At Stockholm Design Week, we invited four experts from two of the leading textile manufacturers Camira Fabrics and Gabriel, to uncover the challenges they face to make sustainable fabrics and what can be done to achieve net-zero carbon emission targets when it comes to designing and consuming textile products.
In this article we look at two fibres championed as sustainable choices, and what other issues the textile industry must navigate to go green.
“For many, wool is THE most sustainable fibre,” says Lynn Kingdon, Head of Creative Design at Camira Fabrics, continuing; “For a start, in comparison to other popular materials, wool has a low carbon footprint thanks to its organic nature. For me, it is the most beautiful and intelligent fibre. It has stretch, crimp and takes colour beautifully – it goes right deep into the fibre. It has a naturally long life, it stays clean.”
These qualities make it a durable and lasting fabric, meaning less wear and less frequent reupholstery. When compared to cotton, it is also far more resistant to staining. Added to this is its soft and pleasant touch.
Environmentally, because it is a natural product it also biodegrades naturally, meaning less waste in landfill. In both the home and the workspace it can have a positive impact on air quality as explained by Paraskevi Fotoglou, Sustainability Engineer at Camira Fabrics; “Wool also is able to capture volatile organic compounds or VOCs that are present in a room, effectively working to purify the air”.
Wool can also be blended with other fibres to create other useful properties, as Lynn continues; “We blend it at Camira with other plant fibre such as hemp, flax, silk and we have a long history with doing so. We worked with a university developing nettle wool blend, and partly accidently, we discovered that by blending nettles with wool at the right percentage you can get incredibly high flame retardency without any chemicals or pesticides gets to crib 5.”
These points put forward a compelling argument, but what are the drawbacks?
For one, it is considerably more expensive than other options such as cotton, or polyester. Its cosiness is not always appreciated in warmer temperatures, whilst certain areas such as eating establishments or clean rooms may require more easily cleaned or sanitised textile surfaces.
To meet even tougher usage requirements, wool is often blended with polyamides such as nylon. These blended fabrics offer high strength and abrasion resistance. However, as a plastic, these polyamides are derived from a non-renewable source (oil), and they also make it harder to separate and recycle at end of use.
Another sustainable fibre that is regularly championed is recycled polyester. A textile made most regularly from recycled PET plastic bottles, recycled polyester uses waste instead of virgin materials, which has a much lower carbon footprint.
Paraskevi Fotoglou: “The most widely used recycled synthetic textile is the recycled polyester and there are various methods which you can recycle it and put it back into production. We can use either chemical or mechanical recycling and those methods have been assessed and evaluated for their environmental impact. According to one study bottle to fabric recycling offers important environmental benefits over single-use virgin PET fibre on energy savings and global warming potential. We also have savings on plastic waste as 1 kg of recycled polyester saves 60 plastic bottles. Given this evidence we consider it the best alternative.”
“When it comes to recycled polyester from other materials, such as textiles, it becomes more difficult. You might need to use a chemical recycling process, but this has ups and downs, especially on the energy needs, and chemical waste. There are a lot of studies on optimising this process and it will become more energy efficient, but the reality is that not at this stage.”
Cenk Kivrikoglu, Creative Director, Gabriel Textiles: “In theory, you can recycle it again and again, but the challenge is to make it a reality through research and technology, to make it energy efficient…. The most problematic aspect of textile recycling though is the chemicals that you use to colour it. You can use all sorts of sustainable materials, but if you use unsustainable chemicals to colour it, it negates any benefits derived from recycling in the first place.”
Jeppe Emil Mogensen, Business Manager, Design Master, Gabriel Fabrics: “Our responsibility as fabric producers today is to make sure what we send out in the world will be able to be recycled by future generations. By setting very high standards about the chemicals, dyes, and raw materials we use right from the start, it prepares our products for a future where we can recycle them. Anything we put into a product, we have the choice, and it is going to help the next generation when they are dealing with the waste.”
The biggest issues with introducing recycled materials into the value chain are those of consistency, especially when it comes to colour and appearances. It requires acceptance across the board from producer to customer, to embrace the imperfect, and to perhaps even slim down the colour options available.
Cenk Kivrikoglu: “We need to accept the variations and then the change of aesthetic expression. The challenge here is a re-education of consumer demands – The commercial market expects perfection, and expects a wide range of colour choices. We have tried, at Gabriel, to present new fabrics in a limited range of colours, and we are always asked if there will be more colour options, despite the clients mainly opting for black and grey fabrics.”
An overarching theme that was brought up time and again was the high standards people expect of materials, above and beyond those deemed necessary. An insistence on “the most durable” often leads to synthetic materials.
Lynn Kingdon: “I think what we are talking about is higher and higher specifications, and as an industry, we have to resist this and embrace the beauty of imperfections. How many thousands of rubs do you really need? There are far more important elements to consider, and I think it is about education. It's’ about getting acceptance up to a commercial level. Do we really need to make durable materials that never biodegrade? Is two to 3 years sufficient? If I give you a 10 year guarantee, why do you also need the Martindale standards?”
Excerpts are taken from a panel discussion held by Flokk during Stockholm Design Week on Tuesday 6th September. A special thanks to our panellists who took part in the talk, and to those who attended the lively discussion in person!
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