Sustainability in textiles: which road to follow? [Special Textiles 2019]The sustainability of the textile sector has been in the spotlight and is now a reality, as seldom before
For several years the textile sector has seen the birth and often the failure of many projects and products linked to the concept of sustainability, a concept that is certainly very complex and not easy to interpret. In the last two years, however, the efforts of ‘sustainable’ fashion have not only intensified, but the topic is now considered a must for all the major players in the market, from companies to fairs (for example, Milano Unica has been dedicating, for already two editions, a cluster to sustainable products, creating fundamental guidelines related to product analysis).
But why is sustainability so important for fashion right now? The question finds the answer in the evolution of the consumer. In a world where those who buy have increasingly less need and are stimulated to buy only if moved by real interest, the creation of a ‘story’ is a fundamental element. In a historical moment where the awareness on the environmental theme has received everyone’s attention, ‘selling’ sustainability is no longer a plus for a brand, but a necessity. For this reason, those who produce materials today must rethink their collection or their processes in an eco-friendly way. A similar process has been observed in the leather world where green and vegetable tanning have been progressively successful, decreed by the ‘conscience’ of the final customer. But is it really possible to be sustainable and competitive as a textile company? It is surely a great challenge and, to date, many enter the arena without understanding the true implications and presenting only relatively sustainable products. Yet the expert and informed customer, be it the fashion brand or the end consumer, is not satisfied with a product simply defined as ‘recycled’, but requires certification (for example the Global Recycle Standard - GRS).
Here are some examples of high-level sustainability, such as product or process, of companies that promote zero waste or companies that work on the concept of ‘organic’.
What is meant by ‘sustainable fabric? Application areas are certainly different, but in general the identified categories are four: eco-sustainability in the management of production processes, eco-sustainability in products, zero waste and recycling, absence of harmful chemicals.
The latter is the least interesting as the regulations on the compliance of chemical specifications are becoming more restrictive and every company that aims to export to countries like China, Japan and the United States is obliged to supply ‘clean’ products. Furthermore, the brands themselves speak up for greater transparency on the part of their suppliers in environmental matters.
The analysis of the first three case studies is the one of greatest interest, since some stimulating examples allow us to analyse different market approaches.
The first project concerns a synergy between three partners with different know-how: Lenzing (leader in the production of eco fibres and artifical yarns), Santoni (leader in the production of circular knit machinery) and Procalçado (leader in the production of soles and rubber components). The three companies have joined forces to create a sustainable footwear project.
The TENCEL™ Lyocell yarn by Lenzing, an artificial yarn derived from wood pulp and completely compostable, comes with a resistance that is suitable for the performance of the shoe. Santoni is known for its “no waste” 3D Intarsia technology, which makes it possible to create knitted uppers in a very short period of time (from 5 to 7 minutes) and manages to work in 3D in the areas of eyelet laces. Finally, Procalçado is a leader in the production of soles and the ForEver® line offers various eco solutions including PURA LATEX®, a material extracted from rubber trees that come only from certified forests without intensive exploitation. The products made through this synergy have been presented recently, achieving an excellent public result.
There are companies that first started working on the concept of circular fashion and among them Ecomax Textile, based in Taiwan, is certainly worth mentioning. One of the very first to recycle PET starting from plastic bottles and creating PETSPUN®. The family-run company, led today by Mr. Mark, has progressively expanded its product range by introducing recycled yarns and fabrics from various production waste from the food industry such as rice, sorghum and oyster shells, as well as coal derived from bamboo. The last frontier is E-RECO®, a yarn made by recycling PVB (Butyral Polyvinyl), a component found in windscreens and car windows.
Other companies, on the other hand, are working on sustainability both from the point of view of materials research and the environmental impact of production processes. This is the case of Ratti, a leading company in the production of printed fabrics, and of Filmar, a manufacturer of cotton yarns. Both have decided to interpret sustainability by committing themselves on a production level to select and publish an annual consumption report, significantly reducing both the use of harmful chemical additives and carbon dioxide emissions, by pursuing less electricity and water usage. Furthermore, both companies are engaged in the development of eco products. Ratti has focused a lot on silk, linen, wool and organic hemp, but also on synthetic fabrics born from recycled yarns, while Filmar is the promoter of several projects including Nilo, the first long-filament cotton yarn traceable by the plant; Colorama, a collaboration project with design schools for creating digital colour palettes that help put an end to the waste when making physical samples; and the Cotton for Life initiative, which sees the company committed to working with a completely transparent supply chain in collaboration with Egypt, one of the main cotton producing countries.
The companies that are actively making commitments towards the transformation of their products in the green direction are many: in the footwear sector we can certainly mention Omnipel Technologies, historic textile converter based in Desenzano del Garda, since forever specialised in technical fabrics for high performance footwear. The company has already developed some lining and upper products that start from recycled yarns and follow GRS directives and for the next winter collection it is about to realise eco products to be used in wide-ranging footwear: from recycled Poron Resource up to Aloha, breathable lining material, through recycled eco-fur, nylon performance and 3D spacer.
Coronet currently offers two eco-friendly solutions: Freska and Bioveg. Freska is a certified vegan lining made with materials of vegetable origin - corn and cereals. It boasts minimal solvent residue levels and meets PETA standards. On top of this, it offers very high breathability and absorption levels, ensuring ultimate foot comfort.
Bioveg, is instead a line of articles characterized by its supports realized with recycled and vegetable origin raw materials. Furthermore, the energy employed during the coating process comes from renewable sources.
The concept of recycling and zero waste, that is giving a second life to products that are often polluting, is very important. The high quantity of plastic substances (PET, PPE, PTE) thrown into oceans and that contribute to the destruction of different aquatic ecosystems is a problem that, fortunately, has aroused a stir in the media. Aquafil, an Italian spinning company which has always been a leader in the production of polyamide and nylon, has created an extraordinary product that is revolutionising the market: Econyl®. A fully extruded nylon yarn from the remains of fishing nets and plastic bottles recovered at sea.
The process involves the purchase of certified plastic waste batches. Each lot has a traceability code to trace the type of recycled product. The material is broken down and regenerated creating an extruded nylon yarn compound.
It is a highly innovative process since the company is able to trace the single batch of raw material, creating a transparent supply chain. However, Aquafil did not stop with the production and sale of yarn, but committed itself to collaborating and developing personalised and exclusive projects with the biggest brands in the world, including Adidas (which as of 2025 will manufacture footwear entirely produced with Econyl®), Gucci and Levi’s, just to name a few. In fact, the company’s objective is to raise awareness among the final consumer, in the hope that the concept of circular fashion will become the focus of all future fashion collections.
Bananatex® is a project born from the collaboration between the Swiss leather goods brand QWSTION, and two partner companies in Taiwan, the first specialised in yarns and the second, Hermin, in weaving and finishing.
The biodegradable material is the first entirely made with Abaca plants belonging to the Musaceae family (Bananoids) and which are typical of the Manila island (Philippines). It is an infesting plant that grows naturally on the island and, since it does not suffer the aggression of parasites, it does not need pesticides to survive. Finally, Abaca plantations help the local population to repopulate parts of the jungle seriously damaged by the massive cultivation of the palm. The stem of the plant is cut and long filaments are extracted from its marrow with which is made and subsequently spun a coagulated material similar to paper.
The material, like canvas, is particularly resistant to abrasion and mechanical bending. The fabric is presented in natural colour (like the marrow of the plants) and in black, thread dyed with natural dyes. The fabric, dedicated to leather goods, is made waterproof through beeswax, a completely natural and water-repellent waste deriving from honey production. QWSTION has made several 100% natural products in Bananatex®, including briefcases and workbags. The project has had a three-year development period and is now open source and evolving.