Style And Sustainability Can Make A Fashionable Impact

By Nick Smith, Global Head of Textile Coatings, Covestro

The world population is increasing by roughly 83 million people every year: that’s the number of people in Germany. With more people comes more consumers who need more clothing. This increase in numbers combined with the soaring demand for fast fashion, where customers expect a near constant stream of affordable products to their stores, or lose interest, is not good news for our planet. It seems unlikely that the global thirst for clothes is going to disappear, so the industry needs to think creatively about what it can do to reduce the environmental impact.

The fashion industry’s CO2 emissions are projected to increase by more than 60 percent to nearly 2.8 billion tonnes per year by 2030. At the same time it is predicted that the fashion industry will use 35-percent more land for cotton, forest for cellulosic fibers and grassland for livestock — altogether over 115 million hectares that could be used to grow crops for an increasing and more demanding population or to preserve forest. Cotton producing countries like China and India are already facing water shortages, so these nations face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production and securing clean drinking water.

To help combat this massive environmental impact the fashion industry needs to come with new ways of producing textile and textile-based materials. Furthermore, it needs to embrace life cycle thinking, in order to properly understand the impact of materials used, by considering the impacts at all stages of value creation, ideally from extraction of raw materials to end of life.

One example of where real changes can be brought about as far as materials are concerned is in the area of polyurethane (PU) synthetic materials. These versatile materials are staples for the footwear industry, with 7 billion pairs of fashion and sports shoes manufactured with PU synthetic upper materials. They are used extensively in bags, belts and accessories, as well as in garments, and are marked out by their almost endless design possibilities, durability, washability and light weight.

However, many brand owners have concerns about the manufacturing process of PU synthetics as it normally requires the use of the solvent dimethylformamide (DMF), a Substance of Very High Concern’ under the European Chemicals Regulation REACH because of its toxicity. An estimated 5 billion tonnes of DMF is used every year in the production of this type of materials, creating 12.3 billion liters of wastewater and 30,000 tonnes solid waste. Aside from creating concern about both worker health and environmental pollution, the process is energy- and resource-intensive too.

Covestro developed its INSQIN® technology — waterborne PU chemicals for textile materials — in order to eliminate the requirement of PU synthetics manufacturers to use DMF in their processes, and thus allowing the industry to address the concerns surrounding existing processes, and the market for such breakthrough technology is growing. It was also known that the technology enables a 50-percent reduction in energy use in the coating process and a 95-percent water reduction.

Underlining its commitment to life-cycle thinking and with curiosity to understand in more depth how INSQIN fares against conventional technologies when looked at from the life-cycle point of view, Covestro carried out an environmental life-cycle assessment (LCA) comparing the two materials from the cradle to the PU synthetic material factory gate, over a broad range of environmental impact categories.

The study confirmed that, also from the life-cycle perspective, INSQIN proves to be a more sustainable way to produce this kind of coated textiles than conventional technologies. The assessment showed that, from the cradle to material factory gate, the Global Warming Potential, also commonly known as carbon footprint, for 1,000 square meters of waterborne PU synthetic is 45 percent less than that of solvent-based PU synthetic. The impact of this reduction is so significant that if the entire textile industry switched to using Covestro’s waterborne PU technology, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking every car off the road in Beijing, or in London, Hong Kong and Los Angeles combined. And while the technology has a significantly lower carbon footprint than solventborne equivalents, the detailed study revealed that 85 percent of the reduction in Global Warming Potential is due to the lower energy consumption of the dry textile coating process that is enabled by the waterborne PU, and that replaces conventional wet processing. In other words, most of the carbon footprint reduction is due to process change enabled by waterborne technology. Using INSQIN to coat textiles with PU also has the potential to reduce acidification in our waters and soil by 20 percent, compared to conventional technology.

When brands consider sustainability, the idea of life-cycle thinking — assessing the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life from-cradle-to-grave — should take center stage. Even a small shift can result in massive changes. For every 20,000 pairs of shoes coated with waterborne PU technology, brand owners can save enough water to meet the daily requirements of 120 people in China.

Chemical innovation is just one way that we can bring about significant advances in the textiles industry. In the face of growing concern about the hidden cost of fashion and the consensus that environmental, social, and ethical improvements are necessary, the industry has a clear opportunity to think creatively and act differently.

Posted September 19, 2017