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The circular economy

November 25th, 2019 / By: / Feature

What’s driving sustainable practices in today’s textile industry.

by Marie O’Mahony

The story of sustainability in the textile industry has grown and evolved, particularly in the last decade, with circularity now driving sustainability across the materials sector. According to the Ellen McArthur 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 varied challenges that companies face in formulating an agenda for sustainability. Photo: Marie O’Mahony.

The value chain is key to achieving full circularity. For some industries, this is relatively linear with a clear route to achieving this goal. The advanced, smart and industrial textile sectors are not so straightforward with various stages and different data often “silo’d.” In the apparel sector, the consumer is demanding greater transparency from brands, in large part because of the media exposing the impact of fast fashion on the environment, the practice known as ‘greenwashing’, as well as tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory fire in Bangladesh in April 2013, which resulted in the loss of more than a thousand lives.

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 towards full circularity. The rollout out of legislation, such as the European single-use plastics directive and California’s Proposition 65, are a reminder to the industry that it cannot afford to sit back and not participate.

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’s RISE2018 conference, held just four months after the European single-use plastics directive, the industry were not just prepared but energized by the move. Companies such as Shaw Industries with a long-standing reputation for a sustainable product (carpet) and a business model around service, were actively looking for ways to take environmental responsibility to the next level. This week the company launched COMFOR3TTM, a new soft floor covering designed for the event flooring market. Made with 60-80 percent recycled content, depending on the colour. It is softer underfoot than typical event carpets currently in service markets such as trade shows.

“Thus the name COMFOR3T,” according to 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 is looking to deliver on its climate change commitment to reduce greenhouse gases across its operations. The Maverick Creek Wind Project in Texas has just been initiated. The aim is that it will eventually deliver 6 percent of the company’s target for global GHG emissions reductions, around 670,000 megawatt hours of renewable energy annually.

The company has set itself key targets for 2022:

  • Divert 95 percent of manufacturing waste from landfill
  • Divert 10,587 metric tons of post consumer 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

The value of textiles used in cars and light vehicles last year is put at $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-share, 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,” Ken Kelzer, vice president, Global Vehicle Components and Subsystems, General Motors, said in a recent interview. “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. These are more visible and as such color, haptics and graphic qualities have to be a fit.

Solutions and rewards

On November 6, Time magazine was one of many publications across the globe to announce that India’s capital, 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 Delhi was not the worst, ranked at number fourteen in the country’s list of most polluted cities.

Solver Anirudh Sharma pitches Air-Ink, which captures and sequesters carbon found in air pollution to produce industrial-grade inks and pigments, during the Circular Economy pitch session at Solve Challenge Finals 2019.

One of the most innovative solutions to emerge this year has come from the Indian start-up Graviky Labs, which is now receiving support from North America. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Solve is a platform focused on finding solutions for global issues that have significant social impact. It looks to help big ideas gain support to get to market.

This year one of four prizes offered is a General Motors prize focusing on the circular economy. The winning submission came from Anirudh Sharma, Graviky Labs, for an “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 particles (PM2.5) are produced when fossil fuels burn. Using proprietary technology, these are converted 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.

Milliken & Co. was named one of the world’s most ethical companies by the Ethisphere Institute in 2018 for their commitment to environmental stewardship, the health and safety of workers and the future of their communities. With almost 9,000 worldwide suppliers and 43 manufacturing facilities, reaching their sustainable and ethical goals is not something that can be done overnight.

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

  • 100 million plastic water bottles diverted from landfill through the use of Repreve recycled fibers
  • The use of a water-based high-tack chemistry applied to their ready-to-use tire reinforcement fabrics that make it both lighter in use and safer for workers during production.

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

Global metrics are important, but there’s more to the story, as David Smith, senior vice president, Engineered Performance Products explains. “While the principles certainly apply, the McArthur Foundation’s infographic does not play as much of a role in our interactions with customers. 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. 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. She is a regular contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.