The global textile industry plays a pivotal role in the economy, but it also poses significant challenges to the environment due to its reliance on non-renewable resources and the generation of vast quantities of waste.
The amount of clothes bought per person in the EU increased by 40 percent between 1996 and 2012. At the same time, up to 50 percent of clothes in people’s wardrobes have not been used for at least a year, and every year about 30 percent of the clothes produced are never sold. Once discarded, over half the garments are not recycled, but end up in mixed household waste and are subsequently sent to incinerators or landfill.
In recent years, heightened awareness of environmental concerns and a growing demand for sustainable and ethical products have driven chemical manufacturers to explore alternative practices. Conscious textile chemistry offers a promising path towards sustainable and eco-friendly production methods. By leveraging materials from renewable materials, organic waste and plastic waste, conscious textile chemistry has the potential to revolutionize the industry, significantly reduce its environmental impact, and pave the way for a more sustainable and responsible future.
Environmental impact of the textile industry and opportunities for mitigation
The production of textiles and textile chemistry relies heavily on fossil fuels, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the extraction of non-renewable resources such as crude oil and minerals causes habitat destruction and leads to a loss of biodiversity.
Conscious textile chemistry embraces a novel approach to textile production, emphasizing the utilization of renewable materials and waste. This involves transforming agricultural by-products, food waste, other organic leftovers and plastic waste into innovative solutions for textile. By doing so, this emerging field offers the potential to mitigate the environmental impact of textile manufacturing substantially.
Advantages of conscious textile chemistry
By relying on agricultural residues and waste, textile manufacturers can avoid traditional resource-intensive processes and lower their greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, conscious textile chemistry tackles the issue of waste generation across industries by repurposing waste materials as valuable resources. By diverting waste from landfills and incinerators, this approach reduces environmental pollution and promotes a circular economy model which encourages sustainable agricultural practices and can contribute to biodiversity conservation.
Chemical auxiliaries from organic material and waste
Chemical auxiliaries derived from organic waste offer diverse functional properties suitable for various textile treatments. These properties may include water-repellents, softeners, wicking and dispersing agents and dye-auxiliary capabilities among other process and effect chemicals.
Researchers and manufacturers are striving to ensure that chemical auxiliaries from organic waste are compatible with existing textile treatment processes and deliver performance comparable to conventional auxiliaries. The availability and consistency of organic waste feedstock that does not compete with animal feeding and bio-fuel production can be challenging, as it may vary depending on seasonal and regional factors. Ensuring a stable and reliable supply of feedstock is critical for consistent production.
Furthermore, transforming organic waste into high-quality chemical auxiliaries can involve complex processes and technology. Developing efficient and cost-effective methods is essential to make this approach viable on an industrial scale. Overcoming market acceptance challenges and changing consumer perceptions about products made from organic-based chemical auxiliaries require effective communication and education.
Natural dyeing techniques
Conscious textile chemistry also explores natural dyeing techniques derived from plant waste, fruit peels, and other organic sources. These innovations reduce water pollution and health hazards for workers and consumers alike. On the other hand, it can be difficult to reproduce shades by using natural dyes which are also usually characterized by poor light fastness and require skilled and experience workmanship which is expensive.
Chemical auxiliaries from chemical recycling
Chemical auxiliaries for textile treatments made through the chemical recycling of plastics are among the most innovative and sustainable solutions. In Europe, about 30 million tonnes of plastic waste is collected every year. Still, 84 percent of that is incinerated, exported or sent to landfill. This is not only a source of CO2 emissions but is also a waste of valuable resources.
The chemical industry is determined to change this. By converting post-consumer and post-industrial plastic waste such us PET into valuable feedstock, chemical recycling reduces the environmental impact of textile processing. These recycled chemical auxiliaries offer comparable performance to traditional counterparts, ensuring high-quality and efficient textile treatments. Embracing this circular approach not only reduces the demand for virgin resources but also contributes to waste reduction and to a lower carbon footprint.
Incorporating chemical auxiliaries derived from chemical recycling represents a significant step towards a more eco-friendly and responsible textile industry and the very first key chemical auxiliaries for textile treatments start being available from the recycling of those post-consumer PET bottles that don’t find their way into the traditional mechanical recycling.
Chemical auxiliaries from CO2 (industrial emissions and/or atmosphere)
One of the latest frontiers of R&D involves capturing CO2 emissions from industrial processes or the atmosphere and converting them into valuable products. Although the market for CO2-derived products is expected to remain small in the short term, advancements in carbon capture technologies are progressively enabling the efficient capture and purification of CO2, making it suitable for use as a raw material in chemical synthesis.
Innovative chemical processes allow for the conversion of captured CO2 into valuable chemical compounds used as auxiliaries in textile treatments. CO2 can be converted into polymers that can be used in a wide variety of industry including textile.
CO2-based chemical auxiliaries exhibit properties comparable to traditional auxiliaries, ensuring that they can meet the specific requirements of textile treatments without compromising performance.
Challenges and potential barriers
Overcoming technological hurdles is crucial to realizing the full potential of conscious textile chemistry and the industry must change attitude and be ready to pay a premium price for these radical and transforming innovations.
Similarly, educating consumers about the importance of sustainable textiles and building demand for conscious products are critical steps in driving the industry’s transformation. Consumer perception and willingness to pay for science-based, eco-friendly textiles will significantly impact the market’s direction in the short term.
Some chemical companies are developing B2C narratives so to excite and educate diverse audiences about the value brought by the latest generations of conscious chemistry. An example is the immersive room available at Rudolf Hub1922, where guests are virtually transported into the infinitely small and into the world of particles applied to textiles, so to learn how technological solutions work at the molecular level.
Integrating conscious textile chemistry into existing textile supply chains may require restructuring and collaboration across various stakeholders. This could present logistical challenges, questions linked to transparency and traceability and resistance to change within the industry.
To foster the growth of conscious textile chemistry, governments and policymakers should continue playing a crucial role. Implementing incentives, research funding, and regulations that encourage sustainable practices can accelerate the transition to more eco-friendly textiles.
The future of conscious textile chemistry from renewable resources promises transformative changes for the textile and fashion industries. Innovations in eco-friendly chemical treatments, dyeing processes, chemical recycling of waste are revolutionizing some of the manufacturing processes behind the production of clothing. Biodegradable and renewable raw materials are gradually replacing harmful substances, reducing pollution and waste. An entirely new approach to both textile manufacturing processes and product design driven by the increasing availability of conscious textile chemistry enable the reduction of domestic washing and the conservation of precious water resources. Conscious textile chemistry from renewable resources starts playing a vital role in the development of textiles that have a longer product lifecycle. Collaborations between scientists, fashion designers, and manufacturers can drive an evolution towards greener practices, making sustainable fashion the norm and minimizing the industry’s ecological footprint.
About the author:
Alberto De Conti began his career working on enzymatic applications for textiles in biotech laboratories in Milan, Vienna and Berlin before joining the research and development department of Levi Strauss & Co. After years in product development and management, he became global director of business development & innovation for the Levi’s brand.
In 2012, Alberto moved from fashion back to chemistry with the goal of celebrating the beauty of both visible and invisible elements that can make the world a brighter, more colorful and better place.
He currently leads Rudolf Hub1922, part of the Brand and Retail Broad International Effort at Rudolf Group, where he devotes much of his time to developing and implementing responsible chemistry as creative and functional ingredients for denim and fashion.
Alberto holds a degree in Biochemistry from the College of Milan and an International MBA from Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School.
About Transformers Foundation:
Transformers Foundation is the unified voice representing the denim industry and its ideas for positive change. It was founded to provide a thus-far missing platform to the jeans and denim supply chain and a central point of contact for consumers, brands, NGOs, and media who want to learn more about ethics and sustainable innovation in the industry.
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