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Green Fibres

Whether it’s using coffee waste, salmon skin or plastic bottles, fabric designers are combining innovation with sustainability.

Designers and buyers who want to boost their green credentials could be looking at some novel raw materials and processes for spring 13, as the textiles industry works towards sustainable solutions. Progress is impressive with an astonishing number of innovations for textile processing and finishing coming to market – particularly in the denim sector – which addresses principles of sustainability for a lower environmental impact.

So what should buyers be looking out for? Defining ‘sustainability’ is complex because it encompasses many aspects. It’s not just about finding renewable sources for biodegradable fibres, but much more about the way fibres and fabrics are processed, addressing criteria based on social responsibility, reducing water usage, waste, energy and chemicals used – and then of course, recycling.

Textile production globally is dominated by cotton and polyester, which together account for more than 80% of world clothing output – dominating because they were available in abundance and cheaply. But, and this is now well known, questionable, sustainable issues in the production of both fibres, is forcing change and a searchfor alternatives.

However, cotton is a natural fibre that everyone wants – it’s comfortable, performs well and consumers love it – so in a global industry, producers have to respond to environmental challenges. And the cotton industry is positioning itself to make changes thanks to responsible initiatives, such as the outstanding Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), whereby training is offered to farmers in India to improve their farming methods by reducing the use of water and pesticides.

Denim goes green

Meanwhile, denim is spearheading a green revolution, as mills boost measures to conserve water and eliminate chemicals. Finishing denims is a water-guzzling business, also posing a health risk to workers through sand blasting. So, given the sheer size of the multimillion-dollar industry, improved processes to ‘age’ denims, will make a significant contribution to reducing environmental impacts. Buyers can now choose vintage-looking denims in a safe, quick, eco-friendly way with laser-finishing techniques, which do not use water, chemicals or sand. Bleaching with ozone technology uses much less water and energy. Less eco-friendly, creative finishes with resins are still used, but the fact that many significant denim mills are supporting the move towards environmental solutions should inspire designers and brands going forward.

Born again

Denim producer Bossa recycles denim and combines recycled fibres with organic cotton and Tencel, a biodegradable fabric. Manufacturer Arvind Mills in India uses Excel, a form of lyocell produced in a closed loop process from wood pulp, and supplier Tejidos Royo’s Hybrid Denim range makes use of several eco sound fibres, such as organic cotton, Tencel, recycled cotton and recycled polyester.

Giving new life to materials destined for landfill is another sustainable option gaining momentum. In just a year, Newlife, a recycled polyester filament yarn (produced by Italian mill Filatura Miroglio) made from 100% PET from plastic bottles and transformed into a polymer through a mechanical – not chemical – process, has grown into a commercial reality, primarily for sportswear applications. The Newlife process is the first of its kind, and leading the way in sustainable innovation for the textile yarn industry and its supply chain.

Also available are recycled nylon yarns made from discarded fishing nets, developed by Italian synthetic fibre producer Aquafil and knitted by Italian manufacturers Carvico and Jersey Lomellina to create a line of sustainable sportswear fabrics. Branded Econyl, the yarn is a 100% recycled nylon, made from old fishing nets, carpets and plastic from cars, which would otherwise be dumped in landfill.

Recycling wool fabrics back into yarn is an old industry, which is being revived in the Prato district of Italy. Today there are about 40 companies working under a new zero carbon emissions initiative called Cardato Regenerated CO2 Neutral to bring new fabrics to market. Among the commercially available fabrics is Furpile, a member of the recycling Cardato Group, which is upcycling regenerated wool to make jersey flannel for tailoring – all of which can be seen at international showroom  CLASS in Milan, London or New York. Another recycled fibre is WoJoi, made from recycled jute coffee sacks mixed with wool in a yarn developed by Wools of New Zealand and woven by UK mill Camira. 

Alternative, sustainable fibres

There are now several viable choices when it comes to sourcing alternative fibres

Bast fibres

Linen, ramie and hemp are all bast fibres requiring little or no pesticides or irrigation in growing. They can be blended in a mixture of fibres to create a variety of weights, wovens and knits.

Cellulose-based fibres

Viscose, modal and lyocell are viable, sustainable alternatives to cotton, and transforming wood into cellulose materials is well established and efficient. However, the capacity to supply is small – the fibres are made mostly from trees in Canada.

Bamboo fibre

As a natural cellulose fibre, bamboo is soft and comfortable next to skin. Most ‘bamboo’ yarn in the market is actually a viscose, made from bamboo pulp using the viscose chemical process. But there is a ‘natural bamboo’ fibre made via mechanical and enzymatic processes, which feels and looks like linen.


Bio-polymers derived from renewable plant materials (such as corn), which are biodegradeable, are likely to increase in the coming years, reducing dependence on non-renewable oil-based polymers. Chemical company DuPont has expansion plans for its Sorona bio-polymer, which is derived from corn, while Ingeo (derived from corn starch) is increasing its textile applications.


Milk is another fibre source available in branded yarns Milkofil and Qmilch. German biologist turned designer Anke Domaske has created a fabric entirely out of milk (no chemicals), which she uses in her fashion brand, Mademoiselle Chi Chi. Qmilch, a smooth, silk-like fabric, is made from 100% pure casein, obtained from spoiled milk and is said to be good for skin allergies. 

Other materials

Coffee grounds, paper, fish skins and crabshells were all used in fabrics which were showcased at Future Fabrics Expo in London in November last year. Taiwan fibre manufacturer Singtex recycles post-consumer coffee grounds into a composite fibre to make yarn branded S Cafe. Paper No 9 is a material made from recycled kraft paper to create faux leather, while ES Salmon Leather is turning discarded salmon skins from the salmon farming industry into salmon leather.

Meanwhile, Crabyon is a yarn produced from crab shells, which is antibacterial, and made into jersey underwear fabrics by Boselli.

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