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The larger sustainability picture

December 11th, 2017 / By: / Feature


FlexForm Technologies, Elkhart, Ind., manufactures nonwoven, natural-fiber composite mats and panel products that are completely recyclable. Photo: FlexForm.

Trends reflect a global interest in natural fibers and ethical practices.

The smart and advanced textile industries, while broadly in agreement on the need to be more sustainable, are in less accord when deciding how to address the issue. Cultural and local differences can on one level exacerbate reaching a consensus, but they can also offer an opportunity for initiatives that start small, and which could develop into a template for the global community.

Europe today, tomorrow the world

In 1998 two Dutchmen, Adriaan Beukers and Ed van Hinte published a book titled Lightness:The Inevitable Renaissance of Minimum Energy Structures. Beukers was then Professor of Composite Structures at TUDelft, and the book expounded the environmental, social and design value of lightweight structures for engineering, building, transport and other applications.

The seminal book has gone on to inspire much of the thinking around sustainability and the circular economy. In 2000 the European Union issued a directive on end-of-life vehicles and the world looked from metal to textiles—and to composites, in particular.  A 2016 McKinsey report, Disruptive Trends that will Transform the Auto Industry, anticipated that “In 2030, the share of electrified vehicles could range from 10 percent to 50 percent of new-vehicle sales.”

Gas costs coupled with greater efficiencies and availability of alternative energy sources are making this more attractive to the consumer. Weight of vehicle is coming under the microscope more than ever with textiles—composites and nonwovens, in particular—playing an important role in achieving this. The consumer of alternative energy vehicles is generally more environmentally focused than the owner of a gas-fuelled car. This is a key driver in their purchasing decisions.

On October 25, 2017, The European Composites Industry Association (EuCIA) held a seminar on Lightweight, Durable and Sustainable Composites[1]. While durability, strength-to-weight ratio and low-fuel consumption are promoted by the industry globally, the seminar highlighted the next stage:Sustainability as a key driver for the use of composites, and the need for life-cycle assessment (LCA) methods that provide reliable, reproducible results.”

In Indiana, FlexForm Technologies has been producing nonwoven natural fiber mats since 1999 for a number of applications that includes automotive uses. The company’s products are used in car door panels, seat backs, cab liners and flooring for American and international automotive and truck manufacturers.

The company uses kenaf stalks, which they see as comparable to glass or carbon fiber in strength but much less toxic for workers handling the chemicals associated with these materials. The environmental benefits are many. “Kenaf grows fully in seven months, tolerates drought, and does not require extensive herbicides,” the company says. “It grows in regions where cotton and tobacco thrive.”  The down side is a higher cost for the materials, which needs to be passed on to the consumer.

Bringing the global to local
Faurecia’s Bio Garden demonstrates the company’s commitment to developing biomaterials for use in car interiors. NAFLean for example, combines hemp with polypropylene is used in the Peugeot 308 (2013) and more recently used in the instrument panel of the Alfa Romeo Giulia. Photo: Faurecia North America.

The World Ethical Apparel Roundtable WEAR 2017 conference held in Toronto highlighted the breadth of issues around sustainability. Textiles were a starting point, but three additional panels discussed the topic, “Waste and the Circular Economy, Labour and Water.” The complexity in addressing these is something that all advanced textile industries face, not just apparel.

As advanced and smart textiles look towards incorporating more natural fibers, the subject of animal husbandry must be considered. The issue of mulesed sheep can either be a problem or an important marketing tool. Mulseing is the practise where a strip of wool-bearing skin is removed from the hind-quarters of the sheep. It is a cruel and unnecessary practise primarily carried out in Australia, the main source of luxurious Merino wool.

Publicity around the subject has created greater awareness amongst consumers who are now demanding non-mulesed wool and are prepared to pay a premium for it. The result is a growth in wool transparency that is providing a model for other parts of the textile industry as it moves towards a more transparent and accountable supply chain.

The food and beverage industry has an established history of accountability with labelling, such as Fair Trade and Single Origin, now a common sight on products from coffee to chocolate. A Tasmanian merino wool farmer and menswear designer MJ Bale are working together to produce a collection of ‘single origin’ men’s suits using non-mulesed wool from Simon Cameron’s farm. The superfine wool is baled and shipped to Italy to be woven into a suiting fabric, shipped to be handmade by tailors in Japan, and finally sold online and in stores in Australia.

MJ Bale pays an additional premium to the wool producer that’s applied to maintaining sustainable farming practises, such as preserving native grasses. Weaving the fabric and making the suits locally would reduce the carbon footprint and shipping costs, but without a large pool of these high skills in the country, the designer has limited choices—for the moment, at least.

Global automotive supplier, Faurecia, has developed biomaterials for use in car interiors and a switchless technology, “Intuitive,” that converts aluminum, wood, plastic or fabric materials into smart surfaces to form a tactile dashboard. Photo: Faurecia North America.

British company Finisterre is bringing Merino wool into a more technical product that is aimed at surfers. “As surfers, Merino is our go-to because it is moisture-wicking and incredibly soft and warm. … climbers, runners, cyclists, hikers alike use our base layers, thanks to its antibacterial and temperature-regulating properties,” the company says.

Like a growing number of labels wanting to avoid customer concerns on mulesing, the label is sourcing their non-mulesed wool from New Zealand, where it is fully traceable. The processing and knitting is carried out in Europe by eco-label certified spinners.

From the point of view of recycling using a single material in a product is the ideal. But this has to be balanced against other issues such as longevity, so 20 percent polyamide is blended with the wool to help prevent twisting and ladders forming. Bringing additional performance capabilities to natural fibers is part of a current trend in sportswear that is in part sustainability driven but also looks to the consumer attraction to heritage.

It is unlikely that the consumer is going to demand organic composites in their car anytime soon; however, the move towards greater integration of natural fibers with high performance fibers is already happening in applications from military apparel to truck bodies. This brings opportunity but also the need to address a whole suite of additional sustainable and ethical criteria new to a largely synthetic-focused industry.


Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, a member of the Canadian intelliWEAR Leadership Council, and the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson.


[1] A video of the Lightweight, Durable and Sustainable Composites seminar is available online. This is free to view for members of EuCIA member associations, and €50 for non-members. To register: