2016 saw several new fibre and sustainability initiatives

2016 saw several new fibre and sustainability initiatives

A biodegradable sports shoe made from spider silk protein fibres and initiatives to recycle plastic ocean waste into fabrics were among the green highlights of 2016, but modern slavery and synthetic microfibres came under fire.


Spider silk fibres

German sportswear giant Adidas has produced what it claims to be the world's first sports shoe derived from spider silk protein fibres and is 100% biodegradable. The Futurecraft Biofabric shoe, says Adidas, is 15% lighter than traditional sport shoes and uses an engineered fabric made by German Munich-based company AMSilk. Adidas has been at the forefront of sustainable footwear innovation for some time, with products such as the mass-produced running shoe UltraBoost made from recycled plastic ocean waste.

Ocean waste

Ocean waste is also providing inspiration and innovation for Spanish sustainable fashion brand Ecoalf, that makes fabrics from recycled materials such as discarded fishing nets and marine plastic litter. Ocean waste is recycled by Ecoalf into PET chips and pellets, which are in turn spun to create yarn. The company announced it would expand operations of its Upcycling the Oceans project into Thailand this year, entering into a three-year commitment with the Thai government and PTT Global Chemical.

Recycling blended fibre fabrics

A new four-year EUR5.8m (US$6.5m) collaboration between the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) and the non-profit H&M Foundation aims to develop new technologies to recycle blend textiles into new fabrics and yarns. Blended fabrics such as cotton and polyester account for a high proportion of all products on the market – yet there are no commercially viable technologies to separate, sort and recycle them. The results of the initiative will be licensed to the wider industry to ensure broad market access and maximum impact.

Gap Inc

US apparel giant Gap Inc published the names and locations of the factories which make garments for its namesake, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Athleta brands. The retailer has previously been criticised for withholding information about its supplier factories for "competition reasons," but in September revealed details covering suppliers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lesotho, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Turkey, the US and Vietnam.

China chemicals management

China's National Textile & Apparel Council (CNTAC) launched an initiative in May to improve the management of chemicals in the supply chain. As part of this initiative, CNTAC will partner with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) foundation, an organisation dedicated to the elimination of hazardous chemicals in the apparel and textile industries. The initiative follows a water protection law issued in 2015 by the Chinese government that will see non-compliant manufacturers in high polluting industries, including dyeing, closed by the end of the year.


Modern slavery

More than 110 countries are still considered at high or extreme risk of modern slavery according to the Modern Slavery Index 2016 published by risk analytics company Verisk Maplecroft. The issue is ongoing for international brands, for despite the presence of rigorous systems for tier 1 suppliers, contractors further down the supply chain are more difficult to track. With the exception of the US and the EU, the world's top 12 garment exporters, including China, Pakistan and India, are all considered either high or extreme risk. The EU rates as medium risk thanks to the exploitation of foreign nationals entering the bloc as refugees. 


Labelling fraud has proved a headache for US retailer Wal-Mart, now facing legal action over the sale of products labelled 100% Egyptian cotton after an investigation revealed the products actually contained less expensive cotton fibres. The lawsuit was filed by Michigan resident Dorothy Monahan and seeks damages for all consumers who had overpaid for what they thought were premium products. In August, Target cut relations with Indian manufacturer Welspun over the same issue.

Zhejiang province

Chinese authorities ordered printing and dyeing factories in Zhejiang province to close for a week before and during the September G20 summit in an effort to improve air quality and save embarrassment about pollution levels. One analyst estimated more than half of the national output of printed and dyed fabric was affected. Thousands of factories have already been closed in the province since the introduction of tighter pollution controls in 2015, part of the government's 'Made in China 2025' strategy.

Synthetic microfibres 

Two separate studies, by the UK's Plymouth University and St Anne's College at the University of Oxford, into the impact of synthetic microfibres on the environment reached some startling conclusions. Researchers found that more than 700,000 microscopic fibres are released into wastewater during a domestic washing cycle and pass through sewerage treatment systems, with the great majority from polyester and acrylic clothing. Researchers at Oxford University found plastic microfibres inside marine animals at depths of between 300 and 1,800 metres.

Bangladesh Alliance

Labour rights organisations have criticised the claims of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, accusing it of overstating its achievements. The Alliance, set up by 28 brands and retailers following the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, has a five-year mission, but according to an investigation by four labour rights organisations, including the Clean Clothes Campaign, there is still a very long way to go, with more than half of factories investigated still lacking proper fire exits and alarms and 41% still operating with structural problems.