A dress made of soy fiber

Trade in textiles is highly international. Many different industries are involved in the cultivation of natural fibers – or the production of man-made fibers. Cotton farming, sheep farming, forestry, petrochemical and transportation are all industries that affect the textile trade.

Environmental impacts occur throughout the production chain and most attention is paid to water consumption, chemical use, and waste and greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, consumers and various NGOs have expressed interest in the social conditions of textile production.

In many manufacturing processes chemicals are involved and are often added to the product in order to achieve different functions. For example: antibacterial treatment of sports apparel, flame treatment of upholstery fabrics, the impregnation of all-weather clothes, and the addition of biocides to prevent mold and insects are added for transport and storage.

The textile industry has taken several initiatives to reduce its environmental impact and improve social conditions. One such example is the Better Cotton Initiative, which H & M, IKEA, GAP, Adidas and several other companies have joined forces with to transform conventional cotton production. And then there are lists of hazardous chemical substances to be avoided at all stages in the textile industry.

Finally, there are several different eco-labels for textiles such as Oeko-Tex, Nordic Ecolabelling, the Swan, the EU Ecolabel and Swedish Society Good Environmental Choice.

Several Swedish textile designers and researchers have tackled the question of sustainability from the point of view of starting with smart and environmentally friendly textiles. New fibers and smart textiles provide both environmental benefits and materials with new functions.

Eco-materials development

Textiles often consist of several types of materials, in different combinations. Natural fibers consist of cotton, flax, hemp, wool, coir, or silk and synthetic fibers may comprise polyester, polyamide, polyurethane and cellulose. The textile industry is working to green-ify both fiber types.

“Environmentally friendly fashion does not necessarily mean a return to traditional natural materials, such as linen, cotton and hemp,” says designer and manager Camilla Norrback at Camilla Norrback AB.

“In my role as a designer, I have explored new materials and garments made of bamboo, recycled PET bottles and soy fibers. Work on eco-friendly collections began ten years ago and in 2005 I created the term “Ecoluxuary.” Our ambition is to combine high quality, design and artistic freedom with sustainable development.”

“We recently began using soy fiber, a soft and comfortable textile material with good heat preservation capabilities. Soy fiber is referred to as a vegetable cashmere and is a byproduct from the production of tofu and soy milk.”

Another example of new materials and production methods in the fashion industry is Tencel, a soft and lightweight fabric with many uses. Tencel, which is the most common brand of the Lyocell fiber, is made from cellulose. Production takes place, however, in a closed system in which chemicals can be reused many times. The result is lower chemical consumption and reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to other cellulose materials. Tencelt fibers are also biodegradable.

Smart Textiles

At the School of Textiles in Borås, Linda Worbin conducts research on smart textiles. Smart textiles are materials that can sense and react to their surroundings. Smart textiles include clothes that remain cool when it is hot; or clothes that can actively control the sound absorption in a room; or curtains that light up at night.

“Initially I investigate materials from an aesthetic and functional perspective, but I see great potential in contributing to sustainable development,” says Worbin.

“If the fabrics can change their pattern, shape or structure, we get a variety of expressions from the same material. From an environmental perspective, this is of great importance as most of us feel the need to replace and change clothes and other textiles often. Smart textiles can have multiple lives, which is advantageous in view of resource use and waste issues.”

Mistra Future Fashion

Mistra, the Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, is investing SEK 40 million over four years in a research program called Mistra Future Fashion.

“Let fashion lead society towards a more sustainable future,” says Britt-Inger Andersson, responsible for idea development at Mistra. “We want to lift up the fashion industry and show its different dimensions. Fashion is a business that is facing major global and environmental challenges. But there is a lot of creativity and innovation in the field.”

The Mistra research program includes the following focus areas:

  • Changing markets and business models
  • Design Processes and innovative materials
  • Sustainable consumption and consumer behavior
  • Policy instruments

“Part of Future Fashion is all about new fibers, and there is a lot happening in this area in terms of both traditional fibers and new materials,” says Andersson.

“As consumers, we will surely want to use cotton in the future, but it must be produced in a more sustainable way. The water waste and use of chemicals in cotton cultivation is currently unacceptable. We should ensure the better use of resources and recycle the fibers.”

“Today’s new technologies, innovative materials and international initiatives are promising. Furthermore, young people’s interest in fashion can create high potential for change. The fashion industry is global, and new approaches can quickly make an impact,” says Andersson.

The article was published in January 2012