World Fabric Outlook

Sustainable textiles? Can do!

Speaking of sustainability, the big risk is that everyone gets all worked up and emotionally involved but ends up trapped in the abstract realm of ideas with nothing concrete in their day-to-day lives, except perhaps when a big event occurs, almost always having to do with the climate. Environmental issues remain relegated to a sort of abstract haze in spite of the fact that it is quite easy for any of us to look around and see how terribly concrete the problem is. Forget the disaster-movie images of a smog-orange Beijing, just look at how much disposable plastic we use every day and it will be clear that we are facing a question of vital importance.

Likewise—let’s be honest—in our industrial world we pay a lot of lip service to sustainability, but almost as a bothersome yet inescapable imposition when we compose any collection to offer our customers. Costly and taxing, something that has to be planned for, but we do it mainly to survive on a competitive market rather than to continue breathing!

For example, I believe that in textile manufacturing, this happens mainly due to a lack of information, because of ignorance of the true figures regarding the environmental impact of the daily production processes of textile companies. Once again, generalized data are useless: saying that world textile production is second globally among industries that have an environmental impact is pointless because textile manufacturing clothes and upholsters billions of people, houses, cars, etc. And so sustainability becomes mainly a high priority marketing topic.

We have to hand it to Confindustria Moda and Sistema Moda Italia (SMI) for giving the topic the attention it deserves during a conference last October 4th in Milan, where two systems for assessing the environmental footprint of a product or process were presented: Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organization Environmental Footprint (OEF). Credit for this effort goes principally to the SMI Sustainability Commission, chaired by Andrea Crespi, president of the SMI Sustainability Committee and CEO of Eurojersey. The Lombard company is a world leader in the production of warp-knit technical textiles, but, most importantly, it is the first textile company to begin addressing the issue of organizational environmental impact, this back in 2007. It is thus a case history to be studied with particular attention, both by companies seeking to understand what it means to dedicate themselves to a project of this nature, and by customers so that they can be duly aware of the manufacturer’s efforts to effectively assess the sustainability of its actions. The figures might seem boring, but in this case they are the best way to get a real sense—beyond marketing claims—of an organizational plan that is truly more sustainable.

Eurojersey has implemented a unique and virtuous industrial model to promote a set of practices and technologies to reduce the consumption of water, energy, and chemical products, and the production of wastes. Manifesting its concern for the environment through a verticalized, completely Italian-made production cycle, it controls the entire production process, constantly monitoring the results of its environmental commitment.

It is obvious that such an effective project can only optimize its outcomes with vertical management of the various production processes. This is a condition that is rarely observed in the furnishing sector because the industry is increasingly organized on the basis of a network of specialized companies. However, this matters little because what we want to highlight here is precisely how a virtuous industrial model not only brings advantages in terms of respect for the environment—and all the positive marketing outcomes that cynically derive from it—but also concrete cost savings with clear benefits for the income statement.

So let us have a look at these numbers, which are the fruit of the study that has prompted the Lombard company to certify its environmental footprint using the PEF method, with the PEF 019/19 certification obtained from Certiquality in April of this year.

There are two clear keywords in the company mission statement that express the basic concept behind this project. First and foremost the noun “reuse”, a key term in water savings that has led to reduction of an impressive 30 million liters of process water over the past year and translated into energy savings of over 200 TOE (tons of oil equivalent). Additionally, thanks to the latest efficiency enhancements, the company has reduced its consumption of natural gas by some 350,000 cubic meters, corresponding to 700 fewer tons of CO2 emissions. The other keyword—in this case a phrase—is “massive wastage reduction”, meaning reduction in production scrap, optimization of dyeing and printing methods, and careful management of packaging. This has all contributed to the achievement of significant results, such as yearly savings of 4,000 meters of plastic wrap and 9,000 cardboard tubes.

With its PEF certification, instituted in 2013 by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) as a recommendation for all European companies, Eurojersey assesses the environmental footprint of its entire production process, measuring 16 indicators, including the amount of energy consumed to power the production process, the carbon footprint, the water footprint, eco-toxicity, eutrophication of fresh and salt water bodies, acidification, and human toxicity.

The water footprint—the consumption of water resources caused by a given human activity in a given geographical area—of one square meter of dyed Eurojersey fabric has been assessed at 1.3–4.1 cubic meters, and 3.01–15.42 cubic meters for one square meter of printed fabric. Considering that the water footprint for one 0.75-liter wine bottle (non-sparkling) is 1.27 cubic meters of water, its impact can be compared to one meter of fabric. The carbon footprint, representing the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, shows that one square meter of dyed fabric produces an impact of 1.01–2.77 kg of CO2eq, and a square meter of printed fabric produces 1.43–6.71 kg of CO2eq. The footprint of one kilo of pasta is 2.11 kg of CO2eq. Eurojersey’s energy footprint has revealed that one square meter of dyed fabric produces 17.28–47.07 MJ, and a square meter of printed fabric 23.69–112.82 MJ. This impact is comparable to an automobile in the Euro 5 class, which travels 10 km producing 49.1 MJ.

What environmental cost is hidden behind the economic value of a product? Eurojersey has calculated this value, accounting for the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions throughout the product lifecycle, at 0.30 euros per square meter of dyed fabric and 0.70 euros per square meter of printed fabric. These costs have been calculated using the cost factor provided by the United State Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA Technical Support Document: Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis – April 2016).

So we have attempted to make our reasoning on sustainability a concrete reality. The awareness that the textile industry exerts an environmental impact and that this impact can be reduced can become a criterion in the customer’s future choices: the price may be important, but with the right amount of rhetoric and pride, doing good for the planet is everybody’s business and we Italians can take the lead in virtuous behaviors, proving once again that we are characterized by excellence in this realm as well. As Andrea Crespi said, “Measuring the environmental performance of the entire production cycle and taking subsequent action to improve it is now a strategic asset for companies in the Italian textile industry and represents a competitive edge on the international textile market.”