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Sustainable practices in today’s textile industry

Advanced Textiles, Markets | February 1, 2020 | By:

 by Marie O’Mahony

The story of sustainability in the textile industry has grown and changed, particularly in the last decade. The concept of “circularity” is now driving sustainability across the materials sector. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”  

The range of advanced and industrial textiles, such as these from Milliken & Co., show the breadth of industries and challenges that companies face in formulating an agenda for sustainability. Photo: Marie O’Mahony.

Adherence to sustainable practices along the value chain is the key to achieving full circularity. For some industries, this is relatively linear with a clear route to achieving this goal, but advanced textiles sectors are not so straightforward, with various stages and different data in “silos.” 

In the apparel sector, the consumer is demanding greater transparency from brands, in large part because the media has exposed harmful practices, including the impact of fast fashion on the environment and the behavior known as greenwashing, in which a company gives false or misleading information about the environmental soundness of its products. Tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory fire in Bangladesh in April 2013, which resulted in the loss of more than a thousand lives, have also been a call to action. 

While the advanced and industrial sectors also have consumer-driven demand for change, it is, in general, not so polarized. This is presenting a unique opportunity to introduce incremental change building toward full circularity. The rollout of legislation, such as the European single-use plastics directive and California’s Proposition 65, reminds the industry that it cannot afford to sit back and not participate. 

Success stories

Designing out waste and polluting practices makes good environmental and economic sense. Shifting patterns of global production, new processes, environmental standards and impact data ensure that companies have to be vigilant and informed. At the INDA, Association of the Nonwovens Fabric Industry, 2018 Research, Innovation & Science for Engineered Fabrics (RISE®) conference, held just four months after the European single-use plastics directive, the industry was not only prepared but energized by the move. Companies such as Shaw Industries Group Inc., headquartered in Dalton, Ga., with a long-standing reputation for sustainable carpet products and a business model around service, were actively looking for ways to take environmental responsibility to the next level. 

Shaw recently launched COMFOR3T™, a new, soft floor covering designed for the event flooring market. Made with 60–80 percent recycled content, depending on the color, it is softer underfoot than typical event carpets currently in service markets such as trade shows. 

“Thus the name COMFOR3T,” says Craig Callahan, vice president, Specialty Markets, at Shaw. “The R is cubed to represent that the product’s features are aligned with the sustainability goals of reduction, reuse, recyclability all while creating a positive human experience.”

Renewable energy projects are one of the ways that Kimberly-Clark, headquartered in Irving, Texas, is looking to deliver on its climate change commitment to reduce greenhouse gases across its operations. The Maverick Creek Wind Farm in Texas has just been initiated and will provide power to a handful of major companies, including Kimberly-Clark. The aim is that it will eventually deliver 6 percent of the company’s target for global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, around 670,000 megawatt hours of renewable energy annually. 

The company has set key targets for 2022: 

  • Divert 95 percent of manufacturing waste from landfills
  • Divert 10,587 metric tons of postconsumer waste solutions
  • Design for waste avoidance to eliminate 4,955 metric tons of waste
  • Achieve 0.24 waste per metric ton of production

These are significant goals, and each has a focused strategy in place to achieve these figures. While full circularity is the ideal, targets that hone in on specific problems for the industry bring considerable benefits that deserve to be acknowledged.

Automotive impact

Globally, the estimated value of textiles used in cars and light vehicles in 2018 was $70 billion, according to a recent report from Research and Markets. The report’s authors point to further growth of the disruptive kind, looking at developments in car-sharing, electric and autonomous vehicles. Sustainability and circularity are set to further drive innovation and strategic developments, but these developments can, at times, appear conflicting. 

“As a society, everyone’s been developing materials that last forever, and many times those can be harmful to the environment,” said Ken Kelzer, vice president, Global Vehicle Components and Subsystems, General Motors, in an October 2019 interview in the online Ellen MacArthur Foundation publication Circulate. “What we’re trying to do is understand what those are, and maybe we have an opportunity here to replace, reuse, recycle and put things in our vehicles without always having to do new. It’s a real opportunity.”  

Consumers have already shown themselves to be more than willing to embrace differences. Recycled materials are already being used in less visible applications, such as soundproofing and as liners. The next step will be to introduce them to more prominent features such as car seating. Since these areas are more visible, color, haptics and graphic qualities have to be a fit. 

Solutions and rewards

On November 6, Time magazine was one of many publications around the globe to announce that India’s capital, New Delhi, was a “climate emergency” with pollution levels “off the charts,” and as such, the government had announced a public health emergency. The previous day, the newspaper India Today reported that New Delhi was not the worst offender, ranked at number fourteen in the country’s list of most polluted cities. 

One of the most innovative solutions to recently emerge has come from the startup Graviky Labs, which was named a winner of the 2019 GM prize on Circular Economy. The GM prize is just one part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Solve® platform, which is focused on finding solutions for the world’s most pressing problems. MIT Solve works to help tech entrepreneurs gain support to bring their big ideas to market. 

In 2019, one of Solve’s four Global Challenges focused on the circular economy. Anirudh Sharma, from Graviky Labs, was named a prize winner for the company’s Air-Ink™ technology that converts air pollution to industrial-grade carbon black inks, effectively turning a problem into its own solution. 

A warehouse in New Delhi stores an estimated three tons of carbon-rich atmospheric particle matter (PM2.5), produced when fossil fuels burn. Using proprietary technology, Graviky Labs converts these into hydrated industrial-grade pigments and inks: Air-Ink. This is the beginning, as the carbon black can then be used in printing across many materials and applications including textiles. 

Spartanburg, S.C.-based Milliken & Co. was named one of the world’s most ethical companies by the Ethisphere® Institute in 2018 for its commitment to environmental stewardship, the health and safety of workers, and the future of its communities. With almost 9,000 worldwide suppliers and 43 manufacturing facilities, Milliken cannot reach its sustainable and ethical goals overnight. 

The company’s achievements, built up over years of engagement, include: 

  • 100 million plastic water bottles diverted from landfills through the use of REPREVE® recycled fibers 
  • The use of a water-based high-tack chemistry applied to its ready-to-use tire reinforcement fabrics that make them both lighter in use and safer for workers during production

Working with stakeholders is a cornerstone of the company’s environmental success. 

Global metrics are important, but there’s more to the story, as Milliken’s David Smith, senior vice president, Engineered Performance Products, explains: “What we are seeing is an industry-wide push to tailor the sustainability thought process to each customer’s market, their own customers and the needs of their business. We want to meet the industry where they are, so we are formulating our conversations around this push.”  

The drivers and narratives in each of the examples given here are quite different, which indicates that there is no single route to success. For Milliken, “The synergy of both technology and process is where we find the most success,” says Smith. “As material scientists, we know that machines, manpower, methods and materials are highly integrated. It is hard to separate these four elements, so we find that technology and process go hand in hand. As technology advances, processes can and will change.”  

For manufacturers and their stakeholders too, a willingness to change is essential to achieving circularity. 

Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic based in Toronto, Ont., Canada. She is the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles, and a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.

SIDEBAR: Customized and smart

Ford Europe (Ford Motor Co.) is introducing 3D knitting technology to produce seamless seat covers and is exploring the opportunity for customers to design their own seat covers and add custom touches such as pockets and padding. The technology also enables the use of smart textiles with built-in connectivity and integrated heating, controls for doors and windows; wireless smartphone charging; and sensors to monitor the driver’s health. Photo: Ford Europe.

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