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The Evolution of Sustainable Fibers in the Textile Industry

Published: May 29, 2024
Author: TEXTILE VALUE CHAIN

Textile production has been well-documented for its negative impacts on the environment and social issues because of its high consumption of resources and pollutants, use of chemicals and exploitation of labor. However, in the recent past, there has been a shift in the industry, notably in fiber manufacturing. Sustainable fibers are fibers that are grown naturally, processed, and made into fabrics in ways that do not harm the environment and are designed to bring down the emissions of greenhouse gasses by fashion and other industries which are associated with problems of waste and depletion of resources. The following article seeks to unpack the subject of sustainability in the fiber production in the textile industry by identifying some of the developments, new ideas and issues related to the textile industry’s transition towards sustainability.

New ideas are being pioneered in the textile industry to try and reduce the industry’s impact on the environment as it gradually adapts to the green future. Starting from the revival of ancient strands including linen and hemp to innovating vegan leathers like Piñatex, many are turning towards eco-friendly fabrics. Moreover, innovations in recycling methodologies, mechanical and chemical recycling, are opening up new avenues to make the textile and clothing sector more sustainable. These signify that there is gradually a positive transition of the textile industry moving towards being sustainable and eco-friendly. The textile and fashion industry has been one of the oldest industries that have contributed significantly to international trade, but over the recent past, the negative impact of this industry on the environment has raised the sleeve of concern. The fast fashion coupled with the growing consumerism has led to an enhanced rate in the consumption of clothes, and consequently, worse impacts on the environment. Clothing manufacturing and production require significant amounts of water, energy, and chemicals and the process of discarding used clothing only exacerbates the ever-growing problem of textile waste. But there is a new trend that is gradually gaining the spotlight, one that focuses on the use of environment-friendly and decomposition-friendly textiles. This paper discusses the advancement of sustainable fibers into the textile industry and their contribution to the alleviation of the environmental deficit.

Historical Perspective

Although the idea of sustainable fibers is not novel, the conventional fabrics including cotton, wool and silk have been used in the production of clothing and other apparels for many years. Where there is development there is always the issue of how this development affects the environment and what is new here is the type of fibers that are being produced. Traditionally, manufacturing of textiles required the use of conventional farming and a number of chemical based solutions to cater for the increasing need for clothes. This has precipitated the destruction of forests, water pollution and emission of greenhouse gasses, and thus the industry has a negative impact on the environment.

  • The Need for Sustainable Fiber

The Environmental Cost of Synthetic Fiber

It is important to understand that synthetic fibers, as convenient and versatile as they are, have their price: polluting our environment.

The phenomenon of using non-renewable resources and hazardous chemicals in the conventional textile industry is alarming. Petroleum, the major source of polyester, the most used fiber in clothing production, is a non renewable entity. Polyester production requires a significant amount of energy and in the process releases some dangerous gasses in the environment. Furthermore, when polyester clothing items are washed, tiny particles of plastic end up in streams and water bodies, threatening aquatic life.

The Water Intensive Nature of Cotton Production

Cotton production is one of the most water-intensive agricultural activities and this has been attributed to the following reasons.

That is why cotton, which is one of the natural fibers, also has its negative impact on the environment. It requires a lot of water for its growth and development, besides it needs chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers which cause harm to the soil and water. Apart from the above ecological effects of cotton farming, this kind of farming is very costly because it requires many workers and these are usually given poor treatment and very little wages.

The Shift Toward Sustainable Alternatives

Due to this awareness of these environmental and social predicaments, there is an increasing demand for sustainable fibers that are environmentally friendly, biodegradable and sourced in a socially responsible manner. As a result, consumers are moving towards such alternatives which are making the industry shift towards a green model.

The transformation towards sustainable fibers occurred at the end of the twentieth century, due to the increased awareness of the ecological problems and people’s concerns about the moral aspect of the products they use. This change was due to the availability of new technologies, development of new material, and cooperation between relevant sectors and eco groups. One of the most important milestones was the use of Organic cotton, which is a much healthier option than regular cotton as the latter is ranked among the most pesticide-dependent crops. Also, while organic cotton production focuses on soil and water management as well as plant and insect diversity, it does not use synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. This practice adopted by brands and consumers provides an opportunity to stand against unfair labor practices and limit the harm that clothing production inflicts on the environment. Likewise, other natural fibers like bamboo, hemp and Tencel have also attracted the attention of markets for their sustainable uses and compatibility in a number of textile uses.

  • Green Fabrics and Sustainable Fibers

The Surge of Organic Cotton

By the surge of the concept of organic cotton the general perception of the consumer has changed drastically.

Cotton that is grown organically has been found to be environmentally friendly as compared to conventionally grown cotton which uses chemicals and pesticides. It has, however, been suggested that the production of the hybrid does not have as damaging an effect on the environment as one might expect.

The Resurgence of Age-old Fibers

Two materials with the history that began in the prehistoric times are linen and hemp, and both of them now are popular again. Linen comes from the flax plant and this is known to require less water and Pesticides in its growth. But the most interesting aspect is that hemp is a plant that grows quickly and requires few resources to do so; it is also environmentally friendly and biodegradable.

The Rise of Bamboo & Other Renewable Fibers

The newly emerging concept of bamboo is that it is one of the most renewable fibers in the world. Bamboo as raw material has gradually become popular due to its sustainability in the production of fibers. As a highly renewable

As a sustainable resource it presents a good choice for environmentally conscious citizens. Other plant-based fibers like jute and ramie have also been used for manufacturing textiles due to their positive sustainability factors.

Recycled Fibers: Closing the Loops

Recycled fibers can be defined as the use of post-consumer waste such as PET bottles and textile waste to give new fibers. This process does not only help to save non renewable resources but also helps to minimize landfill waste.

  • Biodegradable Fabrics

Addressing Textile Waste Through Biodegradability

Textile waste as a sustainability problem and biodegradability as the potential solution

The textile industry is a major contributor to the waste stream where enormous amounts are either buried in landfill or burned per second. Biodegradable fabrics have been developed to act as a solution to this problem of waste as they decompose over time.

Tencel: A Sustainable Textile Front-Runner

Tencel is a biodegradable fiber derived from wood pulp, which is popular under the trade

name of Lyocell. Its production also uses a closed-loop system, which means that it reuses chemicals to reduce waste and is therefore more friendly to the environment.

Innovative Plant-Based Leather Alternatives

Piñatex, sourced from pineapple leaves, is emerging as an innovation in the vegan leather market which degrades naturally after use. Other plant-based leather materials like mycelium-based leather or leather from cacti are also being discovered as eco-leathers.

Sea-Based and Soy Fabrics as New Age Fabrics

Beside triexta, which is biodegradable synthetic fabric, there are other natural fabrics such as Seacell, which is made from seaweed and soy silk, which is derived from the by-products of soybeans. These innovative materials are likely to offer the textile industry a way to become more sustainable.

  • The Role of Technology in the Production of Sustainable Fibers

Nanotechnology and Enhanced Fiber Properties

The advancement in nanotechnology has brought a revolution in the production of the plant based fibers like bamboo and lyocell and provided them with better attributes such as increased strength and durability, and placing them in a category of being able to replace conventional materials.

Recycling  Innovations in Textiles for Production

Advancements in technology have made it possible for new approaches on the recycling of textile products. Two innovative techniques that are currently being used to recycle clothing include mechanical recycling in which used clothes are turned into new fibers and chemical recycling in which fabrics are reduced to their constituent compounds.

The Impact of Biotech on Fiber Creation

There is no doubt that the biotechnology industry has revolutionized the process of creating fiber in many ways. Biotechnology is also impacting the production of sustainable fibers. Genetically engineered bacteria and enzymes are being utilized to produce biodegradable polymers that might substitute textile products in the future.

  • The Future of Sustainable Fibers 

Consumer Demand Driving Sustainable Fiber

Sustainable fashion is slowly gaining popularity among consumers due to increased awareness of the need to protect the environment. The consumer trend towards looking for more sustainable and ethical textiles is increasing the pressures on the textile industry. This trend has emerged as more consumers become conscious of their impact on the environment and demand that the brands and designers they deal with incorporate sustainable materials in the products they offer.

Technological Advancements Fostering Innovation

Continued development in the technology industry and increased focus on research of sustainable materials suggest that new innovative and more sustainable fibers will enter the market. These enhancements are expected to reduce the effects of the textile industry on the environment and increase the opportunities of sustainable products for consumers.

Policy and Regulation to Bring Change to Sustainable Practices

There are different legal measures that can be implemented to encourage the use of sustainable fibers: Possible factors that may lead to sustainability in the clothing industry include: Increased governmental support for sustainable practices and reduction of measures for unsustainable materials may also propel the industry towards sustainability.

  • Challenges and Opportunities

Despite the positive development on the use of sustainable fibers in the textile industry, challenges are still encountered. One of the biggest challenges is the absence of clear certification standards across industries and poor disclosure of supply chains that make it virtually impossible for consumers to determine the truthfulness of these companies’ sustainability claims. The problem of greenwashing, or employing fake eco-friendly claims to mislead the customers, is also an issue that threatens the authenticity of sustainable practices in the industry.

Another issue is the feasibility of creating sustainable fibers at a large scale and at a price point competitive to conventional materials. Some of the sustainable fibers may be more expensive to produce due to the fact that they have not achieved economies of scale and thus they are not as cheap as they could be in markets that are sensitive to price. However, with increasing consciousness of consumers and availability of sustainable material, the price difference between sustainable and the normal fiber is expected to reduce in the near future thereby making sustainable fibers affordable to the consumers in the market. In the future, the prospects of the development of new technologies and partnership in the sphere of sustainable fiber are very promising. The study of novel fabrics, for instance, the algae fiber or mycelium leather, is a possible way of developing more sustainable fabrics. The collaboration of brands, textile mills, and sustainability organizations would promote sustainability initiatives in fashion through promoting transparency, circularity, and social responsibility.

Conclusion
The emergence of sustainable fibers in the textile industry marks a shift from the conventional fashion practices and presents a new outlook on the future of fashion. From sustainable resource management to consumer responsibility, companies and individuals can make a difference in the sustainability of the supply chain. Although there are certain barriers for the industry to sustainably transform and eliminate the negative impacts of fast fashion, the approach to embrace sustainable fibers and environmentally friendly processes signify a positive outlook for fashion that is both appealing and responsible.

Therefore, the process of developing sustainable fibers in the textile industry can be summed up as a process of progress, partnership and patronage. With the increased concern of the global population towards the environmental impact of products, the textile industry has a chance to become one of the leaders in the transition to sustainable and ethical consumption. Consumers can act as agents of change by choosing to buy from brands that embrace sustainable fibers as well as brands that have proper accountability. Altogether, let us create a better stitch in the long line of fashion industry, a thread at a time.

Reference link

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Audaces. (2024, May 3). Understand the importance of the textile industry and its evolution. Audaces. https://audaces.com/en/blog/textile-industry#:~:text=The%20textile%20revolution%20began%20in,replacing%20small%2Dscale%20manual%20production. 

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