Sustainable materials - new standards for the textile industry

More and more companies are focusing on sustainable materials, material innovation or preferred fibers and materials

sustainable materials

Author: Lara-Sophie Buckow

Worldwide, about 111 million tons of fibers are produced annually. At the current rate of development, this amount will increase to 146 million tons by 2030. Of this, only less than 20% has been designated as sustainable in any form to date. Preferred fiber and materials are supposed to be the answer to this problem.

Material innovations, the use of sustainable raw materials and the creation of new product models are what the industry needs to achieve. With the annual report of Textile Exchange, the organization hopes for an eco wakening of the fashion and textile industry, an exchange of innovative developments and a holistic change for more sustainability.

5 categories for sustainable materials

  1. Natural plant fibers
  2. Animal fibers and materials
  3. Artificial cellulose fibers
  4. Synthetic fibers
  5. Material innovations

While for some categories, such as plant-based natural fibers, sustainability as well as environmentally conscious production has developed positively within the last years, others urgently need innovations as well as a rethinking of life cycles for a portable future.

Find out here which fibers and sustainable materials are behind the different categories and how you can pay attention to sustainable as well as environmentally friendly raw materials in the future.

1. Natural plant fibers

Natural plant fibers include above all cotton, flax or linseed, hemp, jute and coconut fibers. The production of cotton in particular has improved significantly in recent years. So today already 25% of the world's newly won stock consists of preferred cotton. Preferred cotton is certified by one of 22 organisations, such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Cleaner Cotton. They stand for the production of Fairtrade as well as organic products and are committed to innovative agriculture and to saving precious resources such as water.

A branch of natural cotton sustainable materials

With the increasing lead in material innovations other plant-based natural fibers are also experiencing more and more demand. The use of nettles, lotus or kapok not only has the advantage that the production of their fibers is possible without chemical pollution. Recycling and disposal at the end of use is also simple and sustainable with these materials.

2. Animal fibers and sustainable materials

With increasing transparency within supply chains as well as animals husbandry standards in agriculture, interest in non-animal products is on the rise. More brands and companies are being encouraged to offer vegan products as a result. However, the byproducts of the food industry often offer much more effective sustainable materials than their artificial alternatives. The solution is raw materials without unnecessary animal suffering.

Down & feathers

Canada Goose recently announced that it will no longer offer real fur collars from 2022. However, the lining of the jackets made of down and feathers will remain. This is because they are significantly more environmentally friendly than the polyester alternative. However, in order to meet the expectations of consumers, there are now several organisations that examine the methods used to obtain down as well as feathers for unnecessary animal suffering and certify them accordingly. Responsible Down Standard (RDS), Global Traceable Down Standard (Global-TDS) or Downpass are internationally recognised organisations that stand for ethical down and feather production.

Down and feathers as sustainable materials

But here, too, there is a need to catch up in the recycling processes. In Germany alone, the bed spring industry produces around 950 tons of waste. So it is important to consider not only recycling after use, but also recycling within production.

Wool

Regardless of whether it is sheep's wool, cashmere, mohair or alpaca wool. The ever renewable fur of the animals offers not only a regenerative, but also natural and versatile raw material. However, only about 3% of the world's sheep's wool comes from preferred sources. In each case 1% is organic wool, certified by the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) or The New Zealand Merino Company Ltd. (ZQ). For wool from other animals, the percentage of preferred wool is similar or even lower. This shows that there is a need to improve in this area in particular.

Wool as a sustainable material

However, recycling has been an important part of wool production from the very beginning. In the Italian district of Prato alone, one of the most important regions for recycling wool, around 22.000 tons of wool are recycled annually. Likewise, in India and China, several tonnes of wool are reprocessed and fed back into the textile industry cycle every year.

Silk

Although silk, with around 160.000 tons of annual production, only has a small market share in contrast to the other raw materials in the textile industry, there are also clear differences in production with this material. Between 1990 and 2019, the production volume more than doubled, which clearly speaks in favor of creating global standards for sustainability.

There are currently no international labels that deal exclusively with the certification of silk. Instead, you should pay attention to the testing of organisations such as GOTS, World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) or Global Recycled Standards (GRS) or Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) for recycled silk.

Leather

Worldwide, more than 7 million tonnes of new leather are obtained from over one billion animals every year. Especially over the last few years, the demand for transparency as well as artificial and vegan leather has increased significantly. However, as a waste product of the food industry, animal leather is shaping up to be a frontrunner in terms of sustainability as well as environmental friendliness compared to its synthetic alternatives. Working groups such as the Responsible Leather Round Table (RLRT) and the Leather Working Group (LWG) are continuously working to improve the natural material through innovations in production and animal-friendly standards.

Leather as a sustainable material

As about 800.000 tonnes of waste are generated annually within leather production, there is a clear need to address the issue of recycling both after the use of leather goods and within the manufacturing process. By assembling reject materials on a synthetic basis, recycling and reuse of waste products is possible. More and more organisations such as RECYC LEATHER ™ or Sustainable Composites have discovered these processes for themselves and are continuously working on their dissemination.

3. Artificial cellulose fibers

With around 7.1 million tons annually, this material category only accounts for around 6.4% of the fibers and materials produced worldwide. These include mainly viscose, but also acetate, lyocell also known as tencel, modal and cupro. Currently, wood is the main raw material for cellulose fibres. Since 1990, the production of artificial cellulose fibres has more than doubled. A further increase is also expected in the future. The share of FSC or PEFC certified synthetic cellulose fibres is between 40%-50%. This means that a large part already comes from sustainable forestry, but the risk of clearing old and endangered forests is high.

Less than 1% of artificial cellulose fibers are recycled. The implementation of recycled fibers by reusing cotton waste or food waste as well as rayon or viscose is possible and could replace the use of reclaimed wood.

4. Synthetic fibers

Polyester

With 57,7 million tons annually, polyester makes up 52% ​​of all fibers produced worldwide, making it the most widely produced material in the textile industry. Polyester is created through a chemical reaction between petroleum, air and water. Because it can be melted and bent into many different shapes, it is in great demand as a material in manufacturing. But with petroleum as the main component, it is anything but environmentally friendly or sustainable.

Polyester yarn in sustainable materials textile factory

All the more important is the use of recyclable raw materials such as PET plastic bottles or textile polyester waste for polyester production. Although the proportion of recycled polyester almost tripled between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of total polyester production is only 14%. Most polyester is currently recycled mechanically. Approaches to chemical or biological recycling are still in the development and test phase. LYCRA® or Repreve® are already established fibers that offer new, high-quality polyester through recycling.

As another alternative, bio-based polyester has the most sustainable future prospects. However, so far it only makes up 1% of the world's polyester and is only more environmentally friendly if the raw materials are obtained using sustainable standards.

Polyamide

Polyamides, also known as nylon, perlon, enkalon or kevlar, are also synthetic-based fibers. They make up about 5% of the world's textile industry materials. The proportion of recycled polyamides is unclear. This makes it all the more important that a change towards more transparency and sustainability takes place here as well. In contrast to polyester, the recycling of polyamides is much more complicated. But with increasing progress in research and development, there are more and more producers of recycled polyamides. Well-known providers are ECONYL®, Reco Nylon® or CYCLEAD ™.

5. Material innovations

Artificial protein fibers are another innovation in the field of new textile materials. Even here, not all bio-based fibers are certified according to environmentally friendly standards, but they are a step towards a sustainable future. With sugar as the main ingredient, the fibre can meet customers' expectations for low-emission textile materials that are free of microplastic. Currently, however, production and use are only taking place on a small scale.

Components and end product protein fiber as sustainable materials

Brewed Protein ™, Source & Copyright by Spiber

Carbon capturing is gaining increasing attention with rising global warming and more and more innovative methods and processes are being developed for it. In particular, how the CO2 can be used in a variety of ways after capture is still being tested in many industries. Also within the textile industry there are continuously more innovations, including CO2-based fibres. CarbonSmart™ or aircarbon™ are sustainable materials that have already been developed but are still waiting for widespread use.

Sustainable materials on the rise

For consumers, the numerous materials, fabrics and fibers and their different manufacturing methods often seem overwhelming. With regulations, increasing demand from customers and more companies actively pursuing environmental conservation as a mission, education and use is on the rise. Preferred fibre and materials offers companies approaches to restructure their own processes and supply chains.

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