With the global production of over 100 million tonnes of fibres by the textile industry in recent years, the requirement for sustainable material processing having a low environmental impact is clear.

In recent years, the textile industry has striven not only to reduce the use of non-renewable resources in production processes but also to innovate for sustainable textile and non-woven products.  With increased environmental awareness, consumers are seeking to purchase goods coming from sustainable production models, supporting the concept of a circular economy.

Increasing sustainability in the textiles industry encompasses engineering new materials, reducing the number of textiles sent to landfill, and capitalising on the chemistry of nature and natural fibres.  Improvements are sought over the whole life cycle of a material – from the energy, polluting chemicals and natural resources required for production, to its eventual disposability.

To address these unresolved environmental problems, the textile industry has turned to nature.  There has been a focus on the development and utilisation of natural fibres that are suitable for purpose, and whose production fulfils sustainable closed loop production and recycling criteria.

Over the last few years, innovative textile manufacturers have made significant advancements to establish environmentally friendly production models and produce innovative natural fibre based materials.  From international companies such as Patagonia, which has seen its customer base grow from intrepid mountaineers to a much larger audience by virtue of its ethical and sustainable practices, to smaller lesser-known brands and manufacturers, significant advances in the development of eco-friendly fabrics have been made.

But, Can You Patent Nature?

For an industry with one foot in the arts, and the other firmly rooted in science, is IP important in the advancement of textiles? Is it even possible to obtain patent protection for products and processes that utilise natural fibres?

Certainly.  Whilst there are restrictions upon the patenting of plants, it is possible to obtain patent protection for plant-derived products and technical processes for their production.

Of course, much of textile innovation happens behind closed factory or laboratory doors and a company may wonder if it is worth patenting inventions such as a closed-loop solvent process, a process for reducing water usage, or a biological-based crop processing method? Absolutely.  Just because the innovation is unseen by the consumer, it may still be reverse-engineered by competing companies, so it should not be assumed that such innovation is unworthy of protection.  In fact, there are already a number of innovative textile companies for which process-related patent protection has played an important commercial role.  For example, Orange Fiber has created the first sustainable fabric from citrus juice by-products using an innovative production process.  Now the subject of a granted European patent, the process involves the extraction of citrus cellulose from citrus juice by-products and subsequent spinning of the cellulose to obtain a yarn from which fabric is spun.

Another company producing cellulose-based fibres from a renewable source material is Lenzing.  The company boasts a substantial patent portfolio, including a number directed towards the regenerative production process of the fibres.  Moreover, other companies, such as OrganoTex®, have obtained patent protection for their novel processes inspired by nature’s own chemistry – the water repellency of lotus flower leaves.  The company uses biodegradable plant-based catalysts to create water repellant properties in a fabric, replacing non-biodegradable fluorocarbon-based textile impregnations.

Furthermore, the textile industry is not only playing a key role in advancing the environmental aspects of sustainability – it is also working to address social and economic effects.  Ananas Anam is the maker of Piñatex®, an innovative textile developed for use as a sustainable alternative to both mass-produced leather and polluting synthetic materials.  The natural textile is formed from waste pineapple leaf fibre, the leaves themselves being a by-product of existing agriculture.  Not only is the textile developed from a natural, sustainable source material, with a low environmental footprint throughout its life cycle, but the production of Piñatex® also has both social and economic impact, creating an additional income stream for pineapple farmers.

The Value of IP

Given innovation in this industry is not just coming from large established companies, but also from students, start-ups and other smaller but highly innovative companies, the advantages of obtaining patent protection for an innovative process should certainly be considered.  A defined IP strategy and patent portfolio may be fundamental to attracting investors’ interest when looking to grow a business centred on the specific process of manufacture.  Additionally, a scale-up model may include franchising or other forms of licensing, such that patent protection becomes crucial to retaining the appropriate share of the profits from others utilising the process.  Advantageously, patent offices worldwide, including the UKIPO, offer fast track programmes for environmentally-friendly innovations.

In short, the patentability of innovation relating to naturally derived products, or processes utilising natural resources should certainly not be overlooked.  IP can be a crucial tool in helping ethical companies to grow, and bring sustainable products to market.  With the global want for sustainable textiles and fashion only set to increase, stimulating innovation is more important than ever to the textile industry to establish a greener and more sustainable future.