We all have clothes made with polyester and cotton. Indeed, polyester and cotton currently represent the grand majority of the textile fibres that we use today. However, what is their sustainability score?
In 2012, polyester accounted for 70% of the global fibre consumption of 83 million tonnes, with cotton accounting for another 23%. The production of these two fibres in the conventional sense (as opposed to organic cotton which represents only 0.7% of the cotton market) is far from sustainable.
Polyester is a synthetic fabric derived from crude oil, a non-renewable resource. The manufacturing process is energy intensive, generating atmospheric emissions of CO2, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, and water emissions of dissolved acids, iron and ammonia.
Conventional cotton has a high-water demand, needing 20,000 litres of water to make 1kg of fabric. It also requires high volumes of insecticides to guarantee good yields. Cotton represents only 2.4% of the world’s crops, but accounts for 24% of global insecticide sales.
The textiles industry is starting to sit up and take notice of sustainability as a fundamental challenge. While this won’t mean an overnight shift away from conventional cotton and polyester as the go-to fabrics, it has led to an explosion of alternatives. Each is competing for position as the sustainable fabric of the future, but which shows the most promise?
New Fabrics: polyester and cotton are not our only options.
Research in new fabrics continues to throw up novel and often surprising fabrics.
The common stinging nettle was used to produce textiles for thousands of years, until people switched to cotton in the 15th century. Stinging nettles can easily be grown sustainably, organically and with little water.
Nettles can be turned into tough textile for bus and car seats and also into finer linen-like fabrics for garments. Nettle fibre is naturally anti-bacterial and mould-resistant and also acts as a natural insulator suitable for both summer wear and winter clothing.
Coffee grounds help eliminate odour, and can be combined with polyester to make fabric. In addition, coffee can protect pigments and fibres from ultraviolet rays and acts as a great material for waterproofing.
Taiwanese company S.cafe was one of the worlds’ first mills to convert leftover coffee grounds to fabric. Today, its clientele includes Patagonia, North Face, Adidas and Victoria’s Secret. S.Cafe says one T-shirt can be made with 3 cups of coffee grounds and 5 recycled plastic bottles.
CRAiLAR is a flax based fibre that drastically reduces chemical and water usage. In 2012, the USDA named is a 100% Bio-Preferred product.
When produced into a fabric, CRAiLAR is almost identical to cotton. Due to its lower manufacturing costs, coupled with its environmentally friendly properties, it is proving to be an extremely valuable cotton alternative.
Attractive advantages of this new fibre are its strength and minimal shrinkage – for consumers and designers alike.
Producing one kilo of cotton finished fibre consumes roughly 2, 120 litres of water according to a Cotton, Inc. report. A kilo of CRAiLAR uses only 17 litres – 99% less than cotton!
Furthermore, the cotton plant yields only 787 pounds of fibre per acre whereas flax, the plant used to make CRAiLAR, yields 1800 to 2700 pounds per acre!
Derived from the protein in sour milk, Qmilch is a 100% natural and renewable fibre. The resultant fabric is comparable to silk, only less expensive and durable enough to be washed with ease.
Furthermore, owing to the amino acids present, the fabric has natural antibacterial and anti-ageing properties which can help in regulating body temperature; making it attractive for sportswear brands.
According to Domaske, the milk based fibre can be used in medicine and makeup too!
EcoCircle Plant Fibre
EcoCircle is a plant-based polyester. It comprises 30% sugarcane, directly replacing 30% of the petroleum used in the manufacture of traditional polyester fibre.
Nissan has been one of the first to test the fibre in the form of upholstery in the Nissan Leaf electric car.
Tencel is a fibre that is extracted from wood. Textiles made from the fibre are more absorbent than cotton, softer than silk and have a greater cooling effect than linen. For these reasons it is used largely in mattresses, household linen, sportswear, wipes and diapers.
The solvent used to make the fibre is almost 100% recycled, resulting in it becoming the recipient of the prestigious “European Award for the Environment”.
Soybean Protein Fibre (SPF)
SPF is a type of regenerative plant fibre. The fibre is sustainable in that it does not harm the environment or human body through its production process. Variations of the fibre allow for bacteria and ultraviolet-resistance.
Textiles can be made that are similar in texture and property to raw silk, cotton and cashmere. It also lends itself to seamless mixing with other fibres to create a greater variety of textiles.
It has a wide range of textile possibilities and current uses are for underwear, baby clothes, towels and a variety of other garments.
Spider silk is a biopolymer fibre, made from polymeric substances from spiders. It is non-polluting in its production and therefore biodegradable.
The is not a new technology; its use has been traced back thousands of years to when the ancient Greeks used cobwebs to curb bleeding and the Aborigines extracted the fibre for fishing lines.
Spider silk is an extremely hardy and versatile fibre. While it is in a nascent stage of its production, experts concur that it could be used successfully for bulletproof clothing, wear-resistant lightweight clothing, nets, seat belts, parachutes, rust-free panels on motor vehicles or boats, biodegradable bottles, bandages, surgical threads, artificial tendons or ligaments and supports for weak blood vessels.
Basalt fibres are composed of purely mineral continuous filaments, derived from volcanic mineral deposits. In addition to being environmentally friendly, this fibre is superior owing to its properties of thermal stability, heat and sound insulation, vibration resistance and durability.
These properties made basalt fibres ideal for the following applications; Fire protected seats in planes, trains, ships, subways; Airplane life jacket pouches; Fire proof mattresses (for hospitals, hotels, etc.); Fire proof seating; Fire proof curtains and partitions for indoors and outdoors; Fire protective clothing; Fire resistant floor coverings: backing, reinforcement, Basalt carbon heaters for clothes and rooms; Fire proofing and heat protection cloths.
Corn Fibre (PLA)
Corn fibre is derived from renewable resources. It is made by converting corn starch into sugar and then fermenting it to get lactic acid.
The properties of the fibre are vast, from being able to balance strength and resilience with comfort, provide a wide range of thread counts, as well as outperform other synthetic fabrics in its resistance to UV light and retaining strength and colour.
Its applications are significant and include the creation of materials similar to synthetic fibres. It can be used for garments; nets, weed prevention bags etc, in agriculture; curing sheets, slope vegetation nets etc, in construction, for food packaging; trays, fast-food containers etc., and sundry products such as garbage bags.
Ingeo® – POLY Acid
Ingeo® biopolymer or POLY acid is made from sugar. The fibre produces 60% less greenhouse gases and uses 50% less non-renewable energy than others within the polymer category. Product owners, Natureworks LLC say this is ‘equal to 19 barrels of oil or 775 gallons of gasoline’.
The fibre can be used for home textiles, clothes, bottles, food packaging and nappies to name a few applications.
Lenzing’s Modal® Edelweiss fibre is produced from the wood pulp of beech trees. The pulp and factory production are on one location, ensuring the fibres to be carbon neutral.
Being sustainable as they are low on environmental impact yet high on quality, the fibre uses between 10 – 20 times less water than in the production of cotton.
Designers and retailers such as Helmut Lang, Jonathan Saunders, ASOS are already using these versatile fibres that can even be blended with silk, cotton, wool and synthetic fibres.
Developed by Swiss fabric technologists Schoeller, the Corkshell fibre is produced from the by-product of wine corks. As a feather to its cap, it is both bluesign® and FSC certified.
Cork has natural anti-microbial properties, the fabric made from this fibre is more able to stretch, and it has has 30% higher thermal insulation compared to other soft-shell textiles.
The resultant fabrics are suitable for lightweight spring and summer jackets.
Hemp is a sustainable natural fibre that has been around for years. It is considered a sustainable crop because it has a low water consumption (requiring half as much water as cotton), high yield (200 – 250% higher than cotton) and low requirements for pesticides. Their deep roots also prevent soil erosion and they lose leaves throughout the season, which act as a natural soil improver.
The hemp fibre is resistant, durable, and highly moisture absorbent making it easy to dye. Recent research results on the antibacterial properties of hemp has brought up opportunities for textile used in healthcare and military industries.
Banana and Pineapple Fabrics
The first and most considerable environmental benefit of these fabrics is that they are by-products of a pre-existing commercial process: that of food production. This means that the land required to produce a yield of fibre is not competing with that needed to grow food, and that the carbon and water footprints of both processes can effectively be shared.
Banana and pineapple fibres are gaining in reputation in the international textiles market, although they have been used by local craftsmen for centuries.
Production of fabric from pineapple leaves has been commercialised with the creation of the fibre Piñatex® by the company Ananas Anam. As well as having a low-carbon growing process, when compared to using leather from animal hides, Piñatex® also creates less waste.
Leather Alternatives that don’t involve plastics!
The demand for leather goods is increasing, while consumers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the environmental impacts of the leather industry. This has previously lead to the growth of “pleather”, or plastic imitation leather, but this comes with its own environmental costs. Other more eco-friendly alternatives for leather are being developed, from a varied range of sources.
High-end fashion brand Heidi & Adele have developed an alternative to snake skin for their handbags and accessories. Made from salmon and eel skins from fish farms, they are diverting a by-product of the food industry from waste disposal. With approximately 100 billion fish farmed each year, there is a considerable supply available.
Eco-leather is made from natural fibres mixed with plant oils, laminated together in layers to create a fabric with a similar look and feel to animal leather.
The fabric is breathable like leather, but can be produced with a much lower carbon footprint and avoiding the environmentally harmful process of tanning which releases potentially toxic materials into the environment.
Nike, Puma and Adidas have shown interest in the material, but there are some design problems to be resolved first as it is currently too stiff, causing the stitching to break.
Biotechnology company Modern Meadow are in the process of developing lab grown ‘leather’. To do this, they take living cells and grow collagen, the protein found in animal skin. The collagen is assembled into sheet material and then finished in a simplified tanning process.
The designers say that bio-fabricated leather can miss out the most chemically intensive part of the tanning process, demanding less water, chemicals and energy.
The technology is at a very early stage and faces a long journey to advance from lab testing to industrial manufacture. Along the way it will also have to convince its potential consumers of its ‘leather’ credentials.
There are a great variety of new and recycled materials in different stages of development. The challenge is the scale of production that they need to reach to make any noticeable impact on the global textiles industry.
It will take a change in collective will from designers, brands and consumers; to design with these new materials, to invest in the technologies, and to demand that we want more of them on the shelves!
Towards Sustainability in the Textiles Sector? A new paradigm on fibre sourcing – Solidaridad
Organic cotton facts – Organic Trade Association
Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester – Stockholm Environment Institute