Preserving the planet’s environment is critical to human survival, and the textile industry is in a better position than many to change humanity’s impact on the climate. This article details a few of the ways the fashion and textile industry is introducing sustainability in 2023.

If there is one thing that all humans should be able to agree upon, it is that the environment we live in is important for our survival. Like it or not, climate change is here. The textile and fashion industry is uniquely placed in this regard: as some of the world’s largest polluters, the process and material changes they make are able to have some of the greatest impacts. One person acting as an individual cannot change the world on his/her own, but one conscientious bulk textile purchase by a key player can have decades of influence on the environment.

Fabric mills, fashion designers and other players in the world of textiles have made amazing strides towards sustainability in recent years. There have been numerous innovations in materials science, recycling and waste prevention in the 21st century, and the smartest leaders in the industry are the ones who wholeheartedly embrace these changes. Here are some of the major ways through which designers and textile companies have been making their industry a more sustainable one.

Natural Fibre Alternatives to Artificial and Animal-Based Textiles

The most obvious environmental impact of many textiles involves the materials that are used to create them. The manufacture of rayon, for instance, may use natural cellulose fibres, but the process also creates poisonous gases and risks polluting the water, air and soil. Nylon and polyester use large amounts of fossil fuels in their creation. Animal-based textiles such as leather, meanwhile, have a massive carbon footprint because the animals produce greenhouse gases, and many fossil fuels are used in caring for them.

Thankfully, there are a lot of innovations in natural fibres to help reduce the need to use these textiles in the first place. Apple leather, for instance, uses by-products from juicing. This fruit pulp contains a high amount of cellulose, making it an ideal option for forming into textiles. Once the pulp is combined with polyurethane, it creates a soft, durable natural fabric that has found its way into shoes and small accessories around the world.

Likewise, Bolt Threads has developed a vegan leather substitute called Mylo. This technology is made from mushrooms’ underground root systems (or mycelium cells) in a factory completely powered by renewable energy. The fashion design brand Stella McCartney recently introduced the first full garments made from Mylo: trousers and a bustier top.

Other plant-based fibres are also growing increasingly common in the world of textiles. Just a few of the new plant-based materials on the market are:

Nettle fibre as an alternative to cotton

Pineapple leaves

Squitex, which is a biodegradable and recyclable fabric based on squid genes

Orange fibre as a replacement for silk

Seaweed fibres

Coffee ground fibre for quick-drying fabric

Leather made from the leaves of the Opuntia cactus

Vegea (wine leather), which uses grape skins left over from the wine industry

As the issue of climate change looms ever closer for humanity, designers’ visions of the future will be forced to adapt to these changes. Players at every stage of fabric and clothing production must proactively make these changes whenever possible.

3D Textile Printing Helps to Eliminate Fabric Waste

Excess production has long been a persistent issue in the world of textiles. Even though nobody wants to pay for more fabric than they need, every project will inevitably produce remnants. In 2020 alone, the world produced an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste.1 Although this figure includes discarded clothing as well, a significant amount of this waste was these remnants.

That’s where advancements in 3D printing are coming to the rescue. The technology has begun to revolutionise the world of fashion as it has many other industries. Imagine being able to create the exact amount of fabric that a project requires, in the exact shape and size needed. Not only can 3D textile printing reduce textile waste, but its efficiency means reduced carbon emissions as well. Moreover, many of the materials used in 3D printing can be recycled almost infinitely, reducing the amount of discarded clothing in landfills around the world.

3D printed fabric isn’t yet a staple of fashion houses worldwide thanks to issues regarding its wearability and flexibility. However, materials scientists are addressing these challenges, and many are confident that custom-printed clothing will soon become part of the mainstream, just as printed-to-order clothing became inexpensive and popular in the early part of the century.

Companies such as New Industrial Order are using this technology to circularise the clothing creation process even further. Thanks to the seamless design of its 3D printed knitwear, large garments can be unravelled, allowing the yarn to be re-used into anything else.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have taken inspiration from the apparent “failure” of one of their 3D printers to create a soft, strong fabric printed from poly-lactic acid (PLA).2 These materials, which the team call “DefeXtiles,” are currently being studied for use as customised surgical mesh, as well as allowing people to 3D print mock-ups of clothing at home before making a purchase online.

The advent of 3D printing is also making it easier to create multi-functional materials. Whether using plastics that are “doped” with coffee grounds or algae to enhance sustainability or imbuing a textile mesh with antibiotics before it is used in a surgical procedure, the ability to create textiles from scratch comes with countless fringe benefits.

Modern Dyeing Processes Reduce Chemical Runoff

One of the textile industry’s most dramatic impacts on the environment doesn’t come from the fabrics themselves. Synthetic dyes are particularly difficult to remediate, often leaking into soil, groundwater and oceans. They also require thorough rinsing after their application: otherwise, these dyes and their chemical fixing agents can cause severe health issues for anyone who handles or wears the finished garment. The World Bank estimated in 2019 that about 20 per cent of the world’s wastewater was the result of fabric dyeing and treatment3, and the Quantis Report from the same year estimated that dyeing and finishing was responsible for 3 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.4 Even worse, traditional dyeing processes contribute to humanity’s impact on the Earth’s changing climate.

The textile industry has taken a two-pronged approach to solving these problems. The first solution is for manufacturers to switch to more environmentally friendly dyes and dyeing processes. Many of these low-impact dyes are free of heavy metals and are azo-free. Since many areas, such as the European Union, regulate or ban the use of these carcinogenic compounds, an increasing number of firms have begun to use these new dyes anyway.

One of the main problems with this approach is achieving consistency when producing items in bulk. A designer who creates only bespoke garments can generally ensure that all the material that is used for a project comes from the same dye lot. But a factory that produces thousands of garments which are supposed to look identical doesn’t have that luxury, so it’s far more likely to rely on more environmentally harmful dyes to ensure consistency. Technologies such as objective colour analysis aim to solve these problems: using spectrophotometry, they can ensure consistency in colour, and improved mordant chemistry can improve a dye’s staying power and its colour.

The other solution to the problems created by the dyeing process is to use less dye. Colouring processes such as screen printing necessarily create excess and runoff, which greatly harm the environment. Digital printing onto fabric provides the same utility as screen printing, without producing toxic wastewater. For e.g., Alchemie Technology’s Endeavour process uses minimal electricity and no water at all, reducing energy use by up to 85 per cent and completely eliminating wastewater production. Dyeing can take place even in locations with little access to fresh water. Moreover, this process allows firms to consolidate their operations, with dyeing and garment production taking place in the same area.

There is one more element to consider when it comes to textile dyeing and printing. Digitising these operations can streamline the logistics of colour management and enable uniform inspection, cleaning and drying of textiles at every stage of production.

Responsible, Recycled Clothing Components

Sometimes the most innovative solution for a problem is one that has existed for hundreds or thousands of years. For centuries, blacksmiths have been able to take broken scraps of metal and turn them into useful objects. However, textile manufacturers have only recently begun to catch up with this.

Of course, not all clothing can be made from materials that are as easy to recycle as metal is. That doesn’t mean that textiles themselves cannot reuse the materials that comprise them. Many brands (including H&M and the Adidas Primeknit Collection) have started to create lines made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that is recycled from plastic bottle caps. Likewise, eco-friendly shoe brands recycle rubber from used tyres.

It is far easier to recycle plastic and metal than it is to recycle many textiles – more about that in the next section – so companies that utilise materials that have already been recycled can truly minimise their environmental footprint. It’s also important to note that firms priority should be to keep materials out of landfills. They should provide as many avenues as possible to use recycled and recyclable materials, as well as providing consumers with avenues to return or recycle their textiles.

Reduce Waste by Creatively Reusing and Recycling Fabric Scraps

Even in a completely idealised culture optimised for efficiency and a circular structure, there is bound to be some level of fabric waste. Machines break down, projects fail, and even the most durable clothing will eventually become unwearable. Textiles are famously difficult to recycle, in large part because so many fabrics are blended materials and textile recycling technology currently only allows mechanical recycling of pure fibres. While a shirt made entirely from cotton is easy to recycle, one with even one per cent rayon or elastic thread can ruin an entire batch. However, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) association estimates that up to 95 per cent of used clothing can be recycled.5

Moreover, cities and states around the world have a standardised set of procedures for recycling metal and plastic. There is no such infrastructure for textiles, which means that consumers who wish to recycle their used clothing usually need to go out of their way to do it. Some companies, like Everywhere Apparel, solve this problem by adding a QR code to their labels which allows customers to request a return label for their garment. Others, such as ForDays, provide buyers with store credit if they purchase a takeback bag. Even in these cases, however, many of the recycled garments may end up being “downcycled” into rags rather than finding new use as clothing.

Unifi aims to solve this problem. Since 2011, the North Carolina-headquartered company has been recycling all forms of plastic into eco-friendly, sustainable REPREVE textiles. At the end of 2022, Unifi expanded its “Textile Takeback” programme, which allows textile mills across the Western hemisphere to circularise their operations by traceably turning in their scraps and remnants.

Instead of breaking down worn-out fabric, the Canadian company Guru upcycles silk sarees from villages in India into truly unique camisoles, tunics, kimonos and dresses. Guru ensures that the former owners of the sarees are compensated fairly, which makes the industry more sustainable in yet another way. Finally, Guru also sources its fabrics from textile manufacturers’ end-of-roll remnants. While this model doesn’t apply to the worlds of mass production and fast fashion, it is an excellent start, and it is a model that other small fashion houses should consider emulating.

Upcycling and creative reuse are key here. Yes, scrap fabric can be turned into insulation or stuffing. However, to get the most utility from these procedures, the industry needs to completely integrate these waste prevention practises into its workflows. The profitability of fast fashion may have to take a back seat to concepts like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), where a material producer takes on responsibility for the treatment and disposal of its products.

Functional Materials Combine Utility and Fashion

If there is one over-arching theme to these programmes and sustainability initiatives, it is: use less. There are a lot of reasons for “reduce” being the first part of the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Functional textiles that combine multiple utilities are at the forefront of innovation in this regard.

One of the most established examples of functional textiles is electrically conductive fabric. As smartphones and other touchscreen devices have become ubiquitous, many people living in cold climates have started wearing gloves with conductive fingertips. However, this electroconductive fabric has utilities far beyond the convenience of its users. People who suffer from chronic pain have seen the benefit of electroconductive fabric in braces and gloves: the fabric’s conductivity makes it ideal for integration with transcutaneous electric nerve stimulations (TENS) units. By using washable, reusable fabric instead of disposable leads, people can reduce the number of materials they use over time.

The function of these materials extends well beyond the factory, as well. Self-cleaning textiles use nanotechnology to repel water and even make stains disappear. Some of these textiles use sunlight, while others prevent stains in the first place. Regardless of the details, self-cleaning fabric can be a game-changer in certain environments. Needing to clean high-use items less often means using less water and less detergent. Using fewer chemicals in the process of making fabric waterproof is another win for the environment.

These lessons don’t only apply to the world of fashion. 3D printed surgical mesh can be imbued with antibiotics, for instance. This can not only improve the result of medical procedures and reduce the risk of post-surgical complications, but by reducing the number of separate materials the surgeon uses, it can help reduce the carbon footprint of the procedure.

In the world of science and industry, textiles may integrate technologies such as carbon quantum dots, nanoparticles, metal compounds and supramolecular compounds to improve the efficiency of a process or to reduce its footprint. This added level of function truly streamlines the industry’s work, minimising its environmental impact even more.

Create And Utilise Closed Loop Systems Wherever Possible

Another critical element of implementing sustainable operations in any industry is “closing the loop” that allows for extensive waste in the first place. Circularising the textile economy is quite possibly the only way for the industry to move forward.

The fashion industry, especially when it comes to fast fashion, is full of open loop systems and linear design. In these systems, a single boll of cotton is picked, carded, spun and woven into clothing. One person then wears the clothing and discards it. While there are some detours (such as thrift shops) that these clothes take, the journey of the cotton boll always starts in the field and ends in the landfill. The goal of a closed loop system is to maximise the time that fibre spends in a useful form in between the field and the landfill.

One of the top priorities when closing loops is to recycle materials whenever possible, and that’s already been discussed in this article. But there are more ways that people can extend the life span of a clothing item, and some of them are quite creative indeed.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jen Baumgartner estimated in 2012 that the average American woman wears 20 per cent of her wardrobe 80 per cent of the time.6 This leaves the vast majority of her wardrobe unused, sometimes for years on end. Apps such as Tulerie, Designer24, By Rotation and Nuw are attempting to change this through peer-to-peer clothing sales and rental services. With these apps, dozens of people can enjoy a single big-ticket item inexpensively, and the original buyer can defray the cost of the purchase. Social media events and apps such as the #30WearsChallenge encourage this behaviour even further.

One 2019 study in The Sociological Review also points out how precarious the messaging is around these recycled and circularised items.7 One of the hidden critical elements of closing the loop will be changing the prevailing messaging that surrounds reused textiles and other materials.

Other Thoughts About Sustainable Fashion

As long as people live on this planet, maintaining the environment is one of humanity’s core responsibilities. Human stewardship of the planet will be the key determinant of what the planet will look like in five, fifty or five hundred years. All life is connected, and it harms all of humanity to think of fashion as something that exists in a vacuum absent of its impact on the environment. Textile mills and fashion designers need to ask: what can be changed to make our processes better for the world? Profit is an important concern, but it can no longer be the only one.

It is true that the fashion and textile industry has been a major polluter over the centuries. However, this gives the same industry ample power today. For decades, fashion designers and textile companies have held subtle sway over the world’s style and taste. Now they can choose to use that influence for good. Designers are leaders, and the choices they make have strong knock-on effects. One person recycling one garment may not make a huge difference. One designer switching to recycled materials, however, may be enough to change the world.