Flora Davidson is the co-founder of Supply Compass a company that bridges the gap between fashion and interiors companies and the manufacturing sector. Here she writes about moving the fashion and homewares industry towards a more sustainable future by looking at five fabrics that make a difference from organic cotton to Tencel, derived from wood pulp, and spider silk from fermented sugar. The focus is on reconsidering the materials used for fashion and homewares and ensuring they are both socially and environmentally kind.
To assess the sustainability of a fabric, you need to consider its social and environmental impact in four main areas:
1. The extraction of the raw material.
2. Textile production.
3. Dyeing, printing, washing and finishing colour fix.
4. End of life, biodegradability, and ability to be recycled.
Here are five sustainable fashion fabrics that will help to make fashion and homewares brands more sustainable now and in the future:
1. Organic cotton
People have been spinning the cotton plant into thread, clothing and other textiles for millennia but much of the world’s cotton is now Bt (genetically modified cotton). Organic cotton is a better for people and the environment than its non-organic counterpart.
No pesticides are used in the production of organic cotton, which is important as not only are pesticides bad for the soil and the environment, but they are extremely harmful to the health of those working with them. They can be deadly and cause a multitude of chronic illnesses.
The Benefits of Organic Cotton
Organic cotton replenishes and maintains soil fertility rather than depleting it. Crop rotation is required with organic farming, which helps lock in C02 and build stronger soil. Organic farming techniques use less water because crops are predominantly rainfed and the increased organic matter in the soil means it holds water better.
Fairtrade organic cotton means farmers can command a higher price and be certain of a more stable income. Organic cotton is grown using natural, untreated, GMO-free seeds which means farmers don’t need to rely on expensive chemicals and risk spiralling into debt.
As the world grows steadily more environmentally conscious, more and more brands are beginning to experiment with using the latest generation of recycled fabrics to meet public demand for sustainable options. One of these new materials rapidly gaining in popularity, especially in the swimwear industry, is Econyl. Econyl is a form of nylon that is made entirely from waste products. It is made from a range of post-consumer waste including abandoned fishing nets, carpets and rigid textiles and aims to be a green alternative to the original product which is made from a derivative of oil.
To make Econyl; waste products, such as reclaimed fishing nets, are first taken to pretreatment facilities where they are sorted and shredded into pieces small enough to be put through the Econyl process. The shredded material is then moved to a regeneration plant where it is put into huge chemical reactors that, through a process of de- and re-polymerisation break down the components of the material and re-generate the polyamide 6. The final product is then processed into yarn.
Econyl has great eco-friendly credentials. Firstly the use of abandoned fishing nets is helping to clean up the seas; entanglement in abandoned nets causes the death of many thousands of whales, dolphins and other sea life every year. For every 10,000 tonnes of raw materials recycled into Econyl 70,000 barrels of crude oil are saved, and 57,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions are avoided compared to traditional production methods. Econyl fabrics can be recycled infinitely without losing quality, supporting the vision of a more circular fashion industry.
Tencel is the registered brand name of a revolutionary sustainable fibre of botanical origin, produced by the Lenzing Group. Based in Austria, the Lenzing company was founded in 1938 and has built an impressive worldwide reputation among aficionados of ethical fashion by focusing on the manufacture and development of highly sustainable fabrics.
The fibre, also known by the generic name lyocell, is a variety of rayon. It is made entirely from regenerated cellulose, and as such, it is exceptionally environmentally friendly. The source material used in the manufacturing process is dissolved wood pulp, which makes it one of the most sustainable options available to the ethically minded clothing manufacturer.
Hailed by many as a modern wonder material, lyocell was first synthesised in 1972 at Enka, North Carolina, under the working title of ‘Newcell’. Having captured the imaginations of forward-thinking innovators within the clothing industry, the fabric was further refined at the Courtaulds factory in Coventry, England during the 1980s, and it was there that the name ‘Tencel’ was first used.
The first stage in the manufacturing process is the sourcing of suitable wood pulp. The major factor which sets this material apart from other forms of rayon is the choice of raw materials, which are specifically chosen for their eco-friendliness. All the wood pulp used in its manufacture is harvested from eucalyptus trees, which have been specifically farmed for the purpose, on land which would otherwise not be used as it is unsuitable for agricultural development.
Full Marks for Sustainability
Unlike many other man-made materials, the farming process scores highly in terms of environmental sustainability. No existing forests are depleted, no pesticides are used, and absolutely no genetic manipulation is involved in the process of farming the raw materials.
This offers a significant advantage over many other synthetic fibres, which generally require extensive chemical processing. The synthesis of most other forms of rayon involves the use of chemical catalysts such as cobalt and manganese. Both of these can be highly toxic to the environment, resulting in high levels of air and water pollution which can have a potentially catastrophic effect upon the ecosystem.
A life cycle assessment conducted in 2008 by the University of Leipzig reported that the production of lyocell is far more eco-friendly than the harvesting of cotton. The study found that the manufacturing process consumes ten to twenty times less water than would be used in the production of an equivalent amount of cotton.
4. Spider silk
Despite the name, spiders are not used in the production of this material. The company that invented spider silk, Bolt Threads, studied spiders and their DNA to learn how the fibre was produced and work out a way to develop their own version. No spider DNA is used in its manufacture and the end product is completely synthetic.
The main input in the fibre-making process is sugar from plants that are grown, harvested and replanted. The sugars from these plants are fermented and this produces a protein that is then spun into a fibre; spider silk. The great thing about this material is that it is made from renewable resources so the environmental impact is also lower.
5. Eco Leather
In the manufacturing of leather, skins are stripped of hair, degreased and cured with salt, before being submerged in water for up to two days to desalinate and moisturise the hide. The next and most vital stage is tanning, which helps to fortify and preserve the hide. Without this stage of the process, the untreated skins would rapidly decompose and become unsuitable for most purposes.
One major criticism of the industry hinges on the ecological impact of the tanning process. In ancient times, the process used purely natural ingredients, but since the industrial revolution, the use of highly abrasive chemicals such as Chromium Sulphate has become standard throughout the industry.
Natural Preservatives from Tree Bark
One alternative is the use of ‘Eco Leather’, a relatively recent development within the fashion industry. The ‘Eco’ variant still uses genuine animal hides (i.e. it is not vegan), but the manufacturing process sidesteps the more environmentally damaging impact of mainstream tanning. Rather than using abrasive chemicals, this far more ethical approach utilises natural, plant-based products such as tannin, extracted from the bark and leaves of trees, to create the same preservative effect.
By working with manufacturers who use sustainable fabrics you can ensure your fashion or homewares brand is looking to the future of both the planet and its people.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Flora Davidson is the co-founder of Supplycompass, a tech-enabled end-to-end production management platform for responsible brands that want to find and work with the best international manufacturers. It enables brands to find their perfect manufacturing partner at home or overseas. Brands can create tech packs, get matched with a manufacturer and use the platform to manage production from design to delivery. Supplycompass works with brands and manufacturers to embed responsible and sustainable practices in their businesses and deliver value and create opportunities for growth.