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The Rupp Report: Man-Made Fiber Industry Reshuffles

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

Every year, the man-made fiber industry meets in Dornbirn, Austria. The 47th Man-Made Fibers Congress took place Sept. 17-19, 2008. The event closed with a record attendance of more than 720 visitors from 40 countries. Experts from all around the world gathered to exchange information and knowledge. This congress is known to be the first address for new developments in the entire man-made fiber industry.

In the last 10 years, the congress moved away from being a high-ranking meeting of scientists with papers, which most of the attending people didn’t understand. This has changed a lot over recent years. The organizing body, the Austrian Man-Made Fibers Institute (www.dornbirn-mfc.com) is putting more emphasis on practical topics.

Cradle-To-Grave Products
The main topics this year were new fiber developments, sportswear, safety technical textiles, nonwovens and new research projects. However, the overwhelming subject was sustainability, with the focus on cradle-to-grave products. What does that mean? It means that more than ever, future products must be developed under a complete rethinking.

For example, man-made fibers have in most cases, compared to natural fibers, a favorable environmental balance sheet. Also, the man-made fiber industry is facing the same problems as any other industry. One thing is for sure, just to pass the buck to the next one in line is definitely not the ultimate solution. However, everybody should be aware that these three issues — exploding raw material prices, energy prices and climate change — are closely linked and interact with one another.

Obviously, the time in which relatively inexpensive natural resources are available is over. The need for raw materials on the part of the high-growth economies of China and India is in contrast to a raw material supply industry that has been stagnating for decades.

The price of energy has become more volatile than ever in the last 12 months. In spite of the day-to-day fluctuations between $100 and $140 per barrel for oil, it is more important to know that this oil price rose from the “traditional” $10 to $20 dollars a barrel up to, let’s say, $100.

It was amazing to see that the man-made fiber industry worries about climate change too. I don’t care what the reasons are, as long as we all care about it. It can be even emotional, just like Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” It is so emotional because climate change directly and personally affects each and every one of us.

Interacting Factors

US economist and United Nations advisor Jeffrey A. Sachs describes in his book, “Common Wealth - Economics for a Crowded Planet,” the interaction of factors such as population growth, climate and environmental protection, and poverty in various regions of the world.

What does this mean for the companies? Just like for any country, economic success, social acceptance and political stability are intimately linked to the sustainable economic management of a company. The debate about climate change has led all big companies to reconsider their policies. Today, most of the industries know the term “carbon footprint.” Companies that already have experience with the issue of sustainability have a competitive edge. They work with one of the most promising issues of the future for the textile industry: recycling.

Don’t Waste Your Waste
Many lecturers in Dornbirn said they are forced to significantly increase the share of recycled raw materials in the manufacturing process, particularly oil-based polymers. In many parts of Europe, other industry sectors are working very successfully with recycled material — paper and glass, for example. The overall share for recycled paper is Europe is 55 percent and for glass 62, percent. Switzerland is recycling 99 percent of its used glass, and even in this so-called “ expensive” country, the glass industry is very successful. Examples in the man-made fiber industry include the recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles into fiber. But it is not only the raw material; it’s also less energy consumption and less air pollution. Again, to be “green” pays off.

Ultimately, the awareness of consumers will play a decisive role. An increasing number of companies are already reacting to the growing demand for eco-labels. And to survive as a company in the ever-so-competitive world is also an act of sustainability.

Any comment is always welcome at jrupp@textileworld.com.

September 23, 2008

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