Textile Chemicals: Sustainability and Transparency
By Belinda Carp
Sustainability and transparency are about environmental and social responsibility. This means finding processes and solutions which actively benefit the quality of the environment on a long-term basis. While it is a step in the right direction to reduce the amount of damage we inflict on the environment, it is not enough. To enable the planet to sustain itself, we need to reverse the damage that has already been seen in many parts of the world, often caused by harmful chemicals used in the textile industry.
Some of the practical steps the industry can take include:
- processing fabrics without the use of hazardous chemicals;
- using finishes which reduce laundering requirements and increase the life-cycle of the final garment; and
- following guidelines set out by industry standards and labeling products clearly, enabling informed consumer decisions.
Many chemicals are used in the textile industry to provide a wide range of performance features during the production (known as process chemicals) and use of end products (known as effect chemicals). For example, the industry uses:
- anti-pilling agents—to improve the aesthetic appearance of fabrics, even after long time use;
- anti-crease and lubricating agents—to protect fabric from formation of crease marks and friction during processing;
- antimicrobial/antiviral agents;
- biopolishing enzymes—to make cotton fabric more supple, to remove hairiness of cotton, and to achieve washed out effects on denim;
- defoaming agents—to destroy foam which causes imperfections during textile processing;
- desizing enzymes—to decompose starch and improve fabric smoothness and whiteness;
- dispersing agents—to help disperse dye when dyeing fabrics;
- dye fixing agents—to improve the wet fastness of the dyeing;
- flame retardants—to significantly reduce the flammability of the fabric;
- hydrophilic finishing agents—to improve moisture management and stain release of the fabric;
- oil and water repellents—to improve stain repellence and water resistance of fabric;
- optical brightening agents—to increase the degree of whiteness of bleached fabric;
- printing auxiliaries—to control the transfer of dye during fabric printing;
- reducing agents—to remove deposits of disperse dye from the surface of dyed polyester and for machine cleaning;
- scouring agents—to remove oil stains and impurities from the textile fibers before dyeing and printing;
- sequestering agents—to remove hardness of water and to mask heavy metal ions during pre-treatment and dyeing;
- softening agents—to modify fabric hand in the soft direction;
- stiffening agents—to modify fabric hand in the stiff direction;
- wetting and deaerating agents—to improve the penetration of the textile during wet processing; and
- yarn lubricants—to improve the processing of yarns by reduction of friction fiber and fiber metal during winding, knitting, weaving, and sewing.
Some unscrupulous, or uninformed textile suppliers have taken shortcuts around safe practices in respect of textile chemicals. Transparency across the supply chain is key to responsible sourcing and production. Brands and retailers who collaborate more closely with their partners across the supply chain can make more informed decisions about the processes they choose to manufacture their products.
Some of the chemicals used in the textile industry are known to have the potential to be harmful to human health and/or the environment—and many of these are being phased out or, in some cases, prohibited. A selection of examples from this category include:
- C8 fluorocarbon products (PFCs)—which contain residues of PFOA or PFOS and have been used for water and oil repellent finishes;
- formaldehyde, contained in major concentrations—which includes easy-care resins, binders for printing and coating, and after-fixing agents for dyeing and printing;
- phthalate-based levelling agents—which are still sometimes used in dyeing polyester;
- aromatic and chlorinated hydrocarbon-based carriers—which are still sometimes used in dyeing polyester/wool blends; and
- aminoethylethanolamine (AEEA)-based softeners.
On the other hand, chemical companies are creating innovative solutions which are safe for human health and the environment. A small selection of these products includes:
- softeners and wicking agents from beeswax—such as those from DyStar;
- fluorocarbon-free durable water repellents (DWRs) based on renewable feedstock chemistry—such as those from Chemours/Huntsman;
- innovative after-soaping agents based on special non-harmful pseudocationic polymers for huge savings in resources (water, energy, chemicals)—such as those from DyStar, Pulcra, CHT, and Huntsman; and
- rapeseed oil-based defoamers and deaerators—such as those from Rudolf Chemie.
An important part of any sustainability strategy within the textiles and apparel industry is chemical management. Wherever an organization is within the supply chain, it is imperative to understand and control the chemicals used in the production of all apparel and other textile products. The importance of the chemical management schemes continues to increase.
Some of the many voluntary scheme standards and initiatives which guide the industry include:
- AAFA Restricted Substance List (RSL);
- bluesign system;
- Cradle to Cradle;
- Oeko-Tex (various standards); and
AAFA RSL—The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) put together its Restricted Substance List (RSL) to provide apparel and footwear companies with information related to regulations and laws that restrict or ban certain chemicals and substances in finished home textile, apparel, and footwear products around the world.
AFIRM—the Apparel & Footwear International RSL Management Working Group is a global organization providing resources for sustainable, self-governing RSL implementation across the apparel and footwear supply chain. It provides a useful toolkit for brands and retailers to harmonize their RSL and practices.
bluesign system—bluesign covers worker, environmental, and consumer safety. It examines natural resources and chemicals used in textile production and takes a holistic view of safety and environmental issues in the textiles and apparel supply chain. bluesign’s blueXpert tool is designed to allow textile mills to benchmark the efficiency of wet processing.
Cradle to Cradle focuses on safe, sustainable products for the circular economy. To receive certification, textile products are assessed for environmental and social performance across five categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. The material health category helps to ensure products are made using chemicals that are as safe as possible for humans and the environment by leading designers and product developers through a process of inventorying, assessing, and optimizing material chemistries.
Ecochain—this is an environmental intelligence system used to assess current realities, determine key leverage points, and monitor results. It helps companies to calculate and analyze their environmental impact at company, process, product, and value chain level.
GOTS—Global Organic Textile Standard is an internationally-recognized processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. It defines high-level human health and environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and also requires compliance with social criteria.
Oeko-Tex—Oeko-Tex provides certifications and product labels which enable companies along the textile chain, as well as consumers, to make informed decisions about their choice of products, so that they can choose those which are safe, environmentally friendly, and manufactured in a fair way. The Made in Green label helps consumers to identify textiles which have been tested for specific hazardous substances and also manufactured under sustainable working conditions.
ZDHC—this is a multi-stakeholder group of apparel and footwear brands and retailers, chemical suppliers, textile mills, and service providers working together to lead the industry towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals. Since its initial formation in 2011, the group claims to have shifted the industry’s mindset, from a focus on testing the final textile product, to managing input chemistry. This leads to its ultimate output goals of cleaner water, cleaner air, and safer production.
Responsible manufacturers of textile chemicals have a critical role to play—not only in complying with both regulatory and voluntary scheme standards, but also in developing future solutions. It is important that the solutions support an overall reduction in environmental impact by continuing to develop innovative and cleaner chemistry, or products which help to create value addition by improving the usability and lifetime of the fabric.
“Huntsman Textile Effects have taken this [developing further solutions] a step further in developing a tool which rates each of their chemical, digital ink and dye products against four broad cornerstones of ecology, economy, governance, and society. The rating assesses the sustainability performance of a product and provides directional guidance to empower better decision-making for product selection thus supporting the industry sustainability objectives in reducing impact.”
Lee Howarth, Global Marketing Manager, Huntsman Textile Effects.
Author Belinda Carp is a freelance business consultant and writer, specializing in textile sustainability and communications strategies.