Sustainable textiles: ancient and recycled materials

30 März 2022

Textile sustainability is much more than recycled yarns. It is assessment of environmental impact in a process that considers the entire life and production cycle of the textile industry: if, for example, it activates virtuous processes of circular economy, or if programs of offset for produced Co2 are put into place. Sustainability is a wider context of analysis. No type of fiber exists that has lower impact, in absolute terms, than another. And “natural” does not necessarily mean sustainable: cotton is a natural fiber, but it requires large quantities of water and pesticides for its cultivation. Sustainability therefore becomes a question of attitude and corporate strategy rather than product.

In recent years, the furnishing textile industry has accelerated its research to respond not only to the global necessity of lower environmental impact, but also to increasingly high standards of performance [also see “Regenerated textiles: a new décor deal”].Many solutions are already available on the market involving the use of recycled plastic and processes of circular economicy in the supply chain, the revaluing of secondary raw materials such as those recycled from internal production, or the use with a more innovative approach of traditional fibers like cotton and wool, or less energy-consuming materials like hemp and castor seeds.

Re-wool di Kvadrat, design Margrethe Odgaard, composto da 45% lana vergine pettinata, 45% lana riciclata e 10% nylon. Foto: Casper Sejersen.

I Renewable natural fibers
and secondary raw materials

One option for sustainability is to make use of natural fibers recycled through processes of production and sourcing. The Danish Kvadrat group focuses on the longevity of raw materials and a series of yarns with a high percentage of recycled substances, such as Nympha, a fabric of the Sahco brand, made of 75% recycled cotton and 25% polyester, digitally printed with patterns of naïf motifs of flora and fauna. The use of recycled cotton reduces environmental impact of the yarn thanks to the reduction of processing of raw materials. For this reason, it is important to lower the complexity of the supply chain, making it more efficient, while setting precise quality standards. “In 2021,” Kvadrat emphasizes in its Sustainability Report, “we have worked on more circular, empowering and collaborative solutions to guide innovation. What we have learned and experienced through the pandemic is the potential of collective action for change. We have to rely on this potential to quickly guide the industry towards the necessary system transformations.”

Nympha by Sahco, a fabric in 75% recycled cotton and 25% polyesterNympha by Sahco, a fabric in 75% recycled cotton and 25% polyester

The American company Maharam, part of the Herman Miller Group, urges research on renewable natural fibers to offer a new perspective on classic fabrics, such as wool coverings for furniture. Luce is a twill and Roman is a structured, sturdy fabric, respectively with 75% and 70% post-consumer recycled wool. “Our environmental impact,” the company clarifies, “concentrates on reduction of our dependence on chemical substances, carbon and plastic to a minimum. Maharam Design Studio assigns priority to the use of a minimum of 75% recycled and easily renewable content in new fabrics, progressively reducing the use of chemical substances. We have removed flame retardants from our products, as well as antimicrobials. Since 2002, our environmental efforts are rooted in ISO 14001 certification for all the structures.”

In the outdoor textile sector Sunbrella, a brand of the American Glen Raven group, produces the Renaissance yarns that contain up to 50% post-industrial recycled fiber taken from the company’s own operations. The waste is segmented into color groups, reduced back to its fiber state and then mixed with Sunbrella virgin fiber. Furthermore, in 2010 the company launched the Recycle My Sunbrella program, which allows domestic consumers to take part in the recycling process.

Sunbrella outdoor fabrics made with fibers recycled from the company’s own operations. Photo Edouard AuffraySunbrella outdoor fabrics made with fibers recycled from the company’s own operations. Photo Edouard Auffray

II Recycled plastic from the seas

The English company Camira has invested in the environmental process of products since its first recycled polyester fabric in 1997. Today it offers a wide range of fabrics made with naturally renewable materials, as well as a number of yarns containing recycled plastic taken from land or sea. Rivet, Oceanic and Quest are made with 100% recycled PET, of which at least 50% (for Oceanic) and 75% (for Quest) comes from the seas and oceans, gathered in cleaning operations organized by the Seaqual initiative. Quest is a lightly structured fabric, of which every meter contains the equivalent of 23 plastic bottles. “We are global but local,” the company explains, “we respect the places in which we produce, we grant value to the raw materials we use, we attempt to reduce and reutilize waste, and in definitive terms to reduce our carbon footprint and impact on climate change to a minimum.”

Rohi wool fabrics, from certified European sheep farmsRohi wool fabrics, from certified European sheep farms

III Old fibers become more sustainable

Hemp fabrics have a long history that has however been interrupted by prohibitionist laws, leading to their replacement by synthetic industrial products. Nevertheless, this obsolete fiber has remarkable potential. Among the new Hemp fabrics by Camira, we find a wool-hemp yarn with low environmental impact, because it exploits the characteristics of the plant to absorb carbon dioxide. Hemp yarns require less energy for production (5kWh for 1 kg of textile fiber, with respect to 69 kWh for the same amount in nylon). They are biodegradable, because they are compostable. Textile hemp is also naturally flame-retardant. Encouraging the cultivation of this fiber in Italy would revive know-how dating back to the 19th century.

The German company Rohi makes fabrics exclusively in virgin wool of the highest quality, without mulesing, from European mills that are members of the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO). Besides complying with the REACH UE regulations on the absence of chemical substances, the yarns respect the criteria of AB 2998 for absence of flameproofing chemicals and of RAL-UZ 117 for low-emission ecological manufacturing. The production process of the fabrics sets out to reduce waste to a minimum. For example, the selvage of the bolts, usually discarded, becomes a line of carpets (13Rugs), created with an artisanal felting technique.

The Java and Martinique fabrics from the Evoke collection by Rubelli. The yarn of Java is derived from castor seedsThe Java and Martinique fabrics from the Evoke collection by Rubelli. The yarn of Java is derived from castor seeds

The production of Rubelli complies with the zero-kilometer criterion, in collaboration with partners and suppliers in the Veneto region, minimizing the wasting of economic and environmental resources in the entire manufacturing process. Since 2021, the company has produced “bio-sourced” yarns, starting with biological extracts of castor seed and an ecological viscose for the weft. The castor bean is a plant not utilized for food, which grows spontaneously in arid and semi-arid zones. A renewable resource that does not require large quantities of water, and does not affect arable land for food cultivation. The eco-viscose (VIE label) is instead a fiber derived from wood and pulp from responsibly managed forests, with much lower consumption of fossil energy and water than ordinary viscose.

Finally, the Re-wool fabric by Kvadrat, designed by Margrethe Odgaard, uses 45% worsted virgin wool, 45% recycled wool and 10% nylon, making it strong and suitable for upholstery and furniture coverings. The recycled portion salvages waste from the company’s spinning mills in the United Kingdom, in the perspective of the circular economy.

Il tappeto Bicicleta di Nanimarquina, derivante dal taglio a mano di gomme di biciclettaI tessuti Java e Martinique della collezione Evoke di Rubelli. Il filato di Java deriva da semi di ricino

IV Sustainability as a corporate attitude

Not just products, but more sustainable production processes in general. Among the various companies with an eye on environmental impact, the Spanish firm Nanimarquina has just achieved Climate Neutral certification, for its commitment to zero-emission manufacturing. This is the result of a pathway of sustainability that has called for an annual plan for reduction of Co2 emissions, through carbon-offset projects controlled by Gold Standard, most of which are located in India, where the textiles are produced. At Chhattisgarh, the company is part of a project for generation of renewable energy (20 MW), which uses rice husk from local communities as biomass, also reducing the bulk of local refuse. Since 2002, Nanimarquina has collaborated with Care & Fair, an organization founded in 1994 to combat child labor and to improve the quality of life of carpet weavers and their families in India and Pakistan.

[Also see the video “Designing a sustainable way forward”]

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