The textile industry is one of the world’s largest industries. The production of textiles over the years has contributed to significant environmental problems, especially due to the water pollution it leads to. Much depends on the cotton, which is used in about half of all textile manufacturing, and is extremely water-intensive. To produce one kilogram of cotton can require up to 29,000 litres of water not to mention the chemicals used for farming, cleaning and dyeing of fabrics.

Growing cotton is extremely water-intensive. To produce one kilogram can require up to 29,000 litres of water.

To produce a plain t-shirt in cotton means 2,700 litres of water and 150 grams of chemicals have been used. In recent decades, the production of textiles, mainly in Southeast Asia, has had consequences that destroyed farmlands and polluted groundwater.

Another important environmental aspect of textile production is the emissions of greenhouse gases. Cotton production is obviously important in this context, but considering that over half of all textiles produced are oil based – synthetic fibres like acrylic, polyester and nylon – it is a clear link to the use of fossil fuels and emissions of carbon dioxide.

Wood fibres and printed wear

In recent years, extensive research has been conducted to develop new environmentally friendly materials in textiles – that are not based on cellulose fibres from cotton, or produced synthetically from oil. Among other things, the Heriot Watt School of Textiles and Design, a textile and design university in Edinburgh, Scotland, is working to reduce water use and climate impact of the textile industry and has made jeans of cellulose fibres from the eucalyptus tree. Dawn Ellams, a graduate student at the university, recently developed jeans that feel as soft as regular jeans and do not shrink or stick.

In addition, digital printing methods have been developed to produce jeans wear that look worn in instead of the dyeing and stone washing of conventional manufacturing. This means that only one fifth of the water, chemicals and energy is needed for production. Jeans cost nearly SEK 300 to produce but Ellams hopes to develop the concept further and launch an entire collection.

Clothes made of corn?

It’s not just in Scotland that clothes are made of new materials. The School of Textiles in Borås, Sweden at the Centre for Research and Innovation in the Sjuhärad region, there are ongoing projects to develop clothes ranging from new fibres into smart, interactive fabrics where technology and textiles work together.

Examples of materials used to produce fabrics are bamboo and hemp. These are natural fibres based on cellulose. They are called artificial fibres as the cellulose molecules use chemicals that regenerate into fibres suitable for textile manufacturing. Corn has been used to make fibres of biological material but these fabrics are not soft enough to be used in clothing. In the future, Jan Carlsson, project manager at the School of Textiles, believes potato flour, ground mussel shells or the Swedish forests can be important for textile production. But for these fibres to become common, they need to be produced in large quantities.

In the future, maybe all jeans will be made of eucalyptus, bamboo or hemp.

Among the smart textiles that are developed are electrically conductive textiles produced without the use of metals. It is Tariq Bashir, a PhD student at the School of Engineering and Smart Textiles at the University College of Borås and Chalmers, who developed the technique in which the fibres are subjected to an evaporation of electrically conductive polymers. The vapour forms an area of the textile fibres that thus retains its softness and flexibility while having conductive and mechanical properties. It is hoped that these fabrics will be used in, among other things, solar panels, biofuel cells and membranes for anti-static air filters.

Learn more about Smart Textiles in the article: “Sustainability inspires the fashion industry.”

Strategic potential for the Swedish forest

As the demand for publication papers decreases globally, many forest companies have excess capacity in their production and see opportunities to manufacture textile fibres in their machines.

The Swedish forest industry has therefore together with the textile and fashion industries, and the Mid Sweden University, in 2012-2013 developed a strategic research and innovation agenda in order to increase the production of wood fibre for textiles. Among the new products that may be developed are, for example, non-woven and textile materials made in paper machines.

The forest-based textiles can be used as emergency aid in the form of blankets and tents. Effective volume production of such absorbers and insulation can also be done when the textile and wood industry work together, or why not a fabric that can store energy or break down and separate pollutants?

Bacteria takes care of the rest

It’s important to be vigilant when buying “eco-friendly” clothing. Although hemp and bamboo are better for the environment than cotton, chemicals are used to make the fabric soft and emissions from the staining destroy many rivers. In order to overcome the staining problems, Jörgen Forss, in a dissertation from Linnaeus University in Kalmar, developed a technique to break down the sludge from the textile industry.

The idea is to use wood chips from the forest and rice husks as a substrate in a microbial filter where microorganisms with special enzymes break down the remains from the staining. Today, 10 to 40 percent of the most common colours and chemicals end up in the process water in textile dyeing. The dyes do not bind correctly to the fabric’s fibres but react partly with various substances in the water. With Forss’ filters, wastewater from a dye-treatment plant showed that 90 percent of the water was decolorized within 67 hours.

For his work got Forss received the prestigious Linnéstipendium in 2013 on the grounds that the scholarship committee saw “great potential in terms of innovation, practical application in the region, not least reducing the environmental impact,” of the project.

Researchers in developing countries have shown great interest in the method that they hope can be implemented as a new technology in the future of textile manufacturing.

The article was published in October 2013