From Fiber to Consumers: How Nanotechnology Helps In The Sustainability Of Textile Value Chains?

By Nur Hani Aqilah,

In recent years, client awareness to update their conventional clothing and apparels collection has grown enormously. Nanotechnology enables the creation of multi-functional textiles with long-term durability that can be integrated into smart textiles.

However, what will the future hold if we do not practice sustainability and conserve our natural resources in the next 20 years? Could sustainability involve in the product value chain besides the 3R – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? In this article, we explore sustainability in textiles and how nanotechnology can contribute to their implementation.

Product value chain especially in the textile industry involves many aspects from many sides and sources. The textile value chain is vast and complicated; thus, it may be hard and challenging to implement the sustainable practices throughout the chain. Many brands around the world have started practicing methods to achieve zero discharge for the upcoming years. However, can they really discharge the real ‘zero’ that will help in leading to sustainability?

From land to the ocean, the textile sector is behind one of the highest environmental and socio-economic impacts on the planet. Besides the carbon and water footprint, it also involves the usage of hazardous chemical compounds in processing clothing, disturb wastewater quality, used clothing disposal and recycling, damage to human health and social risks.

Cited from Amutha, K. (2017) in Sustainable chemical management and zero discharges. Sustainable Fibres and Textiles, 347–366, according to an American clothing company, Patagonia, the carbon footprint of a standard T-shirt is eight times the weight of a shirt. The estimation for an average T-shirt has a net carbon footprint of 6 kg, which is roughly 20 times the product’s weight.

Re-examine the hotspot activities in textile supply chain

There are four parts that can be categorised under the textile supply chain according to Deidre Hoguet in The Guardian; extraction of raw materials, textile manufacturing, added chemistry, and end-of-life. However, there must be a hotspot activity in this supply chain that is significant for environmental, social, and economic impacts.

The exploitation of raw materials, for instance, concerns the land and water needed in producing such natural fibres; cotton and wool and also the extraction of natural resources in processing synthetic fibres. In terms of textile manufacturing, it included water and the most important is energy, whether from natural energy which coming from labour or electricity. Not to mention about the impact of production waste, the social obligation of a firm towards its employees and the community surrounding the production plants. Adding chemical may affect the health of the workers as well as customers via end product, and also the discharge of leftover chemical might pollute the environment.

Sustainability In Textile Value Chains

From designing, manufacturing, disseminating, retailing, and consuming a textile product, all activities in textile value chain encompassed value (whether it is provide or receive value) including raw material extraction and supply, as well as beyond their useful lifetime. At the end of process, after its first usage, the textile product may be utilised again, or recycled for another purpose, as in this case were donated second-hand clothing. This circumstances usually happened in Asian country like Malaysia whereby people will collect and gather all unused, non-fit and second-hand clothing in one stop centre and donate to orphanage or indigent families. However, after donating those clothing, they might not use all of it, hence, there will come the other problem which is unmanaged clothes where end up lead to landfill or incinerator plant as end-of-life treatment.

The activities connected with the value chain frequently depicted as a linear depiction from the generation of raw materials to the end of their lives, but they are likely to reuse, repair/recycle and recycle items that add loops to the image. Meanwhile for circular value chain, the textile will be utilised again, for instance by broken down or upcycled the fibre level and spun into yarn and resulting in new garment.

Hence, this circular value chain were much more sustainable rather than the linear as per denoted in figures 1 and 2 thus further reinforce the statement issued by UNEP 2020 in the report Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain, “The aim of circularity is to shift the “take make-dispose” linear value chain into a circular system, where materials are not lost after use but remain in the economy, circulating as long as possible at the highest possible value”. Hence, amongst the activities involve, they might have the unsustainability hotspots between them, thus can be followed to become more sustainable by the aid of nanotechnology in textile which has been blooming nowadays.

Rethink Sustainability Via Nanotechnology In Textile

Since sustainability has arrived in the textile industry, it has frequently illustrated as the idea of reduce, reuse, and recycle. However, can textile industry just depend on those 3R idea itself? Is there any solutions that might help in achieving sustainability? How about technology such as nanotechnology that has been use widely in other segment of business too?

Apart from 3R, sustainability can start with product design. For example, by booking and sewing our cloth itself rather than buying those apparel. This solution can help small-sized customers especially so that they did not throw the leftover fabrics in a waste bin and the other part are, we can help the small-medium tailors in gaining some profit and expanding their business.

Next, in terms of technology, nanotechnology is here in making textile more sustainability yet enhanced the function in the apparel. Nanotechnology is announced by many as the next industrial revolution, and has an exceptional potential to revolutionise several industries through the improvement of existing technologies and radical introduction of new instruments. But how nanotech can be used to reduce environmental impacts? Two answers leading here are surface coating and treatment of textile fibres and coloration and structural colour.

Textile aftercare has previously been identified as a major negative environment impact in the textile life cycle on both home and commercial scale such as hotel laundry due to the usage of energy and water consumption to clean up the dirt, thus, the impact of durable surface coatings might be substantial if they become more widely accessible and cost effective.

Stain resistant, abrasion resistant, water and oil repellent, self-cleaning, anti-static and antibacterial, all these Nano embedded treatments can help textiles last longer and reduce the need for washing or dry cleaning to eliminate dirt and smells. Certain treatments may also minimise the need for ironing, resulting in energy and water savings as well as fewer replacement costs.

In addition, coloration of textiles through dyeing and printing were much affect our environment. Reduced dyeing wastage, which occurs due to poor colour accuracy and uneven dying outcomes, would have a good influence on a process that presently consumes a lot of water and energy and whose effluents have polluted waterways all over the world, especially since the introduction of synthetic dyes.

The use of very old process including the use of gold and silver nanoparticles to colour substances can produce a good range of colour. Not only that, nanocoating’s also help in maintaining colorfastness by providing resistance to fading caused by UV light and abrasion caused by washing and wearing hence increasing fabric longevity and reducing waste.