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Sustainability in textiles

May 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

As sustainability becomes more important to consumers, suppliers and manufacturers are pressed to verify product claims and become more eco-friendly.

by Pamela Mills-Senn

There are plenty of fashion trends hitting the runways this season, such as this year’s hottest color (orange is very in), patterns (think floral) and capes—lots of capes. But sustainable fashions are also in the spotlight, with several designers showcasing lines made from upcycled and recycled materials. In fact, some designers have declared sustainable clothing the trend to watch for.

Customers of all stripes are requesting PVC-free products, especially when used for interior applications. Adding color, visual interest and style to the decor of Cibo Distrada restaurant in Italy is Dickson’s Jet Tex Comfort PVC-free wallcovering. Design by Photo: Dickson Coatings.

Dr. Thomas Stegmaier, deputy director of the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) Denkendorf, the largest textile research center in Europe, credits the growing mindfulness about the impact of textiles on the environment for this interest.

“Designers often ask us about sustainable ways and materials,” he says. “The end customer’s decision to buy a piece of clothing is also decisive for products coming onto the market. A major change in awareness can also be felt here, which in turn causes the big brands to have suppliers of textiles manufacture more sustainably.” 

Interest in sustainable textiles has spread across all manner of product categories, including those directed to the architectural, geomembrane and roofing markets, says Sue Uhler, IFD technical marketing manager for Seaman Corp. Based in Wooster, Ohio, the company manufactures industrial coated fabrics.

“Customers are especially interested in sustainable or eco-friendly products in applications people routinely come into contact with,” Uhler explains. “This could be gym mats, seating, coverings, drinking water containment, etc.” 

Fabrics destined for graphics, awnings, structures, tents and industrial markets are receiving closer scrutiny. According to Anthony Pappalardo, sales manager, North America, for Dickson® Coatings, a Saint-Clair-de-la-Tour, France-based manufacturer of coated textiles, customers are increasingly requesting PVC- and phthalate-free products as well as those free of formaldehyde, phosphates and glycol ether. 

This is especially the case when it comes to the interiors of hotels, hospitals, schools and offices where the impact of such chemicals on human health is a concern, making the company’s Evergreen collection of water-based, digital-print fabrics a popular choice for these applications, he says.

Keeping them honest

The consumer focus on sustainability isn’t going away anytime soon, says John Gant, director of sustainability at Glen Raven Inc. Headquartered in Glen Raven, N.C., the company makes Sunbrella® and other fabrics for shade, marine, contract and residential upholstery applications worldwide. All Sunbrella fabrics are fade-proof, mold- and mildew-resistant, easy to maintain and are bleach-cleanable.

“We believe consumers will continue to educate themselves about the products they buy and carefully select from whom they buy,” says Gant. “Studies show the majority of consumers seek brands that will help them be environmentally friendly. This goes beyond the furniture or even the fabric industry. We see these shifts impact all types of businesses, from the decline of fast-fashion to the rise of seasonal diets and local purchases.”

This is pressuring manufacturers to assess how their processes and products affect the environment and human health, Pappalardo explains. Companies aligned with this consumer value have an advantage when it comes to competing for projects and orders, he adds.

The DITF central laboratory offers comprehensive technologies for the research and testing of fiber-based materials and textiles. The lab can also customize tests and develop customer-specific tests. The research center employs about 300 scientists, technicians and laboratory assistants who come from a range of testing and quality assurance areas. Photo: German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) Denkendorf.

This has led to some manufacturers making false or misleading sustainability claims. As a result, there has been an increased demand for sustainability testing from suppliers eager to validate the eco-friendliness of their products and processes, says Dr. Jan Beringer, senior scientific expert for Hohenstein, an international testing services provider and research partner for the textile industry, headquartered in Bönnigheim, Germany. 

“Our research centers around the interaction between textiles, humans and the environment,” Beringer explains. “Hohenstein is a founding member and leading provider of the OEKO-TEX® portfolio of services, such as the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX certification, and is certified by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission as a third-party, independent laboratory for CPSIA [Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act] compliance verification.”

Biodegradability testing is among those the company conducts. Although such testing is commonly offered by labs, the methodology can vary, delivering results that may not be as valid as desirable. For example, some labs will subject fabrics or fibers to accelerated conditions, such as extremely high temperatures or pressures, says Beringer.

“Such tests do not mirror real-world conditions,” he says. “For example, clothing often ends up at the top of landfills, so, therefore, tests relying on extremely high pressures do not provide a true picture of how biodegradable a fabric or fiber might actually be.”

Biodegradability is among the top-requested tests conducted at Hohenstein’s testing lab. When testing soil under aerobic conditions, biological activity is monitored on several parameters, such as temperature, soil moisture and chemical oxygenation. The standardized tests can be carried out under defined laboratory conditions or outdoor conditions relevant to the practice. Photo: Hohenstein.

Instead, Hohenstein simulates biodegradability under “real-world and worst-case conditions.” The methodology he describes appears straightforward—dig a hole in soil, place the material in the hole, cover it, dig it up after three months, weigh it to determine how much has been lost/biodegraded and (optional) analyze the soil to see if any ecotoxicological/harmful substances were released by the buried textile while biodegrading.  

DITF conducts research in three areas: textile chemistry and chemical fibers, textile and process engineering, and management research. This, says Stegmaier, covers “the entire textile value chain from molecule to the product.” The company also develops products—systems as well as technology—for textile businesses in different fields worldwide.

Stegmaier explains a textile can be considered sustainable if:

  • The production measures and chemicals used fit the best available technologies around environmental protection.
  • The fibers and coatings are based on renewable resources. 
  • The textile is based on recycled polymers or fibers.
  • The product in application has a long lifetime.
  • The textile can be recycled.
  • The textile is totally biodegradable.
  • The textile is skin/body compatible.

The company offers tests and system methods for all the above
criteria, says Stegmaier. 

“For example, in the case of polymer recycling, we are able to check the rheological behavior of the polymer and the spinning behavior of filaments by thermoplastic extrusion spinning,” he says. “In the case of fiber recycling, we offer the determination of the spinning ability of recycled fibers to form a yarn with different spinning technologies and of the processing behavior of recycled fibers to form a nonwoven.

“Regarding biodegradation, we offer in our labs the determination of chemical oxygen demand, biological oxygen demand, and the degradation during composting and in biogas fermentation processes,” Stegmaier continues. “In addition, the determination of toxic ingredients during composting is necessary.”

Beringer predicts that as consumers continue to scrutinize how goods are produced, what the products contain, a company’s carbon footprint and other eco-drive concerns—activity driven in large part by social media—the demand for greater sustainability will only intensify, accelerating the need for testing.

Suppliers seek to assure

Many textile and fiber suppliers are investing significant resources into creating eco-friendly processes and products. They’re also expending great effort into ensuring these efforts are validated by testing, either conducted in-house, through an outside lab or some combination of both.

Consider Seaman. Included among the company’s offerings are the XR® Geomembranes formulated for extreme strength, performance and durability. Three grades are offered—XR-5® for broad chemical-resistant applications; XR-3® for moderate chemical-resistant applications; and XR®PW for potable water contact products. Other products include the FiberTite Roofing Systems of resilient, chemical- and UV-resistant coated-fabric membranes (these were the first membranes to be labeled under the ENERGY STAR® roofing products program, says Uhler).

“We focus on longevity and durability in the design of our products—increasing the overall product lifecycle to eliminate the need for replacement materials and disposal of end-of-life materials,” says Uhler. “The longevity of the membranes is proven through case studies on roofs that have been in service for over 25 years, like Inn Maid Noodles in Millersburg, Ohio. The roof was installed in 1981 and is still in service.”

The company conducts many of its tests in-house, with products undergoing fit-for-use analysis like weathering, flame resistance, tensile/tear tests, abrasion resistance, cold crack and others designed to ensure long-term wear. But there are times when an outside lab might be used, such as in the case of a one-time test or a test run so infrequently that the expertise of an outside lab is required.

Dickson Coatings manufactures its products in France, abiding by the EU’s REACH compliance regulations, says Pappalardo. These regulations specify chemicals and substances banned because of their environmental impact. The Evergreen fabrics are also certified to GREENGUARD Gold, OKEO-TEX 100,
A+ and Safety of Toys NF EN 71-3. The tests are conducted by an outside third party.

“We also have ISO conduct a life cycle assessment to ISO 14040–14044, which compares our Evergreen fabrics to typical vinyl products found on the market,” Pappalardo adds. “This test concludes that the Evergreen fabrics have a better carbon footprint and are better for human health due to the lack of emissions emitted from the water-based coatings.”

The Sunbrella® Renaissance program takes leftover fabric scraps, fiber and yarn and turns them into a sustainable textile with vintage charm, rich coloration, soft feel and excellent performance. Photo: Sunbrella.

At Glen Raven, sustainability starts with solution-dyed fibers, which require less water than traditional dyed yarns and are more durable and colorfast, says Gant. Sustainability also takes place at the plant level. For example, the North Carolina and South Carolina plants have been recycling all textile and packaging waste for more than 25 years. And in 2009, the Anderson (S.C.) plant became the first to divert all waste from landfills by partnering with recycling companies.

Further illustrating their sustainability commitment—among the goals is becoming zero-waste-to-landfill—are the Sunbrella Renaissance and the Recycle My Sunbrella programs. The former takes leftover scraps, fibers and yarns, upcycling the material into something new. The Renaissance yarns combine up to 50 percent post-industrial, recycled Sunbrella fiber with virgin Sunbrella fiber. Plans are to introduce a new collection of fabrics consisting of greater than 50 percent recycled materials.

Combining up to 50 percent of post-industrial recycled Sunbrella® fiber with virgin Sunbrella fiber, the Sunbrella Renaissance yarns transform fabric waste into beautiful fabric options consumers can feel good about using. The company plans to expand upon its Renaissance work by introducing a new collection of fabrics consisting of greater than 50 percent recycled material. Photo: Sunbrella.

The latter program allows domestic consumers of Sunbrella products to participate in the company’s recycling processes, providing a “take-back” option for fabric scraps, awning covers, boat covers and upholstery. Gant says since this program’s inception, Glen Raven’s business partners and homeowners have recycled nearly a million pounds of fabric.

Glen Raven conducts many tests in-house—its labs are certified by outside agencies to ISO 17025 and it ensures quality control to meet the requirements of ISO 09001 certifications in all plants where Sunbrella products are made. However, products are still submitted for third-party certifications for verification purposes. Gant says most of the company’s fabrics are GREENGUARD Gold certified to meet the standards for low-chemical emission; furniture fabrics are certified to meet the Standard 100 by OKEO-TEX standards; and most contract fabrics are also certified by the Association for Contract Textiles “Facts®” program. Additionally, Sunbrella fabrics are EU REACH-compliant and meet California Prop 65 requirements.

Looking ahead

Gant says more companies will strive to improve their sustainability practices. However, says Beringer, if this is to happen, everyone involved in the effort must work together, particularly since the concern over sustainability is being pushed all the way down the supply chain. For example, he explains, if a sustainable polymer becomes part of a product or material that hasn’t been sustainably produced, then all the benefits of that polymer have been lost.

He also suggests that as tests have become more complex, providing more data, it may become necessary for textile and fiber manufacturers to have technical staff capable of understanding the results, since in some cases the terminology cannot be translated into lay terms.

For example, testing for microplastics (along with biodegradability, this is among the top-requested tests) can involve a standard filtration test, where the wash wastewater is filtered and the weight of the residue is determined, revealing how much fiber mass was shed during washings.

But Hohenstein can also provide greater detail about the shed fibers through its dynamic image analysis, revealing the count, the shape, the length and diameter distribution and so on. By affording a deeper understanding, manufacturers can make more informed decisions moving forward.

In addition to biodegradability being a main focus, Stegmaier says DITF is investing efforts into the recycling methods of carbon fibers coming from the composite industry (among other areas of research).

“We are working on producing new commingling yarns with thermoplastic fibers and nonwoven structures as a base for composite materials,” he says. “In our technical world, we should create new textile products with more emphasis, because the way materials are used after their lifetime must be considered. 

“More and more important are the strategies of recycling fibers, recycling polymers or creating biodegradable products,” he continues. “Creating waste for depository or incineration is no option for the future. For these strategies, the corresponding tests and evaluation systems have to be available.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Supporting textile innovation

Product development specialist Dan Rhodes (blue shirt) and process coordinator Don Rusch work with a summer intern on programing the SSM Xeno Winder at the Gaston College Textile Technology Center in Belmont N.C. The winder, which allows yarn to be transferred from one package to another, is used for package preparation. The resulting package may go into twisting, plying, dyeing or other processes. Photo: Gaston College Textile Technology Center.

Originally founded as a textile trade school to support WWII war efforts, the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College in Belmont, N.C., has evolved to provide product development, testing and training solution services to the textile industry. Comprised of seven labs and process areas—Analytic Chemistry Laboratory, Dye Laboratory, Fabric Formation (weaving), Melt Extrusion Laboratory, Microscopy and Defect Analysis Laboratory, Physical Testing Laboratory, and Yarn Processing—the center services fiber, textile and apparel products, yarn manufacturers, startup companies and more, says Jasmine Cox, process coordinator of testing.

Cox says the center has seen a significant increase in sustainable product development and testing requests from throughout the supply chain. However, she adds, the largest jump in requests has come from small businesses and startups. Often the very drivers of innovation in the textile industry, these smaller operators rely on the center’s staff and laboratories since adding the necessary equipment in-house can be prohibitive.

“The most requested tests we see here are fiber ID, finish analysis and overall fiber specs for sustainable textiles,” says Cox. “In the past, textile mills discarded fiber waste or used it for less functional purposes such as heavyweight nonwovens or pillow stuffing. But now, brands, yarn spinners and fiber producers are looking for ways to add value to their waste.”

Fiber identification allows companies collecting waste to understand the material they have, while finish analysis is essential when developing testing methods for sustainable materials, she explains. General fiber specs—such as fiber length, crimp level, tenacity—are important to know when working with sustainable fibers destined for use in apparel.

“Brands and apparel producers have driven the sustainable textile movement, but consumers dictate what will sell,” Cox says. “Shoppers’ ideals are shifting from the lowest-cost item to an item that speaks to their personal ideals. Environmentally safe and sustainable clothing is high on consumers’ priorities and apparel producers are attempting to meet this demand, influencing textile manufacturers and suppliers.”