How Some Companies Are Making Textiles More Sustainable

A new set of innovators are making new fibers from trees and clothing waste.

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When people talk about the fabric of life, they most often mean it metaphorically. But many of the most basic materials humans touch and use everyday are made from fabrics. From bed sheets, clothing, and shoes to furniture, curtains and carpets, the textile industry is woven into daily life. The industry is one of the largest in the world, employing millions of people worldwide with a lengthy and globalized supply chain. It is also a notoriously polluting industry, using large amounts of land, water, and fossil fuels to produce many of the products required for modern life. Collectively, textiles are responsible for around 5% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology—more than shipping and aviation combined. Without any changes, carbon emissions from the textile industry are expected to grow 30% by 2030. Alongside being energy intensive, the textile industry is also a highly polluting industry. Textiles are responsible for 20% of the world’s water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.

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The fashion industry is the single biggest user of textiles. Synthetic fabric made from fossil fuels, such as polyester, now dominate the apparel market, but most of the fibers that form the base of materials we use today haven’t changed in decades.

“Almost all the synthetic fibers we use today were developed by DuPont between the 1930’s and the 1980’s, during what some call the golden age of polymer chemistry,” says Cécile Chazot, Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University . “It contributed some absolutely awesome science,” says Chazot, who also leads the Sustainable Polymer Innovation Laboratory, which seeks to develop sustainable manufacturing and recycling of polymers. “ But can we go through the second revolution with sustainability as a main design driver?”

While some in the textile and fashion industry have made lukewarm attempts to cut their carbon footprint for years, a new set of innovators are attempting to change the literal fiber of the textile and fashion industry, by making new ones from trees and clothing waste.

“Fabrics are a significant part of fashion’s climate footprint, and a big part of that is the fiber,” says Shahriare Mahmood chief sustainability officer at Spinnova. Typically, to make a garment, yarn is made from fiber that either comes from natural sources like cotton, man-made cellulose, or petroleum-based polyester. That yarn is turned into fabric and further processed into garments. While much of the carbon emission comes from processing and dyeing of the fabrics, the production of fibers is a significant part of fashion’s climate footprint.

Spinnova fiber uses a novel, dry mechanical process inspired by the way a spider creates its silk that reduces its carbon emissions by 74% and water use by 99% compared to cotton. Because it doesn’t use harmful chemicals, Spinnova fiber is also biodegradable, unlike other man-made cellulose-based fibers like rayon that are considered semi-synthetic. So far, brands like Adidas and Northface have piloted products made out of Spinnova fiber.

Thinking about the future of fibers, Mahmood also sees man-made cellulose fiber as having a clear advantage over both cotton and fossil fuel-based fibers. Cotton not only requires massive amounts of freshwater, but it is already being impacted by climate change. In 2022, drought in Texas devastated farmers’ cotton crops and in Pakistan, one of the world’s top producers of cotton, extreme flooding wiped out 40% of the country’s cotton. But petroleum-based fibers like polyester, the most widely used fiber and a type of plastic, are also not a sustainable substitute. Producing them is a carbon-intensive process requiring more than 70 million barrels of oil each year. They are also a major contributor to microplastic pollution. Between 16% and 35% of all microplastics globally come from textiles, especially synthetic textiles used in fast fashion. Already countries and states are already implementing bills and policies that target microplastics. Last year the European Union banned the use of products and cosmetics that intentionally add microplastics and the UK is set to ban wet wipes.

Alongside producing novel fibers, other startups are focusing on better ways to use the already existing large quantity of textile waste that is produced every year. More than 11 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills in the U.S. in 2018, representing almost 8% of all municipal solid waste and contributing to the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Stacy Flynn, CEO and co-founder of Evrnu has developed a process to use some of that textile waste to create new fibers. “We’re considering recyclability for the first time to be a legitimate performance indicator. If the product stands up in the way it looks, feels and performs and we also make it recyclable, we prevent those garments from entering landfill or incineration,” she says. “That’s where we get the biggest impact reduction system wise.”

Her company is launching a Nucycl product made out of reused cotton. It uses lyocell to turn the cotton fibers into a cellulose-based fabric that can be used as such or blended with other fibers. Aside from recycling the fiber, Flynn says her company is also looking to recycle any waste products they can capture in the process, such as dyes or other chemicals and even salts.

Engineering new fibers from clothing waste doesn’t just lessen the impact on the environment, but also addresses many of the supply issues that are likely to increase with climate change. “We’re creating a self fulfilling supply chain that will no longer be predicated on subsidies, negative environmental impacts, floods, droughts, adverse conditions, or dependent on petroleum,” says Flynn.

While companies like Spinnova and Nucycl are bringing about innovation, it remains to be seen whether established players in the broader fiber industry will adopt similar practices.

“The textile industry is very conservative,” says Chavot. “This is why you see so much of the innovation being driven by startups.” While those innovations are important, she believes that more cooperation and cohesion between researchers, startups, academics, and industry needs to happen to drive a long-term shift toward more climate-friendly fibers across the textile industry.

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