Out of Context

Eco Opportunities For the House Brand


Recently I was asked to outline the textile sustainability landscape for an outdoor retailer that specs and sells apparel under its own brand name. This is an overview of that report.

Sustainability: The most sustainable action that any sewn goods brand or manufacturer can take is to make well-fitted garments from excellent textiles using the best construction methodology possible. Sustainability equals use, and well-made garments that fit have the longest lifespan and consume the least resources.

Closed Loop Manufacturing: By tightening the circle from yarn to garment, manufacturers can dramatically lessen their carbon footprint. North Carolina-based Recover Brands provides a great explanation for this on its website.

Recycled fiber: Not only is it assumed that major brands are looking to incorporate recycled textiles into their products, it is expected  that at least some recycled content, either  pre-consumer or post-consumer waste, will feature in today’s garments. Examples include recycled insulation, larger yarn knitting (knit hats, sweaters) and recycled polyester fleece pile. Recycled yarns in mostly larger, common deniers are being added into both wovens and knits. Zipper, tape and trim makers are also using recycled materials.

Dope Dye: By dying the synthetic yarn in liquid form (the dope) when it is made, the carbon and toxicity involved in the dyeing and finishing of textiles is greatly reduced. Yarn dyed synthetic fabrics are perhaps the biggest environmental win currently available in the textile supply chain. However, the benefits are hard to explain to the consumer... and the downside is less control over color and yarn size.

Biodegradable: The topic of the day. Polyester and nylon yarns shed during wash and wear creating microplastics that contaminate the environment. Now that polyester can be made with a biodegradable component, that problem is being addressed. Brands should use biodegradable textiles where they can, accept the costs and limitations involved, and market the environmental upside to the conscious consumer, especially fishermen. Note: There is controversy around products biodegrading on land vs. water, with disagreement regarding time standards.

Nonwovens: The majority of the carbon involved in knit/woven textile manufacturing can be avoided by using a nonwoven replacement. There is a ton of R&D currently being done on nonwoven fabrics intended for sportswear including sweatshirt fleece and interlock type knits. The bad news: Nonwovens can shed microplastics at a higher rate than other textiles.

Antimicrobial Textiles: The medical industry uses fibers with zinc-based zeolites because of their outstanding anti-microbial performance and odor control. Current research is aimed at making cotton fibers more
anti-microbial. The majority of the carbon consumed by
a garment happens during its laundry-life. Garments requiring less cleaning consume less energy.

Digital Printing: Digital printing allows for more flexibility and efficiency in apparel production while using less energy and creating less waste compared to traditional methods. Increasingly, textiles are being developed especially for digital printing. This is an excellent way to do custom prints on a small scale.

Environmental Certification: If textiles aren’t coming from an accredited clean mill, i.e., bluesign, Oeko-Tex, GOTS, etc., nasty chemicals were probably thrown in the mix somewhere along the supply chain. To buy clean textiles, simply follow what is sold to European apparel companies, where the law prohibits those chemicals to be present in clothing. The mills pay a considerable price in resources, time and money to be certified by these organizations. They are meaningful designations.

The view from the marketplace is pretty clear; it’s time to clean up the environmental impact of textiles. The challenge for a brand that is making apparel at best possible cost, in different factories scattered across the globe, is to identify and coordinate different sustainability options into a coherent apparel story. The first step is to make apparel that can be recycled, repaired and reused, while using materials with the lowest environmental impact.

Disclaimer: Mr. Gray’s coherent apparel story is based on looking like a homeless painter. The publisher may not agree with his opinions or sense of style.