How companies can source nylon more sustainably
In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. The entire series may be found here.
Nylon was the first fabric made entirely in a laboratory. A synthetic material derived from petroleum, it first became available around World War II and was used for military products and as a silk replacement for items such as stockings. Now, you’re more likely to find it in activewear, swimwear and other technical performance garments because of its durability and useful stretch properties.
The production of nylon is similar to that of polyester, with similar environmental consequences. Like polyester, nylon is made from a non-renewable resource (oil) in an energy-intensive process. It sheds microplastic fibers that end up in waterways and oceans every time it is washed, and because it is not biodegradable, it will end up sitting in a landfill at the end of its product life cycle.
As an organization, Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that have a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Recycled nylon is considered a preferred alternative to virgin nylon and bio-based nylons (produced with renewable raw materials) potentially offer a promising alternative.
Recycled nylon is usually made from pre-consumer fabric waste, although it also may come from post-consumer materials such as industrial fishing nets. Several "chain of custody" standards track recycled nylon through the supply chain, including the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), Global Recycled Standard (GRS) and SCS Recycled Content.
Probably the best-known regenerated nylon product is Econyl, the first post-consumer recycled nylon to hit the market from Italian manufacturer Aquafil. Econyl is made of nylon waste from landfills and oceans in a closed-loop process and is infinitely recyclable. According to Aquafil, Econyl avoids about 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and uses about 50 percent less energy compared to virgin nylon yarns.
Bio-based nylon uses renewable feedstocks, such as Fulgar's Evo made from 100 percent castor oil instead of petroleum. Independently verifiable sustainability standards for bio-based materials are emerging and will offer the industry much-needed guidance on renewable feedstock sustainability. Textile Exchange's multi-stakeholder Biosynthetics Round Table, chaired by Brad Boren, director of innovation and sustainability at Norrona, is exploring the topic of raw materials sustainability in this area.
How can companies level up their nylon sourcing strategy?
Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy. There are some key activities that top performers in the nylon category have in common.
These should serve as inspiration for any companies looking to push their preferred synthetic programs to the next level. Textile Exchange also will be sharing a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.
1. Bring nylon Into focus
Although nylon is a significant material for brands creating sport or performance wear, it isn’t as familiar to consumers because it only accounts for about 5 percent of all volume used by the textile industry. Several top-performing brands in this area invest in educating consumers about nylon’s impacts as a way to drive enthusiasm and interest.
Material change in action: Coastal lifestyle brand Outerknown was introduced to regenerated Econyl nylon in its earliest stages and has partnered with its supplier, Aquafil, ever since. One of Econyl’s main inputs is ghost fishing nets pulled from the ocean, so using this fiber made sense for the brand's environmental and communications goals, because clean water is a cause that resonates with its ocean-minded customer base.
Because of Econyl's higher price point, Outerknown leaned into deep storytelling and captivating photography to take customers along for the journey and convince them of the fiber's quality and sustainability.
"Our focus was on communication with customers to drive further change," said Megan Stoneburner, director of sustainability and sourcing at Outerknown. "If our customers are educated on the issues we think about, they can demand better from the industry, and from us. Sustainability is the destination, and we are ever-evolving to get there."
2. Explore bio-based alternatives
Beyond recycled, the textile industry seeks bio-based nylon alternatives that could wind up being more sustainable than recycled options. Many bio-based alternatives are still in early development, and brands leading the charge in this area are investing in research and development and engaging in pre-collaborative initiatives such as Textile Exchange’s Biosynthetics Working Group and Fashion for Good.
3. Factor durability into the equation
Quality and durability are essential for technical, high-performance products, which is why nylon is often used. Instead of evaluating sustainability solely from a production standpoint, consider it over the entire lifecycle of a garment. This might mean making design changes to ensure a product made of recycled materials stands the test of time or looking for ways to extend the period it can be used — for example, through repair programs as well as recycling ones.
Material change in action: Sporting goods company Norrona has been working with recycled synthetics for around 15 years and has a goal to use 75 percent recycled nylon by 2020. But early on, it found mechanical recycled fibers to be weaker than their virgin counterparts — when replacing a virgin polyester with a recycled polyester on a successful fleece style, it discovered that the recycled fleece started to pill after a month.
Now it conducts both material and product field testing on every product and material and makes structural changes when necessary to ensure that products made from recycled materials are fit for heavy use. It also implemented a 14-point quality control system.
"A recycled fiber that pills or abrades easier or has poor tear strength does not make a more sustainable product," Boren said. "What felt good was when we tested products with recycled materials and they were fully technical, functional and the customer would never have known it was recycled unless we told them."