The textile industry is experiencing a profound shift towards sustainability driven by demand and the urgent need to address environmental challenges.
By Elissa Decker
It’s no longer a secret that traditional manufacturing practices within the textile industry have had an adverse effect on the environment. Pollution, resource depletion, and waste generation are lingering concerns. Mass production and consumption have intensified these conditions. But there is hope for our industry. In recent years, there has been a notable shift towards sustain-ability, with several trends and innovations emerging to address the challenges faced. Now is the time for selective growth and new opportunities to reimagine the impact textiles have on the planet. This article explores now and next trends in sustainability that will shape the industry.
Now: Fiber Solutions
Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon are the building blocks for a wide range of textile applications from technical to fashion. Utilizing recycled fibers like REPREVE®, SEAQUAL®, and ECONYL® diverts plastic waste from land and sea, addressing the global plastic pollution problem and reducing demand for fossil fuels from which polyester and nylon are derived. The manufacturing process of recycled fibers produces less green-house gas emissions when compared to the production of virgin fibers. Recycled fibers exhibit largely the same quality and performance characteristics as virgin fibers. By choosing products made from recycled polyester, manufacturers and end users give new life to materials that would otherwise end up as waste.
Synthetic fibers are composed of plastics that can remain in our environment indefinitely because they are not biodegradable. Polyesters featuring technologies such as CiCLO® have entered the market to address this challenge. By embedding multiple biodegradable points throughout the polymer chain, enhanced fibers in landfill conditions can attract microbes that break down the fibers within as little as several years. This development is progress.
Another trend is the increasing use of organic and rapidly renewable fibers. Manufacturers and end users are turning to organic cotton, hemp and bamboo to reduce the ecological footprint of their products. Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, minimizing soil and water contamination. Hemp and bamboo are fast-growing, low-impact crops that require fewer resources. These alternatives lessen the use of pesticides and energy during cultivation, making them more environmentally friendly than conventional natural fibers.
Textile manufacturing, which has traditionally required an excessive amount of resources, now has the critical advantage of new processes and technologies that make conservation possible. To address these concerns, textile manufacturers can now invest in energy-efficient machinery, utilize renewable energy sources, and optimize production processes to minimize waste and greenhouse gas emissions. These improvements are not only good for the environment, but also often for the bottom line —so everyone can win.
Traditional textile manufacturing is water intensive. The World Bank estimates that almost 20 percent of global industrial water pollution comes from the textile industry. Water is used in scouring, bleaching, mercerizing, sizing and desizing, and also as a solvent for dyes and chemicals. These processes generate wastewater, which requires cleaning. Textile manufacturers now can invest in equipment to reduce the generation of water consumption at its source. For example, waterless dyeing techniques are now possible through equipment like England-based Alchemie Technology’s Endeavor™ waterless smart dyeing technology, which eliminates wastewater and generates as much as 85 percent in energy savings.
Surface design remains a compelling benefit of textile production. Conventional full coverage print methods create waste and can require high amounts of energy for operations. Digital printing is one print method that allows for the precise application of color resulting in smaller scale customization and the minimization of waste.
The circular economy concept has gained traction in the textile industry as it aims to minimize waste, extend the lifespan of textile products, and reverse overflowing landfills. Why can a fabric not be simply recycled like an aluminum can? The answer is both simple and complex. Ultimately, greater support is needed to create infrastructure for processing textile waste at local scale and limited resources are available. However, there is hope. In the retail industry, brands are increasingly implementing take-back initiatives, allowing customers to return used garments to stores for recycling. By collecting and sorting discarded clothing, manufacturers are taking on the responsibility of keeping items from the landfill.
For textile manufacturing waste, higher quality recycling outcomes are possible through mechanical shred-ding and separation of uniform reclaimed fibers, enabling the creation of second-life textile products such as insulation, carpet padding or packaging. Despite challenges including sorting, transportation, minimum required quantities, and costs, demand for accessible textile recycling is increasing.
Next: Fiber Innovation And Biobased Materials
Fiber innovation and the development of biobased materials will continue to gain momentum. With a focus on reducing dependence on non-renewable resources, alternatives derived from a growing list of resources including agricultural waste, seaweed, and even bacteria are being explored.
The advancement of biotechnology and biomimicry is expected to drive further innovation in this area, leading to the creation of novel sustainable textiles. For example, spider silk proteins produced through recombinant methods which exhibit exceptional strength or mycelium-based leather substitutes made from the root structure of mushrooms that look identical to natural hide leather. Innovation will also be focused on enhancing the properties of existing fibers. For instance, nanocoatings are being explored as a possible method to improve fabric durability and lifespan ultimately creating less waste.
Next: Digitalization And Smart Textiles
Digitalization is set to revolutionize the sustainable textile industry. The integration of technology and textiles will enable the development of smart textiles with enhanced functionalities, helping to drive innovation in other industries. From garments that monitor vital signs and activity levels to fabrics that change color or texture based on environmental conditions, these innovative textiles will offer new possibilities for sustainability and user experience.
Smart textiles are being designed to improve energy efficiency, comfort and safety. Imagine piezoelectric textiles that generate electrical energy through mechanical stress, potentially enabling the integration of self-powering wearable devices and what that could mean.
Digital tools and platforms will also optimize supply chains, enabling traceability, transparency, and efficient resource management. Blockchain technology, for instance, provides a decentralized and immutable record of every stage in the supply chain, ensuring that sustainability standards are met and counterfeit products are eliminated. This level of transparency enables consumers to make informed choices and support brands that align with their values.
For textiles and beyond, digitalization drives sustainable manufacturing practices through real-time data monitoring and analytics. By collecting data on energy consumption, water usage, waste generation, and more companies are able to identify areas for improvement and implement resource-saving measures. In time these data can be leveraged through machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to optimize production processes, reducing material waste, and energy consumption. Increased advanced robotics and automation will transform companies by enhancing efficiency while minimizing errors and improving quality control.
Next: Circular Economy
The circular economy concept, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, will continue to shape the textile industry. The adoption of closed-loop systems will become more prevalent, focusing on recycling, upcycling and reusing textiles. This trend supports the reduction of waste and also decreases reliance on virgin resources, contributing to a more sustainable and resource-efficient industry.
Chemical recycling, sometimes referred to as molecular recycling or depolymerization, is an emerging technology that offers great potential for sustainable textile production. Unlike mechanical recycling which involves shredding fibers, molecular recycling breaks down textile materials at the molecular level, allowing for the regeneration of virgin-quality fibers. This process has the potential to be of heightened significance for textiles with composite compositions that are challenging to mechanically separate. By reprocessing textiles to original quality fiber components, molecular recycling could effectively close the loop.
Several companies and research institutions are actively exploring molecular recycling technologies for textiles. These initiatives focus on developing efficient and scalable processes that can handle a wide variety of textile compositions. By investing in research and development, the industry aims to improve the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of molecular recycling, ultimately enabling widespread adoption. Furthermore, if industries can align on using the same source materials, the overall global circular economy could be significantly simplified.
As molecular recycling technologies continue to advance, they have the potential to revolutionize the textile industry’s approach to waste management and resource conservation. By converting used textiles into valuable raw materials, molecular recycling could be the answer to a sustainable textile ecosystem.
Next: Transparency And Ethical Practices
A big step forward is expected in transparency and ethical practices throughout all industries and supply chains. End users are increasingly expecting visibility into the origins of products, ensuring fair labor practices and sustainable sourcing. To meet this demand, companies will continue to invest in traceability systems like Global Recycle Standard, certifications like OEKO-TEX®, carbon neutrality off-set partnerships like ClimatePartner, or sustainability ratings like EcoVadis that promote responsible and ethical manufacturing practices. The emphasis on worker welfare and social justice in all industries throughout the world will continue to grow.
Cause For Collaboration
Awareness for the impact of textiles on our oceans will grow. Wearing and washing of textiles leads to fiber friction, a source of microplastics. Microplastics are highly concerning because they are threatening aquatic life including plankton, which produce 70 to 80 percent of the oxygen on the planet. In many ways, what is “next” is urgently needed “now.”
The textile industry is experiencing a profound shift towards sustainability driven by demand and the urgent need to address environmental challenges. From adopting ecologically conscious fibers to implementing resource efficient equipment and promoting circularity to embracing transparency, as participants up and down the supply chain, it is collectively redefining the industry’s practices. The industry holds the power to contribute to the positive transformation of the textile industry and pave the way for a more sustainable future by choosing sustain-ability and supporting manufacturers committed to eco-friendly practices. The ongoing efforts within the textile industry highlight the importance of collaboration, truly sustainable and responsible ecosystem. By leading the charge, it can help other industries make the transition as well.
Editor’s Note: Elissa Decker is director of Global Textile Development and Procurement at Franklin Park, Ill.-based Moss, a company specializing in tensioned fabric structures, custom fabrication solutions and large format printing, among other services.