In my previous blog, I introduced the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and it’s report “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future”. The report provides a roadmap to significantly improve textile industry sustainability using principles of a circular economy. The report introduces four ambitions which would greatly reduce waste and environmental impact and help move the textile and apparel industries to a true circular economic model. I believe their conceptualization closely aligns with my vision of a truly sustainable textile and apparel supply chain and so let me continue:
The first ambition of the report is to phase out substances of concern and microfiber release. There are two areas of action identified:
1) Align industry efforts and coordinate innovation to create safe material cycles
2) Drastically reduce plastic microfiber release.
I will address area #1 in this blog and follow up with an analysis of area #2 in my next one.
The manufacture and production of textiles involves the use of a large number of chemicals and natural resources. These include the catalysts and petrochemicals needed to produce man-made fiber, pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation water used in growing cotton, and the chemicals and water used for the dyeing and finishing of all varieties of fabrics. We must examine the potential environmental impact of each of these factors and evaluate mitigating solutions in a circular economic model. Since polyester and cotton make up the vast majority of apparel materials, I will focus my discussion on them.
First, let’s examine the controversy surrounding antimony, the primary catalyst used to produce polyester. Antimony is a heavy metal which, in sufficient quantities, has been shown to have negative health effects. There are alternative catalysts for polyester, like titanium, that have lesser health effects. However, these catalysts are generally not as efficient and require additional energy and time to complete the catalyzing process, increasing cost and carbon footprint. There are polyester yarns catalyzed using titanium and other substances available commercially. They are, however, usually more expensive and can sometimes be of lower quality. However, I do not believe there is sufficient reason to make the wholesale switch to another catalyst. There is considerable empirical evidence that leaching of antimony from polyester garments under all expected use conditions is extremely low and presents little to no health hazard. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has stated that antimony oxide is very tightly attached to polyester and does not expose people to antimony. Frankly, if I were addressing the major environmental impacts of the apparel industry, I’d target my efforts elsewhere.
Polyester is a petrochemical based polymer and the most practical solution to reduce the extraction of oil-based resources is to greatly increase polyester recycling. The technology is commercially available and easily implemented. I will discuss ways to increase polyester recycling in a future blog.
The pesticides and fertilizers used to grow cotton, some of which end up in waterways through runoff, are a significant environmental concern somewhat addressed by efforts like the Better Cotton Initiative. However, much cotton growing consumes a large amount of water and land and this has been a growing concern as nearby lakes and seas are depleted and the need for food producing farmland increases. While cotton is more difficult to recycle than polyester, there have been recent innovations. One notable example is Lenzing’s Refibra® lyocell, which processes post-industrial cotton fabric scraps into new lyocell fibers in a closed loop system which recovers virtually all of its solvents. The resulting fiber is comparable in strength and softness to Tencel® lyocell fibers. Further development of this technology to recover post consumer waste and the development of others to recycle cotton are efforts worth pursuing in the work to move cotton apparel production closer to a true circular economic model.
The dying and finishing of yarns and fabrics present potentially harmful environmental effects, especially water usage and pollution in the surface treatment and dying processes. However, many finishing and dying operations employ efficient and effective water treatment facilities which can assure water leaving the waste treatment facility at the dye plant is as clean as the input water originally used. To be sure, there are dying operations which are poorly run and controlled that have a significant negative impact on the environment. However, brands and retailers concerned about the harmful effects of these processes can assess and assure the operations of suppliers they are using are having little negative impact on the environment. Ultimately, low or no water finishing and dying processes would greatly improve sustainability and there are developments underway which show promise. I believe development efforts in this area should be accelerated.
In my next blog, I will address the second area of action; Drastically reduce plastic microfiber release.
If you have comments or questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.