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Sustainability successes in textiles

Features | December 17, 2018 | By:

Both large picture and incremental changes can have a positive impact.
Carpet and carpet fiber producer Shaw Industries achieved carbon neutrality in its commercial carpet manufacturing operations in May of this year. Photo: Shaw Industries.

Two major challenges facing the advanced textile industry in its pursuit of sustainability are first, meeting consumer expectations and secondly, meeting global industry standards. This second challenge one might expect to be more straightforward, but for the fact that new information about environmental impacts continues to emerge. The consumer also is struggling to keep abreast of the issues with the constant stream of information that appears in the news and social media.

In their seminal book Cradle to Cradle (2002), William McDonough and Michael Braungart devote a whole chapter on “Why being ‘less bad’ is no good,” arguing that “We have just too little knowledge about industrial pollutants and their effects on natural systems for ‘slowing down’ to be a healthy strategy in the long-term.”

This has become the premise for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s principles for achieving a Circular Economy, a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design, building economic, natural and social capital. Achieving and maintaining these principles means constant vigilance, so how do textile manufacturers large and small do this in a way that makes economic as well as environmental sense?

Bigger picture Circular Economy

Innovation by its nature is in a constant state of flux, so that innovation in sustainability could be regarded as demanding a state of “hyperflux.”  Shaw Industries, based in Dalton, Georgia, is the world’s largest provider of carpet and carpet fiber. The company has a well-established reputation for its sustainable and innovative business model, and announced that it achieved carbon neutrality in its commercial carpet manufacturing operations in May of this year.

They reached this goal by reducing their energy consumption, then switching to cleaner fuels; producing renewable energy at their own facilities; and incentivizing additional renewable energy development and usage through the purchase of renewable energy credits. These efforts include installing a 1 MW solar array on their carpet tile manufacturing facility in Georgia. Their PVC – free EcoWorx carpet tile is structured around an environment focused business model that sees almost one billion pounds of post-consumer carpet diverted from landfill and over three billion plastic bottles converted into carpet fiber each year.

Speaking at the Association of the Nonwovens Industry (INDA) RISE2018 conference in September, John Bradshaw, director of materials recovery at Shaw Industries, pointed to some of the internal, but especially the external challenges that companies face from a sustainability standpoint.

Scaling up production means doing the same with the recycling process for Shaw Industries and while possible, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the cost at the same level. Regulatory impacts come from individual states, such as California, within the U.S., as well as overseas, with China closing its doors to some recycling.

A second key external factor is fluctuations in supply and demand with a consumer trend moving towards hard floors. A cursory look over the covers of magazines such as World of Interiors, House and Garden and Elle Décor this year see a dominance of hard floors with rugs, but little wall-to-wall carpeting. This is coupled with the availability of Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) flooring that offers wear and low maintenance for the “active home” in particular with high traffic, kids or pets.

The Shaw response has been to develop PET Resilient, made from 40 percent post-consumer PET, with the aim to increase this percentage. Palette will be the first collection to come from the PET Resilient line and promises to be the next generation of resilient. It is the first to utilize 100 percent PET, with no PVC or plasticizers, and uses digital printing to offer four distinct aesthetics that includes Twill with a woven textile appearance.

Making a difference

Focusing on a single issue can offer the potential for a monumental difference. Water—its scarcity and its pollution—is one of the most contentious environmental issues facing the textile industry at present. As far back as 2010 The Economist ran a special report on water, saying “water… is the new oil.”  The textile industry has come under intense pressure to address its use (and misuse) of the resource, so that new products and technologies have been developed to address the questions of water use.

In Taiwan, the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) has developed Co2SD, a waterless dyeing technology (patented) for the textile industry. Using a single bath Supercritical Fluid Dye (SFD) process, carbon dioxide is used as the dye solvent in place of water. The developers estimate that the technology will save the country’s own textile industry alone 2.5 million tons of water per annum along with a saving on the energy needed to dry the textiles. Taiwan has set a goal to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDNC) by 2020.

Incremental changes grab fewer headlines yet can offer significant advances in environmental impact and in the thinking behind new product development and production. Recycling is one part of the Circular Economy, but with the aim of keeping product out of landfills as long as possible, beginning and end-of-life processes are a focus for new developments.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 500,000 tons of plastic microfibers are released into the oceans each year from the textile laundry process. This is the equivalent of around fifty billion plastic bottles. In Europe, a proposal for New Measures to Reduce Marine Litter aimed largely at single-use plastics has been put forward to the European Parliament and Council for adoption. It includes a clause on Obligations for Producers, relating mainly to packaging, but also wipes.

PrimaLoft has developed biodegradable fibers for use in insulation products with the aim of having a material that is robust enough for repeated use, reuse and is finally biodegradable in a process that leaves behind just water, methane, carbon dioxide and biomass. Over 80 percent of the biodegradation process occurs within 395 days under ASTM D5511 conditions. Primaloft Bio is the first in synthetic insulation to be made from biodegradable fibers.

Digital transformation

Digital technologies are been used in a variety of ways to address issues of sustainability. From optimising energy and water use to the management of transparent supply chains. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GSI) is a membership organization that looks to provide impartial information, resources and a best practice blueprint for achieving integrated social and environmental sustainability through information and communication technology (ICT).

With a membership largely drawn from the ICT sector they look to support timely and effective responses to issues such as climate change, energy efficiency, e-waste management and resource efficiency, responsible supply chain practices and human rights. In their recent report titled “Enabling Rights: The Transformative Potential of Digital to Enable People’s Rights,” they acknowledge that while technologies such as blockchain are offering digital solutions for responsible supply chain practices, it is an area that remains “largely untapped.”

At WEAR2018 held in Toronto, Ont., a whole panel was given to presentations and discussion of what ICT companies can offer the textile and apparel industries. Ulula, ConsenSys and Ethereum each presented innovative and compelling systems; however, the time needed to set up and maintain these systems at present make them more attractive to larger companies. This, no doubt, will change as systems become more streamlined.


Video: Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI)


Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.

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