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The Time is Now for Natural Fibers

March 29, 2022

Catherine Salfino

Scientists around the globe were recently shocked when temperatures over Earth’s poles soared: Antarctica was more than 70 degrees warmer than average, while areas of the Artic registered temps more than 50 degrees higher than normal. As environmental and climate changes are becoming even more evident, many industries are taking a closer look at their roles in finding a solution. For some experts in the fashion sector, this means it’s not too soon to consider an appreciable move toward natural sustainable fibers like cotton. This move is important to consumers as well.

We’re now in a unique position to rethink the industry and shift the needle to build back better and make fashion more sustainable and circular.

Tatiana Valovaya
UN Geneva Director-General

Cotton is a 100 percent natural cellulose fiber, unlike synthetics produced from petroleum and other man-made processes. It’s naturally circular as it can be reused, recycled, and biodegrades in both water and land conditions. These are qualities that matter to nearly three-quarters of today’s consumers (75 percent), who say environmental change and sustainability are very real and require a change in our behaviors, according to Cotton Incorporated’s 2021 U.S. Sustainability Research.

The majority of consumers (72 percent) say they’re very motivated to take sustainable actions, according to the U.S. Sustainability Research. Most (58 percent) say sustainability/environmental friendliness is an important factor in their clothing purchase decision. And when determining how sustainable a clothing item is, the top factors are if it’s made with natural fibers like cotton, wool, or silk (43 percent), as well as price (43 percent).

As cotton continues to become more innovative, many consumers (63 percent) are bothered that brands and retailers have switched some of their favorite cotton clothing items to synthetic/manmade fabrics, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2021 Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. The majority (56 percent) is willing to pay more to keep cotton in clothing.

Manmade fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are derived from petroleum. In fact, apparel designers, retailers, and brands have turned polyester into the most-used clothing fiber in the world. Not only does extraction of fossil fuels result in air, land, and water pollutants, according to the National Institutes of Health, but the synthetic/manmade fabrics themselves compromise the environment. Fast fashion that gets discarded quickly along with overproduction by the fashion industry has led to mountains of textile waste entering the nation’s landfills — 17 million tons of it in 2018 alone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Additionally, tiny synthetic microfibers are part of the 14 million tons of microplastic pollution on the ocean floor. Scientists have already determined that these microfiber particles are ingested by sea creatures, and then work their way up the food chain to dinner plates and drinking water. But research published by the Public Library of Science has found these tiny plastic fibers are also contributing trace gases that wind up in marine systems, producing greenhouse gases and thus playing a part in climate change.

A virtual panel discussion held last year by the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion discussed the fashion industry’s contributions to climate change. UN Geneva Director-General Tatiana Valovaya said it is “of the utmost importance” to take fashion seriously.

“We’re now in a unique position to rethink the industry and shift the needle to build back better and make fashion more sustainable and circular,” Valovaya said.

The research and development teams at Cotton Incorporated are charged with generating new fabric ideas and innovations to further enhance cotton’s natural sustainability.

For instance, more than three million tons of cotton plant byproduct, which includes burs, stems, stick, leaves, and dirt, are produced every year when crops are harvested and ginned. It’s used for multiple applications, including livestock feed, compost, and erosion control products. It’s also being used as a component in dyestuff for cotton textiles via Archroma’s EarthColors®. This responsible dyeing solution employs up to 100 percent petroleum-free and bioeliminable dyestuff, resulting in a biosynthetic dye without harmful chemical waste during processing.

The natural FABRICAST™ collection features minimally processed fabrics that are undyed — displaying the pure color of cotton — while also utilizing processes that decrease time, water, energy, and chemical usage. Cationic cotton fabrics featuring REACH registered cationization chemistry are included, transforming dyeing routines into an environmentally responsible and efficient process.

Makers and retailers will find that since it’s created by nature and sometimes enhanced in the lab, cotton is a versatile fiber, preferred among consumers worldwide. It’s naturally breathable, absorbent, and soft. And “by design,” the fiber has a whole host of modern features STORM COTTON™ technology can easily be applied to any fabric or garment for a water-repellant finish that maintains the breathability and softness of cotton for the life of the clothing.

Brands that are looking to add moisture management capabilities to their collections can turn to TransDRY™ and WICKING WINDOWS™ technologies, which enable cotton garments to transfer moisture to the outside of the fabric, enabling it to dry more quickly.

Additionally, cotton fabrics can now feature UV-blocking technologies, an effective way to reduce exposure to UVA and UVB rays. Most of these UV blockers are applied at the fabric stage, but some can be including during the dyeing stage to save time, energy, and water.

And since more than 8 in 10 consumers say they would be bothered by odor issues in their activewear, according to the Monitor™ research, brands should note that antimicrobial finishes help prevent unpleasant odors, mold and mildew on cotton garments, even though cotton naturally does not retain odor. These finishes work well on sports apparel, socks, underwear, and industrial uniforms.

In place of synthetic based detergents, Cotton Incorporated also utilizes a bio-derived enzymatic scouring process for removing the protective wax-like coating that protects the cotton fiber as it matures. Removing this coating is important for achieving absorbency, consistent dyeing, and a soft hand feel on cotton fabrics. Enzymes are naturally occurring and eco-friendly alternatives to harsh scouring agents.

The UN’s Valovaya said the fashion industry has to admit it is responsible for one of the most glaring environmental and social failures of the current economic system. She added that there is no way to achieve sustainable development goals without a paradigm shift.

“We know that fashion can be about responsible production and responsible consumption,” Valovaya stated. “It can be about innovation, regeneration of the system and partnerships. It is our common task to ensure that this vision becomes a reality.”

Visit the CottonWorks™ website to view more fabric developments from Cotton Incorporated.