Challenges in the textile industry
Every day we encounter textiles in many different forms - as clothes, carpets, towels, seat covers or medical aids. Until a finished product is produced, it passes through several production stages and often covers thousands of kilometres.
graphics: Production chain of textiles, Textilbündnis - Alliance for Sustainable Textiles
Every step in the textile chain focuses on different aspects of sustainability, which can be summarised as follows:
- production factors, including water and energy consumption
- The availability of sustainable raw materials
- The effects of waste production
- The social responsibility of the companies towards the employees and the communities surrounding the plants
- The use of chemicals, including dyes and coatings
- Health risks for textile workers and consumers
- Animal welfare (procurement of wool or down)
Sustainability starts with product design
The materials used for a textile not only determine the structure of the value chain and supply chain, but also the possibilities for recycling. The more different materials and chemicals are used, the more difficult recycling becomes later and the higher the consumption of resources. R&D in the textile sector is not only about optimizing resource consumption, but also about developing cleantech products that conserve resources themselves. The application of textiles as solar collectors, pollutant filters or insulation material offers great potential for innovation.
Recyclable upholstery fabrics
An innovative technology for sustainable and recyclable textiles comes from Climatex. The company already pays attention to recycling, environment, health and energy in the design of its products. The materials can be separated by type and are 100 percent recyclable. Products such as upholstery fabrics return to the cycle of production, consumption and renewal after their useful life.
Light aircraft carpets to reduce CO2 emissions
Every kilogram of weight that airlines can save reduces kerosene consumption and thus also CO2 emissions. Lantal Textiles AG, which specialises in textiles for transport, has therefore developed an aircraft carpet that is significantly lighter than conventional aircraft carpets. Depending on the aircraft type and route profile, airlines can use the "Wool ultra light" to reduce their CO2 emissions per aircraft per year by around ten tons alone.
The trend towards Slow Fashion
Things are still different in the fashion industry. The design process has changed dramatically in recent years due to the new business models of the major fashion chains. Online trading and the permanent renewal of the collections create a cycle that is difficult to break through. A new (partial) collection must be launched on the market at least quarterly, if not monthly or weekly. There is hardly any time and money left for design development, research and innovation.
Counter-trends to this "fast fashion" - not least due to the increasing awareness of consumers - can already be seen, however. Under the Slow Fashion, Green Fashion, Eco Fashion, Faire Trade Fashion labels, higher quality materials with a longer life, eco-textiles and recyclable materials are becoming increasingly important in the fashion industry.
From fishing net to new outfit
The fibres used as raw materials for textile production pollute the environment during cultivation and are produced with a high use of resources. For example, large quantities of pesticides and water are used in cotton cultivation and man-made fibres such as polyester are produced from crude oil using a high amount of energy and chemicals.
Organic cotton, organic wool, native natural fibres such as flax or hemp and cellulose-based fibres are alternatives to conventional cotton. In the case of synthetic fibres, it is possible to process milk or other animal proteins, for example, instead of crude oil. However, these innovations are still at the beginning of their development, are cost-intensive and are in the per mille range of total consumption.
An alternative form of fiber production is also the recycling of raw materials. The Italian textile factories Carvico and Jersey Lomellina are a good example of sustainable raw material extraction through recycling. With the ecological innovations Econyl produced by Aquafil and Healthy Seas, both factories are committed to a cleaner environment not only on land but also in the oceans. The companies collect ghost nets floating in the sea and produce recycled nylon yarn. These are used to produce functional fabrics for swimwear, which closes the ecological circle again.
A similar approach is taken by Thread, a textile company that produces recycled polyester from plastic bottles. The plastic bottles come from Haiti and Honduras and are washed in factories directly on site, shredded and finally brought to North America as chips for processing in tissue. Sustainability in this concept has not only an ecological aspect, but also a strong social aspect through job creation.
Unifi, the pioneer for recycled polyester fibres, also uses plastic bottles as raw material, which are crushed into flakes and then transformed into pellets, melted and spun into yarn. However, the recycled yarn is not only used in the production of clothing, but also in the production of outdoor accessories such as camping hammocks, water bottles or inflatable outdoor loungers.
The fiber manufacturer Lenzing has developed a new fiber based on cotton waste. The waste comes from the textile giant Inditex, which includes brands such as Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka. The fibres are then used to make garments that are sold in Inditex shops.
Towel reduces energy consumption by 45 percent
Fibers must be spun into yarns and then woven for surface production. In addition to the use of chemical auxiliaries, the high energy consumption for spinning, weaving, washing and drying processes is of particular environmental relevance in this production step. Saving energy is therefore also in the interest of companies. With improved process sequences or with energy recovery from the process waste heat, an attempt is made to get the maximum out of the energy consumed.
Innovative ideas can also help consumers save energy. Weseta Textil AG has developed a terry towel that weighs only 380 g/m2 and at the same time has the absorbency of a 600 g/m2 towel. This means that 45 percent less energy is required for washing.
Finishing can be sustainable and economical
During finishing, the textile is dyed, crease-free, waterproof or fireproofed. Across Europe, around 15,000 chemical substances are available for textile finishing. In addition, the process consumes a lot of water. Innovations therefore aim to reduce the quantities of chemically contaminated wastewater while at the same time reducing the demand for fresh water.
A major challenge for the textile industry is that there are no ecological chemicals available on the market for certain textile functions. The development of ecologically and functionally acceptable alternatives is therefore the focus of innovations. Environmentally friendly methods and the use of plant dyes are topics that are taken up in various projects.
An economic and sustainable innovation comes from the Swedish company WeAre SpinDye. In contrast to the previous practice of spinning polyester fibres and dyeing them afterwards with many environmental risks, the fibre is already dyed during the spinning process. The dyeing of yarns or fabrics becomes obsolete, which saves resources and costs.
The concept of the Pepwing company, on the other hand, is to merge polyester with the masterbatch without water. The result of this dye free masterbatch dyeing process is a dyed chip, which is then pressed out into yarn. The advantage of this innovation is that the in-process water consumption can be reduced by 50 percent and the fabrics produced have a higher colour fastness. In addition, the end product is recyclable.
Hope for catching up in fair working conditions
The production of the finished product can only be partially automated and involves a high level of manpower. Textile production is therefore mainly outsourced to Asian countries with low labour cost levels. Occupational safety, child labour and fair wages in particular are a central concern of sustainably producing companies.
At present, however, the implementation of sustainable production principles often fails due to lack of transparency, lack of control by the authorities and corruption. The improvement in this area is a slow process. Initiatives such as the "Alliance for Sustainable Textiles" or the Greenpeace "Detox" campaign are working intensively to implement improvements in this area.
Textile companies looking for sustainability are therefore generally on their own when it comes to social sustainability. One of those companies that has already implemented fair production abroad is workfashion.com AG. In the production of its workwear, the company relies on a small number of suppliers with as many years of experience as possible, which it can also control. With a dedicated team of three sustainability specialists, the company monitors its suppliers, visits them personally and trains them and their employees. In order to be able to really influence the working conditions, attention is paid to the continuous capacity utilization at the producer.
Conclusion: The textile industry is in upheaval
In recent years, sustainability has become a major trend in the textile industry. Consumers are better informed and increasingly expect ecologically and socially acceptable products and thus sustainable solutions in the textile industry. Manufacturers are increasingly committed to tapping innovation potential and promoting sustainable development. Sustainability strategies range from sustainable designs and the use of innovative materials and processes to the optimization of resource consumption and recycling. However, the social and environmental challenges in the global textile value chain can only be solved if politics, business and civil society pull together.