performance and sustainability, to the benefit of consumers worldwide.