Five Sustainable Fibers and Innovations That Will Define the Future of Fashion’s Printed Textiles

Updated: May 5

By Debbie McKeegan (published in WhatTheyThink)

This article was penned by Debbie McKeegan, CEO of Texintel, and published in WhatTheyThink April 8, 2021.

Covid-19 has accelerated the sustainability agenda, and implementing these various initiatives across highly complex supply chains will take a great deal of dexterity and commitment—but there can be no going back. Read what textiles expert and WhatTheyThink contributor Debbie McKeegan has to say about the emergence of more sustainable fibers for textiles.

Looking forward, there can be no doubt that all sectors working within the fashion industry’s supply chain must now adapt their business models and sourcing routes to include circularity, sustainability, and eco-friendly innovation. Customers are increasingly demanding that the products being offered are of a responsible origin, and that the brands that they choose to purchase from have substantial environmental credentials.

There have been some welcome and important moves and initiatives from the industry and the NGOs that surround it over the last 12 months. COVID-19 has accelerated the sustainability agenda and implementing these various initiatives across highly complex supply chains will take a great deal of dexterity and commitment—but there can be no going back.

The landscape has changed, and we are at a new and exciting frontier.

Many luxury goods from apparel brands—Chanel to Kering and into the high-volume mass market such as H&M and ASOS—have for some time invested heavily in new resources and strategic collaborations to reach their defined sustainability goals. Now the rest of the industry must look long and hard at their supply chains if their businesses are to prosper in a post-COVID world.

All of our collective initiatives can re-define and re-fashion textile manufacturing as it moves irreversibly towards embracing a new world order of sustainability, circularity, and eco-friendly manufacture. A good place to start is to look at where we are sourcing the textiles onto which we print using digital technologies, and what fibers we should be utilizing over the next chapter. As the behemoths of the fashion world switch to eco-friendly print bases, the fibers listed below offer a signpost to the textiles that will become mainstream, and as such will be available to purchase in large and small volumes as the agenda rolls forward. Sourcing them now will bring print prosperity and deliver new commercial opportunities.

So, what are the fibers of the future and why can they make a positive impact?

Initiatives are many, the textile industry is in a frenetic state; R&D is a key factor for environmental change, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Nature has already delivered the solution: biodiversity. Choosing cellulose bases offers a fast track to sustainable processes. For sure, we have to look at how some of these fibers are currently grown, harvested, and processed, but their environmental attributes cannot be ignored. From organic and preferred cotton, to naturally sustainable fibers and new technical fibers, hybrid-synthetics offer refreshingly simple circularity and polarize a regeneration. The future of fabric sourcing just opened a new chapter for the textile industry.

Here’s a summary of just five key fibers and recent innovations that will make a positive impact on the textile industry in a post covid supply chain.

Organic Cotton and Preferred Cotton

Leading the way, of course, in all kinds of textiles is the obvious and widespread move toward using organic cotton, with global brands such as Inditex committing to only using organic or re-cycled cotton by 2025.

Organic cotton is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. However, it must be noted that currently it only represents 1% of the global cotton yield. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-party certification organizations verify that organic producers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production. Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Independent Certification from organizations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) provides the framework that defines the product, before it can even enter the manufacturing cycle as a component.

Similarly, for non-organic agriculture, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) reported that more than 22% of the world’s cotton crop now has “Preferred Cotton Status.”

The market is switching to responsible production: the BCI also reported a huge increase in brand usage of “Preferred Cotton,” with more than 1.5 million tons being used by BCI brands and members. The BCI have big ambitions for the fashion and apparel industry as they aim for Preferred Cotton to constitute 30% of the world’s cotton crop by 2021.

Linen, Otherwise Known as Flax

Closely following organic cotton is linen made from flax fibers, which many would describe as the original sustainable fiber (it dates back to 8000 BC).

Flax is one of the most sustainable raw materials in the world. During growth, the flax plant receives no additional irrigation as rainwater is sufficient. The best flax in the world grows in northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This is the pre-eminent European “flax territory,” responsible for 80% of global flax production. The soil and climate, which regularly alternates between sun and rain, are ideal for cultivating a strong fiber that is renowned for its quality around the globe. In comparison to other crops, far fewer pesticides and fertilizers are used with flax. The fibers are separated from the stem during a natural process called dew.

The resultant fabrics are often used in the fashion industry, where their sustainability credentials add weight to their high quality, longevity, and historic use as natural apparel fabrics.

Looking at synthetics, science is set to deliver new cellulose and hybrid eco-synthetic fibers.

Micro-Fibrillated Cellulose from Spinnova

The Spinnova cellulose fiber is said to be the most sustainable fiber in the world, both from a raw material and fiber-making process aspect. Spinnova’s fiber is completely natural, using only FSC- and/or PEFC-certified wood or cellulosic waste streams.

Spinnova have created a process in which wood fiber does not need to be dissolved with harmful chemicals. Instead, it is refined mechanically to create something called micro-fibrillated cellulose, the feedstock for their process. At the end of its life, the Spinnova cellulose fiber can return to nature quickly. Taking just a few months to biodegrade in natural and marine environments, it has a fast end of life, leaving nothing harmful behind.

To create materials for the future, Spinnova went back to nature. Their natural fiber material is white continuous filament. It is ready as-is for spinning into yarn and knitting or weaving into fabric. With the stretch and strength qualities of cotton and the insulation of lamb’s wool, it is ideal for fashion apparel, where soft handle and sustainability are now vital.

Recycled Creora® Regen Spandex and Bio-Based Spandex from Hyosung

Spandex is the backbone of sportswear and athleisure wear, and here more than anywhere else eco credentials are a central pillar of any apparel sales proposition.

With sustainability, traceability, and transparency at the top of the fashion industry’s agenda, mills and brands are seeking fiber technology solutions to help them create the most responsibly made, eco-friendly products.

Among its sustainable fiber solutions, Hyosung highlights its GRS-certified, 100% recycled Creora Regen Elastane made from reclaimed waste, which has been in high demand since its launch in 2020.

Hyosung have also developed Creora® Bio-Based Spandex where petroleum is replaced with corn. Aside from eliminating fossil fuels from the process, the corn pulls carbon dioxide from the air as it grows.

When paired with cotton, Creora Bio-Based Spandex gives brands a plant-based sustainability narrative and will be popular with fashion apparel brands.

Sustainable Viscose: ECOVERO™ from Lenzing

Derived from certified renewable wood sources using an eco-responsible production process, Lenzing™ ECOVERO™ fibers are tailored to a sustainable lifestyle, contributing to a cleaner environment. Lenzing ™ ECOVERO™ viscose fibers are derived from sustainable wood and pulp, coming from certified and controlled sources. Fibers have been certified with the EU Ecolabel as meeting high environmental standards throughout their lifecycle, from raw material extraction to production, distribution and disposal. Importantly, Lenzing fibers can be robustly identified in the final product, assuring you that your purchase contains genuine Lenzing viscose fibers. At the end of use, all Lenzing fibers can re-enter the eco-system; they are designed for circular process.

Apparel and fashion use large volumes of viscose in their products, where the softness and handle add much to the blended textiles and garments they are used in. Add to that eco-responsibility and sustainability, and you have a winning sales proposition for the future.

Toward a Sustainable Supply Chain

As the textile industry evolves, all parties in the supply chain, upstream and down, must collaborate to enable transparency. Only then can we truly develop a sustainable supply chain.

All of the fiber innovations listed above have a huge part to play, but there will be many more to come as we switch from a synthetic petroleum-based fashion industry to a cellulose supply chain. We are only at the beginning of this new chapter, but the race is on, and we don’t have time to waste…our footprint is heavy and collectively we can make a huge positive impact.

The consumer now demands that we make responsible choices and move to reverse the damage of the past by investing in the use of eco-friendly textiles for digitally printed production.