Meet Dr Xiaoqing Li: taking the guess work out of sustainable textiles
In 2022, it’s not a bold statement to say that Australia is a nation of consumers. For many Australians, though, COVID-19 pulled into focus some unsustainable spending habits. Months of lockdown have forced consumers to reprioritise their spending, with a corresponding rise in demand for eco-friendly products and services.
For CSIRO cotton researcher Xiaoqing Li, it’s welcome news. She is driven to research new ways to assist sustainability measures in our consumerist lifestyle as a leader in the generation of novel fibres for the cotton industry. And her field might just take the textile world by storm.
Earlier this year, Xiaoqing was awarded the ABARES Young People in Agriculture: Cotton Research and Development Corporation award. Together with her colleagues in the Novel Synthetic Plant Fibres team in the SynBio FSP, Xiaoqing recently developed an engineered cotton germplasm, which produces a protein that does not exist naturally in cotton fibres. Xiaoqing believes it could be used to develop a way of tracing cotton back its original source.
Demand from consumers for sustainable options is on the rise
Consumers are increasingly concerned of the impact of the products they choose on the environment and socially, and this trend is increasing in the textile industry. People are interested to consume materials grown in a sustainable way and manufactured under fair labour conditions.
A 2021 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit: An Eco-Wakening: Measuring global engagement, awareness and action for nature found that the popularity of Google searches relating to sustainable goods has increased by 71 per cent globally since 2016. Demand has increased especially in high-income countries – in Australia, Google searches for sustainable products increased by 165% from 2016-2020. But this trend can also be seen in emerging countries. In China, 41% of consumers say they want eco-friendly products and in India sales of organic products have grown by 13% since 2018.
Synthetic plant fibres can inform sustainability in the textile industry
And this is where Xiaoqing believes their research can make a huge impact to the industry: exploring a plant-based way of tracing Australian cotton fibres, therefore making it easier to choose sustainable textiles.
“Customers are seeking more sustainable products, particularly in the textile industry. Unfortunately, without being able to verify the history of the fibres it’s hard to tell where the material comes from.”“So, traceability is a very good tool to make this happen, to improve the whole supply chain sustainability.” Xiaoqing says.
Xiaoqing says existing traceability techniques may require special equipment and processing that is not easy to access, or need extra processing steps to attach materials on top of cotton fibres, or rely on record-keeping and sharing, which can lack transparency. She says this project fills a gap in the science.
“We hope this work can lead a new direction in developing plant-based tracing technology,” she says, “so if this can happen, it really can make a leap forward.”Specifically, the germplasm developed by the SynBio FSP project, will be tested to see if it can be picked up inside cotton seed fibres at different developmental stages. “If this added protein is stable and can be detected, possibly we can trace it from the beginning to the end of the life of the fibre,” she says.
Winners of the ABARES Young People in Agriculture Award have each been granted funding to undertake a project on an emerging scientific issue or innovative activity which will contribute to the success of Australia’s agriculture sector.