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15 October 2012

The Future of Fashion Fabrics – Reducing Environmental Impact

Contributor The Sustainable Angle: Expert Columnist

Future Fabrics Expo

Charlotte Turner from The Sustainable Angle reports on how companies can assess the environmental impact of the fabrics they source, where to start in understanding the whole fabric value chain and a look at some fabric suppliers.


The Sustainable Angle is a not for profit organization whose project The Future Fabrics Expo focuses on how environmental impact in the fashion industry can be lowered through innovation in the textile industry. The expo addresses the need for sustainable fibre diversification – in 2010 45% of all fibres produced globally were polyester and 32% were cotton. (Oerlikon Textile Report)

In this article, Charlotte Turner from The Sustainable Angle reports on how companies can assess the environmental impact of the fabrics they source and where to start in understanding the whole fabric value chain. She also highlights some of the latest commercial sustainable fabric suppliers who will be showcasing at the upcoming Future Fabrics Expo.

The Textiles Industry – The Need to Reduce Negative Environmental Impact

“There is a pressing need to transform the way clothes are made. With water, mineral oil and fertile soil being a limited and dwindling resource, all important ingredients for the domineering fibres polyester and cotton, alternative fibre choices are essential. A designer’s informed choice of a sustainable textile means a reduction of water use and wastage across the supply chain, reduced chemical pollution, reduced loss of biodiversity, reduced waste production and minimized use of non-renewable resources.” – Nina Marenzi, Founder, The Sustainable Angle

Environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry are growing, but there are many ways that you can not only reduce negative environmental impact, but also increase positive environmental and social benefits through informed choices of materials and intelligent design. Thinking critically about materials is just one option, which is not an isolated solution, but part of a considered and linked chain of positive choices along the supply chain.

According to the Oerlikon Textile Report; The Fibre Year 2009/10:

  • 58% of all fibres produced globally were synthetic, 42% were naturally derived
  • 45% of all fibres produced were polyester, 32% were cotton
  • 23% were other fibres – of which 13% were polyamide, polypropolene, acrylic and other synthetics (1%), and 10% were wool, viscoses, other naturals and cellulosics.

Therefore there is a massive need for fibre diversification to avoid natural resource depletion and support thriving eco-systems, in light of the overwhelming global use of such a small range of fibres despite growing availability of innovative fibres and fabrics.

In 2010 the global textile industry ‘experienced the most potent growth in 25 years’ (Oerlikon Textile Report), with an increase of 8.6% – with such a rapid growth of textiles on offer, it is imperative to make informed and responsible choices.

Where to Start – Understanding the Supply Chain

In production fashion and textiles undergo a chain of processes from raw material to finished product, “one of the longest and most complicated industrial chains in manufacturing industry.” The time consuming and resource intensive processes “draw on labour, energy, water and other resources and cumulatively make for a high-impact sector.” (Fletcher, 2008:41) Traceability is therefore key to understanding the textile supply chain and reducing environmental impact.

Key sustainability challenges in fibre production vary for different materials, so it is important to assess individual processes, resources consumed and impacts such as:

  • Significant use of energy and non-renewable resources for synthetics
  • Emissions to air and water from producing synthetic and cellulosic fibres
  • Adverse impacts to water linked to natural fibre production

To get the best (and most accurate) understanding of the supply chain, continuous and transparent communication with suppliers is imperative, asking questions such as:

  • What traceable and verifiable information can you get from your suppliers regarding environmental impacts as well as animal husbandry?
  • Do you use mechanical or chemical methods to process your fibres/fabrics?
  • If you are using chemical methods for fibre processing, what measures are you undertaking to minimize pollution to air and water?
  • How are you working to reduce the impact of wet processing and finishing?

Assessing Fabrics

Assessing the environmental impact or benefit of any fibre or material is not straightforward considering the numerous elements of the supply chain to assess – from energy-efficient processes, chemical use and waste, to ethical labour and animal husbandry.

To support informed and appropriate decisions, when sourcing it is helpful to first consider a combination of:

  • What criteria are important to you?
  • What message is important for your brand?
  • What values are important for your customer?
  • Scientific fact – what are the proven benefits/downfalls of this fabric?

Diverse Reduced Environmental Impact Fabrics

Within the growing textile industry, there are increasing innovative sustainable solutions addressing a range of environmental and social issues, which are commercially available, high quality, luxurious, and fashion friendly. The Future Fabrics Expo showcases examples of new interpretations of perennial fashion classics, as well as more experimental novelties including:

  • Greenfil© castor oil fabric
  • organic cotton lace
  • recycled polyester suede
  • 100% local British wool
  • fabrics represented by C-L-A-S-S including Milkofil© and NewLife©
  • recycled selvedge denim
  • SCafe© post-consumer coffee fabric
  • closed-loop cellulosic fibres
  • innovative blends of various natural and organic fibres

Supplier and Product Case Studies

The expo showcases global mills catering for varied markets including independent, mid- to high-end and mainstream fashion brands, and diverse product categories. Many are suitable for smaller companies in terms of costs and MOQs, and address sustainability in unique ways such as:

1) Paper No 9, USA – Animal cruelty and plastic free alternative leather

Paper No 9 creates hand made alternative leather derived from recycled paper and natural substrates including canvas, linen and denim.

“It is only by working within the confines of environmentally friendly resources that we were able to create our own innovative material and products and push the boundaries on what traditional textiles can do. This has opened up a world of possibilities for fashion designers to create totally new and provocative designs and never before seen effects that would never have been possible without our animal cruelty-free and plastic-free focus.”

Minimums: 5yds h5. Lead time: Approx. 4wks h5. Extra services: Bespoke & collaborative design developments

2) Avani Kumaon, India – Indian local self-sufficient production

Avani Kumaon produces hand spun and woven natural fabrics in a closed loop cycle, spun on solar powered spinning wheels. The fabrics are naturally dyed with local plants and trees using harvested rainwater, which is then reused to irrigate local farmland. The coop raises silk cocoons locally, as well as reintroducing tree species to wasteland for local farmers to cultivate. All waste biomass is composted for organic fertiliser, and finishing is completed on machines powered by gassifying pine needles. Throughout the supply chain, Avani Kumaon is committed to developing best practice solutions suitable for their location and resources.

MOQ: 20m h5. Extra services: Custom weaves, bespoke natural dyeing

3) Susan Gaunt and Laxtons, UK – British premium wool

Susan Gaunt and Laxtons have produced a range of fully traceable British wools, with animal welfare and environmental preservation at the centre of their work. Their carbon footprint has been greatly reduced by local production, promoting the local Yorkshire wool trade.

In particular their “40 miles from fleece to fabric” travels only 40 miles from leaving the British Wool Marketing Board sorting office in Bradford to the finished cloth in Huddersfield.

Price: From £12.85/m h5. Extra services: Bespoke & collaborative design developments

Susan explains that while the partnership has a very pro-active approach to sustainability, the industry is “at the tip of the iceberg with regards to ‘ethical fashion’”, and we “need to dispel the myth that it is expensive, and look at it as ‘value for money’” instead. This is the perfect example of adding value through the use of high quality, long-lasting fabrics.

4) Swiss Organics, Switzerland – Luxury organic cotton

Swiss Organics is an umbrella organisation of Swiss mills producing organic extra long staple PIMA cottons. All fabrics are manufactured within 100km in Switzerland in a fully GOTS certified supply chain. All SO companies are Öeko-Tex Standard 1000 certified, and CO² emissions are reduced to a minimum with voluntary CO² reduction efforts. The majority of irrigation water comes from rain-water reservoirs.

Price: From €9/m h5. MOQ: 60m

The Future of Fashion Fabrics

By raising the profile of sustainable textiles, the already growing number of designers demanding sustainable materials will continue to increase, leaving mills and suppliers in a better position to offer lower minimums and higher flexibility for smaller companies who so often wish to source sustainably.

In the meantime, working with textile designers such as Paper No.9, Susan Gaunt and Laxtons allows for exciting creative exploration, showing the industry that “abrics that offer innovative alternatives are part of a better future – one in which we are able to manage our resources wisely and cost effectively.

Check out The Future Fabrics Expo at www.thesustainableangle.org/futurefabricsexpo


  • Kate Fletcher, 2008. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. Edition. Routledge.
  • Oerlikon textile – Oerlikon Textile . 2012. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.oerlikontextile.com/en/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-3. [Accessed 28 September 2012].

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