Interview of Kay Liu from REDRESS about natural materials

8 November 2018

Kay Liu, Education Director REDRESS

1. Overview: which natural materials are used most widely in today’s textile sector?

It is synthetic materials that dominate the market with polyester accounting for more than 60% of textiles used today. Cotton is still the highest used natural fibre representing 22% of the global market, although its popularity over the years has declined in favour of synthetics. This is followed by wool which represents approximately 1% of global market.

 

2. On the consumer side, are these materials well received? Which materials are most frequently purchased?

One of the main reasons the use of natural fibres has decreased is cost with the availability of cheaper synthetics. However we know that natural fibres have plenty of positive attributes for consumers such as breathability and benefits to those with skin irritations etc. so with the recent issues around synthetic fibres and the impact that microfibres through washing are having on the biodiversity of our oceans, we can only speculate that sustainably produced natural fibres are set to grow.

 

3. Are materials the only criteria by which today’s consumers demonstrate their ethical commitment?

Fibres are one of the most important factors when selecting a garment in terms of sustainability, from the quality of the material and how long it will last, through to how that material affects biodiversity and local ecosystems through how it is made. Often fibres are the only information communicated to the consumer about the garments through care labelling, therefore, fibres have become a critical sustainability criteria for the consumer.

However, there are many other factors that consumers should be questioning brands about, such as where, how and under what condition garments are made, and also looking at how the garment has been dyed or the embellishments that are on that garment. All these elements can have an impact on people and the planet.

 

4. Have textile brands stepped up their environmental commitment over the last few years?

Yes! We have seen a lot of positive developments and innovations coming out of the textile industry in recent years. Both on the reduction of impacts through production, with fibres such as Naia™ and Tencel™ showing that chemicals can be almost 100% captured and reused in production reducing toxic pollution; fibres like Bolt Threads showing that we can learn from nature; and materials like Econyl (made from recovered old nylon fishing nets) playing an active part in cleaning up the world’s trash.

 

5. What are the key innovations in the use of new natural materials?

For us, as a charity focused on waste, some of the most exciting innovation right now is happening at the end of life for natural fibres. Previously there has not been adequate technology on an industrial scale to extract and recycle natural fibres, particularly if mixed with other fibres and so recycling has meant down-cycling in terms of lost value from the original resource – currently less than 1% of the world’s clothes are recycled back into new at the end of their life. Innovation is happening around chemical recycling which means that soon into the future we could separate, and recover and recycle fibres back into like-to-like fibres without losing quality, and reducing the need for virgin fibres, which is good news for over-farmed agricultural land across the world, and for issues around deforestation for farming.

Other interesting developments are in areas such as making better use of fibres not normally used for fashion – Tengri is a great example of a brand who have turned what was once a by-product of the yak wool industry into a usable fibre for fashion. Piñatex (a leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibre – a by-product from agriculture) and orange fibre (a cellulose made from citrus juice by-products) are other great examples of how outside-the-box approaches are vital for providing more sustainable solutions.

 

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