Using more sustainable alternatives to traditional fibres is critical for clothing and textile brands wanting to reduce their environmental footprint - and is set to be default option in future, experts say.

The environmental sustainability of fibre and fabric production is of increasing concern as the industry is "aggressively attempting to address issues of environmental compliance," according to Frank Riccio, president of the US-based speciality fibres supplier, the Danforth Group.

Potential problems that can increase the environmental impact of fibre manufacturing (and hence reduce their value as 'green' products) include using fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides in cotton production; potentially polluting chemical processes used in artificial fibre production, such as rayon; and the use of petrochemicals in synthetic fibre production, with their attendant carbon emissions.

Conserving resource use overall is, of course, a key sustainability concern, especially conserving energy and water, which can cut costs.

The main issues that manufacturers are starting to address to achieve resource efficiency include looking at waste, water, energy, and also reducing toxic chemicals used in fibre manufacturing, processing, finishing, dyeing.

"These have been the most pressing areas over the last few years," says Sarah Ditty of the UK-based Ethical Fashion Forum. The forum has about 8,000 member companies from 130 countries.

Resource sustainability can mean significant cost savings for brands, she explains. "Any business working in the sector that wants to remain profitable and competitive for years to come, they're realising now that they have to address these issues because of things like resource scarcity."

Recycling issues
Ditty adds that "one of the hottest topics at the moment is closed loop fibres," the process of recycling a garment by breaking it down to its original fibre form and creating a new garment from that material.

Along with cost savings, companies could be pressured to adopt sustainable changes such as recycling by government regulations aimed at limiting waste from the industry. For example, Ditty says British companies are watching the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) closely as it considers passing a ban on textiles waste.

This will need to be recycled. And some companies are trying to get ahead of the curve. Jay Nalbach, chief marketing officer of innovative flax developer Crailar, says his company is considering sourcing unwanted flax material from the linen and food production sectors for its planned western European plant. One example would be buying leftover flax seeds. "We'd be able to procure feedstock that is currently a waste stream," he adds.

Sustainable alternatives
Using more sustainable alternatives to traditional fibres is critical for clothing and textile brands wanting to reduce their environmental footprint. For instance, flax is much easier to grow than cotton, which requires heat and abundant water - and Crailar's flax uses 99% less water than cotton in production and processing, claims the company.

"Up to a third of the world's toxins and pesticides in agriculture are used on cotton crops," he says, adding: "Just cotton and polyester aren't going to cut it anymore. They will always have their place; there's no doubt about it...but we have other options to do more in a much better way."

That said, Jeffrey Silberman, chair of the textile development and marketing department at the US-based Fashion Institute of Technology and executive director of International Forum For Cotton Promotion, adds that developments in genetically modified cotton have helped. These have created cotton crops that require less water and chemicals to grow.

"I don't think anybody can afford to use more insecticide, or fertiliser, or more anything than they need to...they're always looking for better inputs, safer inputs, cheaper inputs," he says.

Cotton growers are also using the land more efficiently, argues Mark Messura, US-based Cotton Incorporated's senior vice president of global supply chain marketing.

"The outlook is quite good...with improvements in water efficiency; chemical use is down tremendously worldwide...You're getting high levels of yield but you're using less land. That's through technology; better management practices."

Consumer pressure
Such issues are currently driving these changes, with brands wanting to manage risk, reduce costs, and use resources efficiently - consumer pressure being a side issue.

"I think consumers are definitely interested in their environmental footprint but it's just such a shallow level of information available to consumers...for the fabrics and fibres side of things, it's still kind of unattainable for consumers to wrap their heads around," says Ditty.

She expects sustainable options and innovations to become increasingly important to companies. "It's just good business, good long-term business to adopt these sustainable approaches, whether that's a more efficient factory or creating fibres that are more sustainable and perform better. It just makes business sense."

Of course, in future, consumer demand may be more important. But Nalbach says there needs to be more information campaigns about the benefit of sustainable fibre options. "The conversation around the actual source of fibres needs to be a much more robust conversation than it is today."

Ultimately, Silberman believes all clothing and textile companies will have to improve their sustainability. "I think everybody is going to get efficient and get sustainable...It's going to be almost ridiculous not to be a sustainably working company."

Click on the following links to read more articles in this management briefing: