Four key trends that are changing the sustainable nonwovens market

A growing necessity from consumers and retailers is pushing major nonwoven producers towards the greater use of sustainable materials and process. Smithers Pira reveals four vital areas of development that are powering this trend.

Sustainability is a quality to strive for and progress toward, but it is rarely wholly attainable. In Smithers Pira’s authoritative market report - The Future of Sustainable Nonwovens to 2022 – sustainable nonwovens are defined as a product or process that is developed and produced sustainably that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Market evolution

Consumption in the sustainable segment has risen from 2.2 million tonnes in 2012, to 6.8 million tonnes in 2017 – an annual increase of over 10% – well above the expansion in demand for non-disposable nonwovens. The increase in the value for sustainable products has risen even faster, reflecting the increased premium customers are willing to pay for more environmentally sound solution. 

Smithers Pira’s analysis maps how this will continue across the 2017-2022 period, albeit at a reduced rate common to a maturing market proposition. For consumption sustainables will exceed 5.0 million tonnes for the first time in 2022 seeing a 6.4% growth rate across this period. The value of this sector will rise from $14.1 billion in 2017 to $19.8 billion in 2022, with a growth rate of 7.1% – continuing to take market share from non-sustainable products.

The drive for sustainable products and processes in all markets has been growing for the last two decades. This is particularly prevalent in nonwoven products due to its high level of dependency on disposable products, many of which are among the most visible products in the world, such as disposable baby diapers and disposable wipes.

The evolution of sustainable nonwovens is especially strong in the mature markets of Europe and North America. In 2017 Asia is now the global leader in overall nonwoven demand, with consumption of 4.5 billion tonnes and a market share of 44.5%; from a sustainable perspective it is less advanced. Asia has only a 17.3% share (by tonnage) in sustainables, well behind both North America and Europe (see figure). Although it will increase it relative share through to the end of the 2017-2022 Smithers study period, it will still only be 20% at its end. North America will also see sustainable consumption increase at above the market average across 2017-2022; showing there is still significant untapped demand for this technology in developed world markets.

Global shares for sustainable nonwovens by geographic region (by tonnage, 2017)

Consumers, retailers and governments all approach these products with questions, desires and sometimes specific and changing demands. With this in mind, Smithers Pira identifies and analyses four key drivers and trends that will have a major effect on the market’s future across the next five years.

Consumer attitudes

Consumers want many things from nonwovens, including low prices, high performances, aesthetics and convenience. A growing desire from these consumers over the last five years has been sustainability. Not all regions want sustainability equally; Western Europe and North America want it most, while developing market regions, such as central Asia and South America, want it least, since they are still satisfying their basic desire for nonwovens (as substitutes for rags, paper, etc) and sustainability desires will come later.

Every nonwovens producer is claiming sustainability. Spunbond producers are using less energy to extrude polypropylene, and are capturing the emissions, or using lower basis weights, which reduces raw material consumption; but the products are still 100% petroleum-derived polypropylene. Diaper producers are replacing sustainable wood pulp with petroleum based superabsorbents, and claiming sustainability as a cause. This is because the product is thinner and fewer trucks are required to transport it, and it takes up less space in landfill. Despite the varying degrees of certified progress, consumer demand will drive sustainability and when the technology catches up with the desire, real sustainable products are likely.

Retailer demand

Walmart announced a unilateral implementation of environmentally friendly policies in the mid 2000s, and in 2006 unveiled a sustainable packaging scorecard, for which suppliers were required to provide data. Walmart promised to reward their best suppliers. While packaging was the first area emphasised, both Walmart and their suppliers have acknowledged that other areas will follow, including textiles and nonwovens.

The suggestion that the world’s largest retailer might judge and select nonwovens based on a supplier’s environmental performance has had an immense effect. Without judging Walmart’s real motivation, the fact remains that the world’s largest retailer that made its fortune on low pricing is now embracing environmentalism and when Walmart talks, nonwoven product suppliers listen.

Regulatory incentives

Globally, almost every facet of the nonwovens industry receives regulatory attention. For natural fibres, pesticides, water and land use are all regulated by a myriad of agencies. Disposal issues are also widespread and growing. The cost for making non-sustainable products comply with these growing regulations makes the proactive development and production of inherently sustainable products not only good for the environment, but favourable for business and profits.

Raw materials – Supply and cost dynamics

Even if an environmental rationale does not motivate the development of more sustainable products and processes, commercial instinct can. The fact that petroleum as an affordable raw material has a limited lifetime means that the sooner work on truly sustainable products based on renewable resources begins, the more likely it is that products and processes will survive economically.

As more and more products compete for less and less petroleum, prices and even availability will become less certain. Long-term commercial survival may depend on becoming more sustainable. No long-term strategy should be based on a material that will eventually cease to be available.

Large multinational nonwovens producers are embracing sustainability, most notably:

  • Kimberley-Clark has been very innovative over the years leading to commercial success. This includes market-leading baby wipes, Huggies, that use a meltbown polypropylene/pulp composite

  • Berry Plastics has reduced its participation to mainly speciality industrial and home care wipes, using its spunlace products and Spinlace brand. Approximately two-thirds of its $2.0 billion worth of nonwovens sales are disposables – wipes, medical and hygiene; and one third from durable – automotive, construction, filtration and protective apparel

  • Freudenberg has addressed the environmental issue with their ECO-nonwovens line, either based on recycled polyester (Lutradur ECO) or spunlace cellulosics (Vilene ECO), including lyocell, bamboo and cotton.

It is imperative that the nonwovens industry continues to progress toward sustainability in products and processes, because it is beneficial for the global community and good for business in the long term.

The Future of Sustainable Nonwovens to 2022 offers you five-year market forecasts as well as expert analysis of the global regulatory climate and market trends driving future market expansion. For more information and purchasing details, download the brochure here.

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