Polyester and cotton currently represent the grand majority of the textile fibres that we use today. In 2012, polyester accounted for 70% of the global fibre consumption of 83 million tonnes, with cotton accounting for another 23%. The production of these two fibres in the conventional sense (as opposed to organic cotton which represents only 0.7% of the cotton market) is far from sustainable.

Conventional cotton has a high water demand, needing 20,000 litres of water to make 1kg of fabric. It also requires high volumes of insecticides to guarantee good yields. Cotton represents only 2.4% of the world’s crops, but accounts for 24% of global insecticide sales. Polyester is a synthetic fabric derived from crude oil, a non-renewable resource. The manufacturing process is energy intensive, generating atmospheric emissions of CO2, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, and water emissions of dissolved acids, iron and ammonia.

The textiles industry is starting to sit up and take notice of sustainability as a fundamental challenge. While this won’t mean an overnight shift away from conventional cotton and polyester as the go-to fabrics, it has lead to an explosion of alternatives. Each is competing for position as the sustainable fabric of the future, but which shows the most promise?

New Fabrics

Research in new fabrics continues to throw up novel and often surprising fabrics.

NETTLE

The common stinging nettle was used to produce textiles for thousands of years, until people switched to cotton in the 15th century. Stinging nettles can easily be grown sustainably, organically and with little water.

Nettles can be turned into tough textile for bus and car seats and also into finer linen-like fabrics for garments. Nettle fibre is naturally anti-bacterial and mould-resistant and also acts as a natural insulator suitable for both summer wear and winter clothing. 

S.CAFE

Coffee grounds help eliminate odour, and can be combined with polyester to make fabric. In addition, coffee can protect pigments and fibres from ultraviolet rays and acts as a great material for waterproofing.

Taiwanese company S.cafe was one of the worlds’ first mills to convert leftover coffee grounds to fabric. Today, its clientele includes Patagonia, North Face, Adidas and Victoria’s Secret. S.Cafe says one T-shirt can be made with 3 cups of coffee grounds and 5 recycled plastic bottles.

CRAiLAR

CRAiLAR is a flax based fibre that drastically reduces chemical and water usage. In 2012, the USDA named is a 100% BioPreferred product.

When produced into a fabric, CRAiLAR is almost identical to cotton. Due to its lower manufacturing costs, coupled with its environmentally friendly properties, it is proving to be an extremely valuable cotton alternative.

Attractive advantages of this new fibre are its strength and minimal shrinkage – for consumers and designers alike.

Producing one kilo of cotton finished fibre consumes roughly 2, 120 litres of water according to a Cotton, Inc. report. A kilo of CRAiLAR uses only 17 litres! That’s 99% less than cotton.

Furthermore, the cotton plant yields only 787 pounds of fibre per acre whereas flax, the plant used to make CRAiLAR, yields 1800 to 2700 pounds per acre!!

Qmilch

Derived from the protein in sour milk, Qmilch is a 100% natural and renewable fibre. The resultant fabric is comparable to silk, only less expensive and durable enough to be washed with ease.

Furthermore, owing to the amino acids present, the fabric has natural antibacterial and anti ageing properties which can help in regulating body temperature; making it attractive for sportswear brands.

According to Domaske, the milk based fibre can be used in medicine and makeup too!

EcoCircle Plant Fibre

EcoCircle is a plant-based polyester. It comprises 30% sugarcane, directly replacing 30% of the petroleum used in the manufacture of traditional polyester fibre.

Nissan has been one of the first to test the fibre in the form of upholstery in the Nissan Leaf electric car.

TENCEL®

Tencel is a fibre that is extracted from wood. Textiles made from the fibre are more absorbent than cotton, softer than silk and have a greater cooling effect than linen. For these reasons it is used largely in mattresses, household linen, sportswear, wipes and diapers.

The solvent used to make the fibre is almost 100% recycled, resulting in it becoming the recipient of the prestigious “European Award for the Environment”.

Soybean Protein Fibre (SPF)

SPF is a type of regenerative plant fibre. The fibre is sustainable in that it does not harm the environment or human body through its production process. Variations of the fibre allow for bacteria &ultraviolet-resistance.

Textiles can be made that are similar in texture and property to raw silk, cotton and cashmere. It also lends itself to seamless mixing with other fibres to create a greater varieties of textiles.

It has a wide range of textile possibilities and current uses are for underwear, baby clothes, towels and a variety of other garments.

Spider Silk

Spider silk is a biopolymer fibre, made from polymeric substances from spiders. It is non-polluting in its production and therefore biodegradable.

The is not a new technology; its use has been traced back thousands of years to when the ancient Greeks used cobwebs to curb bleeding and the Aborigines extracted the fibre for  fishing lines.

Spider Silk is an extremely hardy and versatile fibre. While it is in a nascent stage of its production, experts concur that it could be used successfully for bulletproof clothing, wear-resistant lightweight clothing, nets, seat belts, parachutes, rust-free panels on motor vehicles or boats, biodegradable bottles, bandages, surgical threads, artificial tendons or ligaments and supports for weak blood vessels. 

Basalt Fibres 

Basalt fibres are composed of purely mineral continuous filaments, derived from volcanic mineral deposits. In addition to being environmentally friendly, this fibre is superior owing to its properties of thermal stability, heat and sound insulation, vibration resistance and durability.

These properties made basalt fibres ideal for the following applications; Fire protected seats in planes, trains, ships, subways; Airplane life jacket pouches; Fire proof mattresses (for hospitals, hotels, etc.); Fire proof seating; Fire proof curtains and partitions for indoors and outdoors; Fire protective clothing; Fire resistant floor coverings: backing, reinforcement, Basalt carbon heaters for clothes, rooms etc; Fire proofing and heat protection cloths.

Corn Fibre (PLA)

Corn fibre is derived from renewable resources. It is made by converting corn starch into sugar and then fermenting it to get lactic acid.

The properties of the fibre are vast, from being able to balance strength and resilience with comfort, provide a wide range of thread counts, as well as outperform other synthetic fabrics in its resistance to UV light and retaining strength and colour.

Its applications are significant and include the creation of materials similar to synthetic fibres. It can be used for garments; nets, weed prevention bags etc, in agriculture; curing sheets, slope vegetation nets etc, in construction, for food packaging; trays, fast-food containers etc., and sundry products such as garbage bags. 

Ingeo® – POLY Acid

Ingeo® biopolymer or POLY acid is made from sugar. The fibre produces 60% less greenhouse gases and uses 50% less non-renewable energy than others within the polymer category. Product owners, Natureworks LLC say this is ‘equal to 19 barrels of oil or 775 gallons of gasoline’.

The fibre can be used for home textiles, clothes, bottles, food packaging and nappies to name a few applications.

MODAL® Edelweiss

Lenzing’s Modal® Edelweiss fibre is produced from the wood pulp of beech trees. The pulp and factory production are on one location, ensuring the fibres to be carbon neutral.

Being sustainable as they are low on environmental impact yet high on quality, the fibre uses between 10 – 20 times less water than in the production of cotton.

Designers and retailers such as Helmut Lang, Jonathan Saunders, ASOS are already using these versatile fibres that can even be blended with silk, cotton, wool and synthetic fibres. 

CORKSHELL

Developed by Swiss fabric technologists Schoeller, the Corkshell fibre is produced from the by-product of wine corks. As a feather to its cap, it is both bluesign® and FSC certified.

Cork has natural anti-microbial properties, the fabric made from this fibre is more able to stretch, and it has has 30% higher thermal insulation compared to other soft-shell textiles.

The resultant fabrics are suitable for lightweight spring and summer jackets.

Hemp

Hemp is a sustainable natural fibre that has been around for years. America’s Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper and the fabric was used to make the covers for the pioneer wagons of the 1800s.

Hemp is considered a sustainable crop because it has a low water consumption (requiring half as much water as cotton), high yield (200 – 250% higher than cotton) and low requirements for pesticides. Their deep roots also prevent soil erosion and they lose leaves throughout the season, which act as a natural soil improver.

The leading hemp producing country is China, where hemp growing has been linked to improving food security. The hemp plant can grow in semi-arid regions and in poor soil conditions where food crops cannot generally be grown. If 1.3 million hectares of hemp were planted, it has been calculated that China could reduce its cotton growing area by the same amount and free this up for food crops.

The hemp fibre is resistant, durable, and highly moisture absorbent making it easy to dye. Recent research results on the antibacterial properties of hemp has brought up opportunities for textile used in healthcare and military industries.

However, it has its limitations. It is course and fibrous and needs the lignin (a part of its cell wall that makes it woody) to be removed in order for it to be spun into fabric. For this reason, it is typically blended with other fabrics to make it softer.

When calculating the environmental impact of hemp farming, it’s important to consider that hemp (like cotton) is a primary fibre. This means that the crop is grown for the primary purpose of fibre production. The land and water required for its growth are solely used to create the fibre.

Banana and pineapple fabrics

The first and most considerable environmental benefit of these fabrics is that they are by-products of a pre-existing commercial process: that of food production. This means that the land required to produce a yield of fibre is not competing with that needed to grow food, and that the carbon and water footprints of both processes can effectively be shared.

What’s more, the processing of the plant fibres to make the fabric occurs after the harvesting of the fruit, using a ‘waste material’ of the food production process which would otherwise have been disposed of. This means that the textile making process is actually diverting waste from landfill, further reducing its carbon footprint as it prevents this organic material from degrading anaerobically (without the presence of oxygen) and producing methane gas.

Banana and pineapple fibres are gaining in reputation in the international textiles market, although they have been used by local craftsmen for centuries.

The fibres of the stems of the banana plant can be spun to create a textile with similar properties to hemp and bamboo. With nearly 1 billion tonnes of banana stems wasted in the food production business each year, there is plenty of raw material available to turn into product. On average, it takes 37kg of stems to make 1kg of fibre so hypothetically if all waste banana stems could be utilized, that would produce 2.7 million tonnes of fibre.

Eco-textile company Offset Warehouse sells banana fabrics produced by a Nepalese NGO that ensures fair pay and working conditions for their workers, but there are few companies managing to successfully scale up production.

Production of fabric from pineapple leaves has been commercialised with the creation of the fibre Piñatex® by the company Ananas Anam. To make Piñatex® the pineapple leaf fibres are cut up and layered to make a non-woven mesh material with similar properties to felt or leather.

As well as having a low-carbon growing process, when compared to using leather from animal hides, Piñatex® also creates less waste. The sheets are produced in regular shaped rolls as opposed to the irregular shape of hides. This results in wastage between fibre and product of only 5%, rather than up to 25% for leather.

The challenge of up-scaling both of these food industry by-product fabrics is in creating robust supply chains from small-scale producer to manufacturer. Currently, both banana and pineapple fibres are in very early stages of the commercialisation process.

Leather alternatives

The demand for leather goods is increasing, while consumers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the environmental impacts of the leather industry. This has previously lead to the growth of “pleather”, or plastic imitation leather, but this comes with its own environmental costs. Other more eco-friendly alternatives for leather are being developed, from a varied range of sources.

Eco-exotic® leather

High-end fashion brand heidi & adele have developed an alternative to snake skin for their handbags and accessories. Made from salmon and eel skins from fish farms, they are diverting a by-product of the food industry from waste disposal. With approximately 100 billion fish farmed each year, there is a considerable supply available.

Eco-leather

Eco-leather is made from natural fibres mixed with plant oils, laminated together in layers to create a fabric with a similar look and feel to animal leather.

The fabric is breathable like leather, but can be produced with a much lower carbon footprint and avoiding the environmentally harmful process of tanning which releases potentially toxic materials into the environment.

Nike, Puma and Adidas have shown interest in the material, but there are some design problems to be resolved first as it is currently too stiff, causing the stitching to break.

Biofabricated leather

Biotechnology company Modern Meadow are in the process of developing lab grown ‘leather’. To do this, they take living cells and grow collagen, the protein found in animal skin. The collagen is assembled into sheet material and then finished in a simplified tanning process.

The designers say that biofabricated leather can miss out the most chemically intensive part of the tanning process, demanding less water, chemicals and energy.

The technology is at a very early stage and faces a long journey to advance from lab testing to industrial manufacture. Along the way it will also have to convince its potential consumers of its ‘leather’ credentials.

Recycled fabrics

Aside from hemp, the fibres and materials that we’ve discussed are at relatively conceptual stages and there may be a considerable time until they can, if ever, be produced in volumes that are going to be able to significantly dent the market positions of cotton, polyester or leather. Instead, what can be integrated quite immediately are recycled fabrics.

H&M and Levis have used recycled cotton in some of their denim ranges, and Levis have recently launched their first jeans made out of 100% recycled cotton. However, there are problems with fibre quality as the mechanical recycling process results in damage to the fibre, shortening it and making it less suitable for use.

Another problem is that the majority of clothes are made from a blend of textiles, making them much harder to recycle mechanically. New technologies are being developed to find a way to split these back into their constituent parts to enable them to be recycled into usable textiles again.

Making clothing from recycled polyester is a much more sustainable process than from raw material. Recycling PET plastic bypasses the need to make new product from petroleum and uses 90% less water and 70% less energy than creating fabric from raw material.

Several companies are making strides in this endeavour.

Polyester recycling company REPREVE® have recycled more than 4 billion plastic bottles into clothing fibre, with 6 bottles making a shirt and 50 making a fleece. While the composition of the fabrics are not 100% recycled, it is much less harmful to the environment and a step closer to where we need to be in terms of textile recycling.

Econyl, developed by Aquafil is another recycled textile that is manufactured entirely from nylon waste streams such as abandoned fishing nets and carpets. Aside from industrial uses, Econyl is suitable for applications such as swimwear, sportswear, lingerie and outdoor clothing.

Returnity, is a 100% recyclable polyester which has the capacity to replace conventional polyester as well as cotton and wool-based textiles too. According to the Dutch Company aWEARness, (owner of the product’s European license), in comparison to cotton, these fabrics reduce carbon dioxide impact by 73%, waste management by 100% and water usage by 95%!

Conclusion

There are a great variety of new and recycled materials in different stages of development. The challenge is the scale of production that they need to reach to make any noticeable impact on the global textiles industry, which as of 2012 stood at 83 million tonnes.

It will take a change in collective will from designers, brands and consumers; to design with these new materials, to invest in the technologies, and to demand that we want more of them on the shelves.

Sources

Towards Sustainability in the Textiles Sector? A new paradigm on fibre sourcing – Solidaridad

Organic cotton facts – Organic Trade Association

Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester – Stockholm Environment Institute