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The eco-friendly fabric question

Business, Feature | April 1, 2011 | By:

Determining sustainability in fabrics requires a big picture analysis.

The issue of sustainability is one that the specialty fabrics industry takes seriously, and growth in more environmentally friendly materials and processes continues. But the question of what is and what is not a sustainable product is complex and is a challenging topic for several reasons: the number of factors influencing sustainability; the difficulty in measuring a fabric’s sustainability; the diverse and demanding requirements of measuring sustainability in industrial fabric markets.

For example, one might assume that cotton fabric, which is made from a natural fiber, is automatically more “green” than a synthetic, but for some uses, such as outdoor applications, synthetic materials can be the most eco-friendly option. Outdoor upholstery applications are one example.

“A cotton fabric might last one or two years outdoors, whereas a synthetic might have a 5- to 10-year life span,” says John Gant, manager of regulatory affairs and sustainable development at Glen Raven Inc. in Glen Raven, N.C. Also, he points out, cotton production has its own impact on the environment during cultivation, and organic fibers often require chemical treatments that are not needed with polymer fabric.

Material choices

“There’s more demand from our market than ever before for greener products,” says Gant. In response to that demand, Glen Raven developed the Sunbrella® Renaissance Fabric Collection, a new outdoor furniture fabric that uses 50 percent recycled content from post-industrial waste. The recaptured material comes from Glen Raven and some of its customers.

Industrial fabrics with a high percentage of recycled or eco-sourced content is more than a mounting trend. “In the long run, only companies that work on sustainability will survive,” says Dave Sherman, business development manager for Rogers Corp. in Rogers, Conn. “The way I view it is, everybody is going there eventually. If you’re among the last to start working on it, you’ll be among the first to drop out.”

Rogers Corp. recently debuted PORON® ReSource 45 performance cushioning material, a greener formulation of its venerable Poron cushioning foam. ReSource 45 uses 45 percent less petroleum-based polyol, instead relying on a renewable soy-based polyol.

Unifi Mfg. Inc. of Greensboro, N.C., offers REPREVE®, a line of fibers (including filament polyester, performance fibers, staple polyester and filament nylon) made from 100-percent recycled material.

Norafin Industries, Mildenau, Germany, is manufacturing natural nonwovens based on flax fibers that can be used in composites or interior design. “As the nonwoven is entirely made of flax (and entangled through the means of high-pressure water jets) the material is free of chemical binders or additives,” say Jos van Hattum, business unit manager, and Eveline Salem-Geser, marketing manager. “What is more, flax supports biodiversity while it is cultivated; after harvesting grain, flax can be cultivated on the same ground. Compared to cotton, less chemicals or pesticides need to be applied.”

Bamboo, coconut, hemp, sisal and soybeans are among the natural sources of fibers that can be used to make fabrics.

Sustainable by design

Sustainability can start in the design phase with careful consideration of a material’s basic characteristics and composition. Many chemicals commonly used in the industry are coming under scrutiny for environmental or human health impacts.

“There are many ways to evaluate the risks posed by a chemical,” says Gant. “All of that needs to be done for the chemicals to be approved for use in a fabric.” Sustainability metrics for materials include the impact of the manufacturing process, impact on the end user, persistence in the environment, and potential impacts on human, wildlife and ecosystem health.”

The Alternative Substance List assembled by and available through the Council for Economically Sustainable Textile and Apparel Businesses (CESTAB) offers a means to find effective, eco-friendlier alternatives.

Designing for longevity and reuse is an important element of sustainability. WeatherMax™, an acrylic fabric for outdoor applications made by Safety Components International Inc., Greenville, S.C., resists sun fading for years and is fully recyclable. Similarly, Poron cushioning materials retain their shape and compressibility for “a very long time,” says Sherman. “Really, that’s the most green thing you can do: make something last a long time.”

Manufacturing matters

With the standard approach to operations within the industrial fabrics industry, it may seem that the base amount of water and energy needed to make a given type of fabric is consistent, says Gant. “But as a manufacturer becomes innovative with its manufacturing processes, it can make a real difference in the amount of resources needed and reduce its environmental impact.”

Glen Raven did a “carbon footprint” analysis and found that about half the carbon footprint of the fabrics came from the energy usage of the plant, including air conditioning, spinning and weaving equipment. The company took steps to obtain more complete carbon footprint information from its suppliers.

“Some of our suppliers had never assembled that information,” says Gant. “Some of our fiber suppliers had not reviewed that information in many years. We are hoping to get more complete and accurate information from them in the future now that they know it’s important to their customers—and to our customers.” Carbon footprint calculations take into account a sprawling web of factors that contribute to a product’s impact, including the energy required to ship raw materials and even the energy required to transport company employees to work.

Suppliers and fabricators may want to consider solution dyeing or solution-dyed fabrics as another way to be more eco-friendly. “There’s no doubt that solution-dyed products require less water and create less wastewater than piece-dyed fabrics,” Gant says. “Solution-dyed products are likely to be environmentally preferable, based on the fact that they don’t use water and that it’s a more durable color methodology.”

The less durable the color in a fabric, the more often it has to be replaced. “And that’s certainly not environmentally preferable,” he says.

Solution dyeing is not without its challenges. The logistics of solution dyeing compared to piece dyeing can be more complicated for fabric manufacturers because fiber needs to be purchased roughly a year before the fabric is needed. For end-product manufacturers who buy fabric already dyed, the cost may be higher. But, Gant says, “I think people typically choose solution-dyed products for their longevity. If a company is buying a lower-end product that hasn’t come from a conscientious manufacturer, they are not optimizing their product’s durability. Also, there may be many other things about that manufacturer’s practices that are impacting the environment.”

Gant suggests sourcing products that are certified to have green attributes or are from a company that is certified to be following green practices. “I think the best way to convey that value to customers is to have that certification attached,” he says.

Reduce, recycle, rewards

Recycling or repurposing scrap material is another environmentally responsible practice, and it can have additional benefits. A comprehensive recycling program at the Glen Raven plant in Anderson, S.C., recycles more than 400 tons of office and industrial waste per year, resulting in zero waste going to landfills. As of 2010, the plant uses 30 percent less water than it did before the program was implemented, which saves 20 million gallons per year, and it produces 25 percent less wastewater.

To accomplish this, Glen Raven spent five years working with machinery vendors and local water authorities and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment. Sustainability isn’t a project or a trend; it’s a commitment.

Greening your supply chain is another way to achieve sustainability goals. “Whenever possible,” say von Hattum and Salem-Geser, “we try to work with partners that are not too far from our production site in order to shorten transportation routes.”

Day-to-day operations—manufacturing and office work—offer multiple ways to take steps toward sustainability. “We recycle as much as we can,” says Scott Massey, owner of Awning Cleaning Industries in New Haven, Conn. “In our cleaning business, all the water goes through the recycling process. The products that we use are considered green. We save our cardboard. We salvage as much paper and newspaper as we can. We try to get our billing online as much as we can. We send estimates by e-mail if the customer will share their e-mail address.”

There may be unanticipated benefits to greening the paperwork side of your business. Massey says that in most cases the customer responds to an e-mail estimate within 24 hours.

“A lot of what gets thrown out is still usable,” says Massey. This observation—and a desire to give back to the community—prompted his company to launch “Rags for Reasons,” a reuse and recycling program for scraps and items made of open-weave acrylic fabric. (See “Strong business, strong communities.”)

Creating a take-back program for products you manufacture is another way to be more environmentally responsible. Glen Raven maintains a recycling program that takes Sunbrella manufacturing waste and discarded products from their business customers and consumers and recycles them into new products such as felt, insulation and padding, as well as fiber for the new Renaissance fabric collection.

For those who don’t have access to a free fabric recycling service and don’t want to start their own, there are companies that will handle scraps, waste and old material for a fee. Texyloop®, for example, is a Europe-based initiative of the Ferrari® Group for recycling polyester/PVC composite textiles.

Evaluating products and processes will help prepare industry participants for the continuing sustainability discussion, but ultimately it will take a commitment to long-term improvements to assure progress in sustainable practices.

Shelby Gonzalez is a freelance writer based in Duluth, Minn.

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