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Fashion’s race for new materials: the risks and the rewards

Wasteful consumerism has reached a crisis point in the era of fast fashion, but the manufacturing of clothing itself also has dire impacts on the environment. After aviation, the fashion industry is the world’s second most polluting sector, generating around 92 million tonnes of textile waste and consuming 1.5 trillion liters of water each year. Toxic waste from textile manufacturing is also routinely dumped into rivers, with the World Bank recently identifying 72 toxic chemicals that are ending up in our waterways due to textile dyeing.

The good news is that the landscape is changing, partially driven by NGOs, governments, and consumers. A 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company reported that 67% of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important factor in their purchasing  decisions. Another survey by Credit Suisse of 10,000 Gen Z and millennials globally found that 40% believe the fashion industry to be unsustainable, meaning that brands must keep up to their promises to cut through this pessimism. However, fashion brands are also driving the sustainability agenda through various initiatives.

One of the multiple changes in the fashion industry has been the introduction of new, innovative materials to create textiles, particularly raw materials. Some of those becoming more prevalent include:

Vegan leather

Vegan leather has soared in popularity in recent years because of its sustainability advantages and suitability for vegans and vegetarians. Research has shown that the environmental impact of vegan leather production can be up to a third lower than real leather.
That said, vegan leather can be made with a variety of materials, some of which are less sustainable than others. Plastic-based vegan leather is particularly precarious when it comes to environmental benefits because significant amounts of energy and water are required to produce it. It can also end up in landfills or water, where it will leak chemicals into the environment.

Fortunately, there are numerous alternatives to plastic-based vegan leather, including pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, barkcloth, and other plants and fruits used to create sustainable vegan leather. Companies around the world are also developing innovative materials that mimic the texture and appearance of leather.

Recycled materials

Recycled materials have also become a go-to for creating sustainable fabrics. Some materials created from fabric waste have already been used by the fashion industry for decades, such as those made from cotton waste. A commonly used one is recycled polyester made from recycled bottles as well as other plastics, including waste from the oceans.

Despite the popularity of rPET (recycled polyester), this remains a controversial material. rPET is less demanding on resources than virgin polyester and keeps plastics from entering landfills and oceans, but the process of recycling it isn’t highly sustainable. Even though rPET takes 59% less energy to produce than virgin polyester, it still consumes more energy than organic and regular cotton, hemp, and wool. rPET also releases microplastics that pollute the environment.

Wood and plant-based materials

Wood and plant-based materials are also gaining prominence, particularly those requiring less water and energy to produce. Hemp has become a rising star in sustainable fashion because it needs around 50% less water to grow than cotton, doesn’t demand harsh chemical herbicides or pesticides, and returns 60–70% of the nutrients it takes from soil. Furthermore, hemp can be processed without the use of chemicals.

The chemical risks of a circular economy

The fashion industry’s transition to a circular economy will help reduce its enormous carbon and waste footprint and meet the demands of consumers, but total circularity won’t be possible if the industry doesn’t address its dependence on hazardous chemicals. While certain raw materials can be highly sustainable in themselves, that sustainability will diminish if manufacturing the fabric requires large amounts of chemicals, toxic dyes, etc. Therefore, considering a new material’s sourcing and processing needs are critical elements in assessing its sustainability.

On one side, the risks that brands face may come from chemicals added during the recycling process or the production itself, changing the item’s properties during production from recycled material to finished product. If the chemicals being used are not controlled,
this can introduce risks to the finished product, potentially endangering human health and polluting the environment.

On the other side, when recycled materials are used, there’s no guarantee that the initial material met the required harmful substances regulations or brand standards. This means that the potentially harmful or non-compliant chemicals may be passed onto the new fabric or separated out from the fabric, posing the same risks for health and the environment.

The unexpected chemicals that have traveled through the recycling process or that have been used in the manufacturing can be extremely difficult to detect. So, how can we address this if we don’t know the origin of our raw materials or what impurities may lie within them?

This is where the support of an expert in this area is critical to ensure you’re bringing to the market safe, genuinely sustainable, and environmentally sound products.

What can SgT do to help?

At SgT, our technical and environmental experts adapt to our clients’ specific needs and propose solutions in line with the complexities of their supply chains and objectives across the lifecycle of each product. These include:

SgT is also behind an innovation that enables brands to enjoy peace of mind when shifting to recycled materials and pursue 0% unexpected chemical risks – the Chem Scan Check™. This new testing approach detects more than 300 chemical substances in one test, helping to create safer textile products that protect consumers from hundreds of harmful substances. You can read more about SgT’s Chem Scan Check™ solution here.

Interested in learning more about how SgT can help with your new or recycled materials?

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