Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Fabric might be the only product I can think of which is known by its component parts, like cotton, silk, wool.  These words usually refer to the fabric rather than the fiber used to make the fabric.  We’ve all done it: talked about silk draperies, cotton sheets.  There seems to be a disassociation between the fibers used and the final product, and people don’t think about the process of turning cotton bolls or silkworm cocoons or flax plants into luxurious fabrics.

There is a very long, involved and complex process needed to turn raw fibers into finished fabrics.  Universities award degrees in textile engineering,  color chemistry or any of a number of textile related fields.  One can get a PhD in fiber and polymer science,  or study the design, synthesis and analysis of organic dyes and pigments.  Then there is the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) which has thousands of members in 60 different countries.  My point is that we need to start focusing on the process of turning raw textile fiber into a finished fabric – because therein lies all the difference!

And that brings me to recycled polyester, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.  We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year (on 4.28.10, 5.05.10 and 5.12.10) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics.  But the reality is that polyester bottles exist,  and recycling some of them  into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than landfilling them.

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from any kind of  polyester  –  we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from, because the molecules are the same.  So the yarn/fabric  could be virgin polyester or  it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.   And unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, there is absolutely no way to tell if that’s true.

Some companies are trying to differentiate their brands by confirming that what they say is recycled REALLY is from recycled sources.  Unifi, which supplies lots of recycled resins and yarns, has an agreement with Scientific Certification Systems to certify that their Repreve yarns are made from 100% recycled content.  Then Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain to verify that if Repreve is in a product , that it’s present in the right amounts.  But with this proprietary information there are still many questions Unifi doesn’t answer – the process is not transparent.  And it applies only to Unifi’s branded yarns.

Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers.  Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester.  But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.  That means that the chemicals used during processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things.  The processing uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden.  And there is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  They assumed that this would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring (all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap!).

But now, Ecotextile News‘ suggestion has become a reality.   There is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn. The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system with the Gold standard requiring products to contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material; the Silver standard requires products to be made of between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product; and the Bronze standard requires products to have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

And – we think this is even more important –  in addition to the certification of the recycled content, the GRS looks at the critical issues of processing and workers rights.  This new standard holds the weaver to similar standards as found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • all prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • all wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • there is an extensive section related to worker’s health and safety.

4 thoughts on “When is recycled polyester NOT recycled polyester?

  1. Patty, & Leigh,
    Thank you for this informative article. I enjoyed the how clearly you highlight the importance of validating recycled polyester content, it’s process, and worker’s rights. So glad GRS will provide more transparency for the consumer with a tracking and tiered certification process. I look forward to reading more info on eco-textiles. Thanks again!

  2. Anna Duong says:

    Patty & Leigh,

    I am doing research on Unifi and have a few questions for your Blog.

    You’ve mentioned that : “Unifi, which supplies lots of recycled resins and yarns, has an agreement with Scientific Certification Systems to certify that their Repreve yarns are made from 100% recycled content. Then Unifi’s “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain to verify that if Repreve is in a product , that it’s present in the right amounts. But with this proprietary information there are still many questions Unifi doesn’t answer – the process is not transparent. And it applies only to Unifi’s branded yarns.”

    Can you elaborate on the many questions that you think Unifi doesn’t answer? I think that Unifi is the most transparent company out there that makes yarn from 100% recycled content.

    Do you think that the process is not transparent because the company is hiding something in the closet? Or is it just a limit that a company has because of proprietary concerns?

    What other company do you think makes a similar product to Unifi but is more transparent out there? Are there leaders in the market for the 100% recycled content industry?

    Thank you in advance for your time and answer.

    1. I’m probably nit picking, because I generally don’t love second party certifications, which one can argue Repreve is, so I admit being a bit hard on Unifi. Add to that my bias against claiming that a recycled synthetic is a good environmental choice. My concern is that Unifi’s marketing materials focus on recycling plastic bottles, when Repreve yarns are actually made (according to Unifi’s website) from post-industrial waste and used plastic bottles. But we don’t know what the percentage of each actually is, nor do we know where the post industrial waste comes from. The Unifi website says proudly that they used 410 million bottles in 2012. But according to the website SafeBottles, Americans use 60 million plastic water bottles each day. (http://www.safebottles.co.nz/News/Plastics+and+the+Environment.html ). That means Unifi has used the equivalent of only one week’s worth of bottles – unless I’m missing something? Also, where are the bottles prepared for recycling – because often the labels contain dyes and/or other chemicals which interfere with the polymer melt, so the bottles must be cleaned and sorted. This is often done by hand in a low labor cost country, which entails shipment there and back. I don’t think Unifi is necessarily hiding anything, just that I don’t appreciate their slant. The new Global Recycle Standard is a third party certification which I’d be more inclined to support, but I don’t know which manufacturers (if any) have been certified.

  3. Janet says:

    I agree with Patty’s state that “Unifi doesn’t answer – the process is not transparent.” She also mention bottles and post-consumed fabrics contains organic additives and dyes, which will definitely interfere with the polymer de-polymerization and re-polymerization process. For the PET bottles, sorting them by colors may work to produce color-uniformed chips. But basic cleaning and sorting are way from enough to make post-consumed polyester fabrics recyclable. Hundreds of different disperse dyes with various colors were used to dye the polyester fibers. What does unifi do to remove the colors, or did you just recycle the fabric without removing the dye?

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