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By Larissa Sherman 27 April 2022 3 min read

In 2022, it’s not a bold statement to say Australia is a nation of consumers. For many of us though, COVID-19 pulled into focus some unsustainable spending habits. Months of lockdown forced us to reprioritise our spending. As a result, we saw a rise in demand for eco-friendly products and services.

For our cotton researcher Dr Xiaoqing Li, it’s welcome news. That's because she is a leader in generating novel fibres for the cotton industry. She wants to find ways we can be more sustainable in our consumerist lifestyles. And her work on sustainable textiles might just take the world by storm.

Together with her colleagues in the Novel Synthetic Plant Fibres team in our Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform, Xiaoqing recently developed an engineered cotton germplasm. It produces a protein that doesn't exist naturally in cotton fibres. She believes it could be used to trace cotton back its original source.

Demand for sustainable textiles

Consumers are increasingly concerned of the impact of the products they choose on the environment and socially. This trend is increasing in the textile industry. People are keen to buy materials grown in a sustainable way and manufactured under fair labour conditions.

A 2021 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that since 2016, the popularity of Google searches relating to sustainable goods has increased by 71 per cent globally.

Demand has increased especially in high-income countries. In Australia, Google searches for sustainable products increased by 165 per cent from 2016 to 2020. We can also see this trend in emerging countries. In China, 41 per cent of consumers say they want eco-friendly products. Likewise in India sales of organic products have grown by 13 per cent since 2018.

Synthetic plant fibres inform sustainability

Xiaoqing believes her research can make a huge impact for the industry. Exploring a plant-based way of tracing Australian cotton fibres will help make 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 and to improve the sustainability of the whole supply chain,” Xiaoqing said.

Xiaoqing said existing traceability techniques may require special equipment and processing that is not easy to access. It also needs 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 will now test to see if we can pick up the germplasm inside cotton seed fibres at different developmental stages.

“We hope this work can lead a new direction in developing plant-based tracing technology. If this can happen, we really can make a leap forward," she said.

“If this added protein is stable and we can detect it, we can possibly trace it from the beginning to the end of the life of the fibre,” Xiaoqing said.

Earlier this year, Xiaoqing was awarded the ABARES Young People in Agriculture: Cotton Research and Development Corporation award. Winners of the ABARES Young People in Agriculture Award recieve funding to undertake a project on an emerging scientific issue or innovative activity which will contribute to the success of Australia’s agriculture sector.

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