Textiles and Sustainability

Published 10/24/2023

Article courtesy of VG Kulkarni, Global Director, Technology & Business Development, Fibers for Americhem.

Increasing the Sustainability in Textiles

One Earth, eight billion people and counting – generations to come! SUSTAINABILITY! It benefits everyone and everyone has a role in it. Textiles, like water, food, and shelter, are a basic need for humanity. Sustainability in textiles is multifaceted and there are opportunities at every stage of the life cycle for textile materials. Using a comprehensive approach to address all aspects of textiles from origin, to manufacturing, to use, and post life is needed for maximum impact. How do we address such a challenge?

Today, textiles comprise of a wide range of materials – natural and synthetic - cotton, wool, silk, polyester, nylon, viscose, and others. Each fiber brings its own unique properties and attributes to textiles. While naturals like cotton offer breathability, moisture management and biodegradability; synthetics like polyester provide performance, durability, are light-weight, and recyclable. Currently, synthetics make up nearly two-thirds of all fibers used in textiles. Polyester alone accounts for 54% of that, and has shown sustained growth over the last two decades. Cotton, the second largest textile fiber by volume is just under 23%. The gap between naturals and synthetics is too large to try and limit the use of synthetics; it is also inconceivable that the fashion industry will only use one kind of fiber. Nonetheless, one of the common debates in sustainability of textiles is natural vs synthetics. We should limit the use of synthetic materials as they are derived from fossil-based resources, but as just stated, this is not likely based on the data. Truthfully, we cannot think of naturals and synthetics as competitors; they coexist. Blended textiles, especially polyester-cotton blends, two of the largest volume fibers in textiles, are a living example of their coexistence. So, what does sustainability mean for textiles? Fortunately, there is more to sustainability in textiles than their origin.

Opportunities and Challenges with Sustainability in Textiles:

How do we address challenges in achieving carbon neutrality in the textile industry? What are our opportunities for a greener future? Sustainability in textiles needs to be viewed with a wide-angle lens and a comprehensive approach. In addition to the origin of the raw material, the textile industry consumes substantial amounts of water, energy, and a host of chemical additives. Sustainable manufacturing, coloring, repurposing of used textiles and recycling all play a vital role. Let’s understand and explore the various avenues.

  • Increased use of natural fibers: Cotton has been the foundational fiber of textiles for centuries. It has its strengths, but it also has its weaknesses. There are challenges to meaningful expansion of natural fibers for the near future both in terms of volume constraints and other aspects. Already, there are concerns and debates on responsible use of land and water for food vs natural fiber production to meet the needs of a growing population. Advances are being made with organic cotton, hemp, and other cellulosic fibers and must continue.
  • Sustainable manufacturing: Textile processing is energy intensive and requires copious amounts of water and chemicals. Efficient and lean manufacturing processes that reduce energy and water usage are critical for sustainability in textiles and should be a focus. The use of renewable energy and lowering greenhouse gases (GHGs) must also be considered to have a fully sustainable product.
  • Sustainable coloring: Color is an influential attribute of textiles and a catalyst for marketing; just think about the fashion industry. Currently, naturals and synthetics are colored using a conventional dyeing process. It consumes substantial amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. The dyeing process accounts for almost all of the water used in producing textile materials. This also increases the amount of polluted wastewater that is put back into the ecosystem. With the use of sustainable coloring, we can limit the use of water and energy, and address two large components of having a more sustainable textile.

Solution dyeing and digital printing:

  • Synthetic fibers like polyester, can be colored using a solution dyeing process, wherein fiber spinning and coloring are done in one step which limits the use of water and consumes less energy. Additionally, solution dyeing brings several quality and performance attributes to textiles like color consistency, better color, and bleach fastness. Further, softer hand feel compared to conventional dyed fabrics and the ability to customize with functionalities are a huge plus. Solution dyeing is a great alternative to address challenges with water, energy, effluent treatment, and GHGs, while achieving higher performance. This process is gaining momentum as the preferred route for coloring textile fibers.
  • Natural fibers cannot be solution dyed and are typically dyed with conventional dyeing techniques. Advancements in dyeing techniques that use little to no water or alternate media is another avenue that can be explored for sustainability. Airflow dyeing and CO2 dyeing are two advances that offer eco-friendly coloring options.
  • Digital printing is another area for sustainable coloring that addresses the dynamic needs of the fashion industry.

Repurposing and recycling of textiles:

  • Limiting the use of natural resources and nonrenewable materials is one of the basic doctrines of sustainability. Delaying consumption of new raw materials helps to conserve petroleum resources.
  • Currently, recycled polyester fiber manufacturing relies on waste from another industry - post consumer bottles. Great progress has been made in this area; today, about 15% of polyester fiber in textiles is derived from recycling. The process is more of a linear economy with recycled content, since a large portion of textiles usually ends up in a landfill. To achieve true circularity in textiles, we need to close this gap. Greater effort is needed to repurpose or recycle discarded textiles and industrial waste to complete the circle.
  • Textiles are often made from blending more than one fiber, such as polyester/cotton and polyester/wool or other naturals. Recycling blended textiles without destroying various components, or just recycling the larger component would represent a huge step towards sustainability. However, more research is needed in this area.

Regional production and recycling of textiles: 

  • With synthetic fiber and garment production concentrated in Asia and the end markets removed from production centers, transportation of textiles from production centers to markets consumes more fossil fuels and increases Greenhouse gas emissions. How do we address this dilemma? Is it possible or even practical to reverse the trend? What are our options? Is regional production and recycling a solution?

3 C’s - Corporate, Consumer and Communities: 

  • Coming back to our opening statement “Sustainability! It benefits everyone and everyone has a role in it.” We all use natural resources in our daily lives, but we need to conserve them. Actions such as using less water, conserving energy, and recycling are main areas to conserve. While corporations are doing their part in innovating new materials and sustainable manufacturing processes, local governments, and communities need to make sustainability accessible to their citizens. Consumers also need to be aware of individual carbon footprints and take part in seeking sustainable products and adopting best practices. Sustainability is a journey, and not an easy one; efforts must continue!