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Textiles, sports and sustainability

July 13th, 2020 / By: / Feature

Major brands have led initiatives to improve sustainability in the textile industry. 

by Marie O’Mahony

The sports industry has become one of the leading drivers of sustainability in textiles, after having got off to a slow start initially. Designers, such as Stella McCartney with her longstanding relationship with global sports brand adidas®, have played an important role in raising awareness across the sportswear industry—particularly once it was shown to be what the consumer wanted. Today, the industry directly and indirectly provides impetus for the development of yarns, manufacturing processes and end products that are more sustainable than ever before.

Mylo™ is a bioleather made from mycelium and produced by Bolt Thread. Photo: Bold Thread.

Polyester and silk

The Circular Economy principles outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation challenge manufacturers to take into account the whole lifecycle of a product from raw material to reuse and final end of life. For many manufacturers and brands, it is a lot to take on at once.

Adidas has proposed a Three Loop Strategy to put an end to plastic waste and move towards a circular future. The first is the Recycled Loop, made with recycled materials,   the second is the Circular Loop, made to be remade (ideally from a single material type), and the third Regenerated Loop, which is made to be regenerated utilizing biotechnology such as the dress designed with Stella McCartney using biofabricated microsilk. 

Since 2015, adidas has partnered with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization and global collaboration network, which collects and recycles ocean plastic as one of its initiatives. The polyester used in their Primeblue and Primegreen shoe collections is 100 percent recycled made from yarns and filaments utilizing plastic ocean waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets. Both were unveiled in Miami for Super Bowl LIV. The adidas Parley relationship has grown from one million pairs of shoes produced in 2017 to eleven million pairs in 2019, according to Parley.

Bioleather

Biotechnology has long attracted interest, not just from the sports industry, but from automotive seating manufacturers and footwear brands. Finding a more sustainable alternative to leather has been a priority for many and several results have been commercialized. Bolt Threads, Emeryville, Calif., produce the microsilk used by “adidas by Stella McCartney®,” but they also produce Mylo™, a bioleather made from mycelium. 

Mycelium is the network of cells that comprise funghi, appearing in fine, thread-like form that can be grown in a controlled environment. As an alternative to real or synthetic leather it has a soft and supple feel, and from a design point of view, it has the additional benefit of a shape and texture that can be engineered. 

London-based Gelatex Technologies has taken a different approach, utilizing waste in the form of gelatin from the meat processing industry to create its leather-like material. The company estimate that as much as 40 percent of the animal is waste and is often discarded by the meat industry. The gelatin is converted to nanofibers to form a mesh that can then be laminated with a cotton or other fabric for added durability and aesthetic qualities.

Composites

High performance sports equipment and vehicles arguably face even greater challenges than apparel in achieving full circularity because of their high reliance on composite materials. In the U.K., the National Composites Centre (NCC) estimates that “more than 95 percent of composites are made from raw materials and resins that are derived from oil, making them unsustainable.”  

Scientists at the Deutsche Institute Fur Textil + Faserforschung (DITF) in Germany are developing a hybrid yarn containing 50 percent recycled carbon fibers (rCF). The rCF is generated using waste production fiber that is fed into a carding machine to produce an orientated fiber. This is stretched and fed into a rewinding spinning machine with a high-tenacity cellulose fiber to produce the hybrid yarn. A polypropylene (PP) multifilament wraps the yarn core to compact the sliver into the yarn. 

Tests show good results using a bio-based polyurethane (PU) resin, with the fiber volume of the composite capable of achieving 75 percent. The NCC and ELG Carbon Fiber Ltd. In the U.K. are taking waste carbon fiber material and converting the fibers into nonwoven mats. In the process, out of life prepreg, ply cutter nesting waste, dry fiber and cured components are first separated by the NCC. These are then taken to ELG Carbon Fiber where a thermochemical pyrolysis treatment removes all but the carbon fiber. 

Because pyrolysis relies on heat in the absence of air, this makes it a highly endothermic process that ensures high energy content in the material that is produced. The recycled fibers are manufactured into a nonwoven ELD Carbiso M suited for resin infusion, closed mould and other composite processes.

Information opens up

Traditionally, material sources have been a closely guarded secret, but this is changing as the consumer is demanding that their brand not just say but demonstrate how they are ethical and sustainable. The result is that information about supply chains and materials is becoming more open. 

Google and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Sweden are combining their expertise to offer brands a digital platform to source sustainable raw materials. An earlier pilot project that tracked cotton and viscose will be expanded to rate materials and sources on issues such as water scarcity, air pollution and assessing greenhouse gas emissions. 

In their press release issued in June, Google said, “The [fashion] industry today accounts for 20 percent of wastewater and 2–8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, potentially rising by as much as 50 percent by 2030. Much of this impact occurs at the raw materials stage in the production process, where supply chains can be highly fragmented, and gathering and assessing data at scale is a challenge.” 

The ambition is to utilize the data gathering, processing and analysis power of Google Cloud with the industry knowledge of WWF to provide an open source platform to benefit the whole industry. 

This importance of the sports industry for the development of sustainable performance and advanced textiles is that, on the one hand, it has traditionally been a key driver of innovation in materials, but of equal importance is its high consumer profile. Sports enthusiasts and participants may not necessarily ask about sustainability, but over time they will come to know about it, and, in some way, behavior and purchasing decisions are influenced and change in the industry occurs.

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, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.