Megan R. Nichols,
Freelance Technical Writer
The textiles industry is one of the oldest in the world, with some research indicating it could even date back as far as the Paleolithic era. We've come a long way from handwoven cotton and hand-dyed textiles — so far, in fact, that these things are considered luxuries. Textile innovations have brought the industry forward andare continuing to shape it both in today's world and far into the future.
How are these textile innovations impacting the supply chain? Here are five ways.
1. Cotton Alternatives
Cotton has been a go-to in the industry for centuries, but it's not the most sustainable fabric for mass production. Yes, cotton is a natural fiber, but it requires a massive amount of water to grow a sizeable crop. Between 1997 and 2001, cotton growth around the world consumed 256 gigaliters of water. Cotton also needs a lot of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals to grow successfully, all of which can leech off into the local water table.
Alternatives like hemp, lyocell — which is made from cellulose — and bamboo are all emerging in the markets, but for these fabrics to take off, they'll have to contend with the generations-old monopoly that cotton has on the textiles industry. As more consumers start paying attention to where their clothing is coming from, textile companies will need to make the shift to more sustainable fibers to retain their client base.
2. Petroleum-Based Fiber Alternatives
Polyester became famous as an alternative to cotton or wool, but this fabric — along with nylon, acrylic and spandex — are all derived from petroleum, making them primarily woven plastic. The material is flexible and durable but doesn't biodegrade like wool or cotton will under the same circumstances.
The shift toward more sustainable textiles, both by consumers and textile companies, impacts the supply chain dramatically. Companies may start to transition away from these petroleum-based textiles in favor of alternatives like bamboo or rayon.
3. Self-Healing Fibers
For a consumer, nothing is worse than getting a tear in your favorite dress or splitting the seam in your favorite pair of jeans. Innovations in the textile industry may have moved us closer to realizing the dream of self-healing fabrics. The first attempt at creating self-healing fabric came in 2016. Natural fibers were dipped in a series of liquids known as polyelectrolyte to generate a self-healing barrier on top of the material.
The positive and negative ions in the polyelectrolyte draw the edges of a tear back together, effectively healing the fabric automatically.
The process is slow and unwieldy at the moment, but in the future, self-healing fabrics could effectively eliminate the need for torn garment disposal, improving sustainability and reducing the amount of clothing left to decompose in landfills.
4. Antimicrobial Fabric
Antimicrobial fabric is starting to emerge in a niche market, but it could take the textile industry by storm shortly. Anything that needs to be inhospitable to bacteria — from hospital scrubs to CDC biohazard suits designed to be used in hot zones — could be made from this fabric.
Antimicrobial fabric works by attacking the pathogens it encounters on the cellular level, so even if the material comes into contact with a bacterium or virus, it doesn't have a chance to grow and spread. Companies that provide linens, clothing or protective outerwear for bacteria-rich environments may find their clients will start transitioning to antimicrobial fabric.
5. Sustainable Transportation
Manufacturing isn't the only place where sustainability is becoming a major concern. The entire supply chain, from growth or development to delivery, needs to be sustainable. It can take more than 2700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt, because once it is harvested and milled it has to be washed, bleached and dyed — all of which requires water.
Transportation also generates greenhouse gasses, which contribute to a company's carbon footprint. Consumers are starting to take their business away from companies that refuse to practice sustainable transportation and manufacturing practices, leaving many businesses scrambling to rebuild their customer base — or closing their doors if they can't make the required changes in time.
Textile Supply Chains Into the Future
Sustainability and finding alternatives to traditional non-biodegradable fabrics are quickly becoming necessities in the textile industry. Companies that haven't already started to make the transition to these sustainable practices will find themselves left behind as supply chains continue to evolve into the future.