SAFE CHEMICALS MAKE YOUR GARMENTS SUSTAINABLE AND HEALTHY
Chemical finishes on our garments deliver certain characteristics to the garments, whether aesthetic or functional. For example, water-repellency, reducing the abrasiveness of yarns, moisture wicking, etc., are some of the features that a chemical places on a garment. But only few realise its hazardous effects on the environment and human health. These chemicals often end up in water bodies polluting them owing to the several washes that they undergo. The issue has raised a concern among brands and consumers from quite some time and calls for innovative solutions or substitutes for these chemicals.
Safer Made, in collaboration with Fashion for Good, has released a new report titled ‘Safer Chemistry Innovation in the Textile and Apparel Industry’, which addresses innovation areas in textile and apparel industry to introduce safer chemistry innovation in the commercial reality. Safer Made invests in companies that remove or reduce the use of harmful chemicals in products or manufacturing processes. This initiative will help the textile and apparel industry facing increased pressure and scrutiny from consumers, advocacy groups, and regulatory agencies to address the use of hazardous chemicals.
Cotton, the second-most used fibre after polyester, uses as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of fibre, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Due to this, other natural fibres such as rayon, tencel, hemp are gaining popularity as they do not significantly affect the environment.
The specified report identifies five innovation areas within the textile and apparel industry that give safe chemistry solutions, which are New Materials, New Safer Chemistries, Waterless Processing, Fibre Recycling, and Supply Chain Information Management Tools.
It is evident that choice of materials used to manufacture a garment can define the effect of harmful chemicals. Materials derived from renewable sources or from recycled feedstocks have the potential to lower the carbon lifecycle, water and chemistry impacts when compared to traditional materials. Sadly, there has been no new developments in textile materials with new performance characteristics. If the industry has new materials on board, it gives the manufacturers an opportunity to replace harmful materials with something that is safer and performs better. Moreover, the conscious consumers of today have created a demand for sustainable materials. Catering to this trend, a number of young brands are focusing on natural materials and dyes as a key differentiator. Looking at the statistics, polyester consumption contributed to 55 per cent of the global mill consumption share of all major fibres in 2015, which is almost double of cotton (27 per cent). The report highlights that most of the polyester used by the industry is from virgin feedstock; and only a small percentage of polyester is sourced from recycled PET drink bottle. And the microfibres that are released with every wash of a garment pose a serious environmental threat. However, there are companies that are working on developing new types of polyester which are more environment-friendly. Poole Company is making biodegradable polyester that can be blended with natural fibres and can be degraded in the environment at the end of the product’s life. Some brands are adding bio-based content in PET polyester. Sundried, a UK-based sportswear brand, adds coffee grounds in recycled PET polyester. Other such companies engaged in new synthetic fibre development are AlgiKnit, AMSilk, Bionic, Bolt Threads, Fulgar, Green Banana Paper, Mango Materials, Spiber, Virent, etc.
Cotton the second-most used fibre after polyster, uses as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of fibre, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Due to this, other natural fibres such as rayon, tencel, hemp are gaining popularity as they do not significantly affect the environment. Lenzing, a cellulosic fibre producer, launched ECOVERO, a product that uses sustainable wood feedstock and cleaner production process. Further, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge have created a fibre that has the strength and flexibility of spider silk and is made from a material called hydrogel, containing silica and cellulose.
New Safer Chemistries
Chemicals are applied to yarns and fabrics during dyeing and finishing in order to colour fabrics and give them functional properties such as water resistance, moisture resistance, flame resistance, or stain resistance. These finishes call for innovation which is giving an opportunity to established chemical suppliers and young companies to develop possible solutions. Green Theme International, a young company, is developing highly durable waterrepellency performance without using fluorocarbons. Another area is synthetic dyes which can be replaced by biobased dyes. Today there are many other chemical suppliers of dyes, and most of them have launched more sustainable product lines: Archroma (Earthcolors), Huntsman (Avitera), Garmon (Nimbus) and DyStar (Cadira and Lava). A company called, Nature Coatings, uses waste from wood industry to create carbon black alternative that does not hurt the environment.
Textile industry can be considered as one which uses large amount of water for various processes such as cleaning yarn, fabric, and apparel through the production cycle. Chemicals mixed with water pose a bigger threat to the environment. In this case, waterless processes may allow use of new chemicals, thus minimising the concern related to the use of chemicals. Dyeing is one process where reducing usage of water can help the industry a lot. One way is cationization of cotton, where cotton yarns, fibres and fabrics are treated with a caustic amination agent. The treated cotton has a positively charged surface that binds better to dye, which is commonly negatively charged. Solution pigmenting or dope dyeing for synthetic fibres is another approach in which dye is added to the bulk polymer before it is extruded to the synthetic filaments. This type or process can be applied to fibres like rayon. For sustainable finishing, companies like APJet and MTIX have developed alternative ways to apply chemistry to textiles without using water. They both rely on the generation of atmospheric plasma near the surface of the fabric to bond finishing chemicals. Plasma coating has been used in the electronics industry for many years and is being explored for use in textile finishing.
Using recycled fibres instead of virgin fibres can do wonders and can reduce the amount of water used and the textiles that end up in landfills. Fibres that can be recycled are cotton, polyester, nylon, and fibre blends. However, recycling cotton comes with a drawback which shortens the fibre length after being recycled, and thus the result is weaker cotton yarns. Mills try to address this drawback by blending these shorter recycled fibres with longer virgin cotton and/ or polyester filament to improve strength and durability. Polyester fibres made from PET bottles have recently achieved a great adoptability in apparel. According to 2017 Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber Market Report, the use of recycled PET in apparel grew by 58 per cent between 2015 and 2016. Coming to nylon, it can be recycled through chemical de-polymerization to yield a solution of monomers that are purified and re-polymerized to produce a virgin-like material. But, recycling fibre blends is more challenging that recycling a single fibre. There are two methods to recycle fibre blends: mechanical and chemical. Shredding the fabric is the mechanical method which is thereafter used in low-value applications. In chemical process, ionic liquids or other solvents are used to dissolve the fabric, and then phase-transfer agents and other separation methods are used to separate the polyester from the dissolved cellulose. The cellulose can then be extruded and spun into a new synthetic cellulose-based material.
Information Systems that support Supply Chain and Chemicals Management
Increased visibility into the entire textile supply chain can put brands and industry stakeholders in a position where they will have to judiciously use chemicals of concern. Chemicals Management Information Systems are software tools supporting consulting and verification services that allow brands to make their M/ RSLs operational, and to monitor compliance within their supply chain. There are several companies working in this space, including Stacks Data (formerly known as PeerAspect), Scivera and ToxNot.
Besides, implementing standards and certifications or use of RFID tagging or DNA might not provide a clear insight of a supply chain. To counter such challenges, several companies are currently trying to apply the openledger blockchain concept to trace items and provide information to consumers. A Transparent Company is an example of one such company working on the blockchain concept.