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Textile finishing specialist and journalist Cert-eng. Sabine Anton-Katzenbach gives her expert opinion on key events and issues affecting the industry..

The assessment of sustainability requires a look behind the scenes

2nd March 2012, Hamburg

Ever since the media began discussing the amount of water needed to produce a pair of jeans, the image of an entire industry line has suffered. And unjustly! In fact, the textile industry is very committed to the protection of the environment, and so is the textile care sector.

The textile service sector in particular, has developed extensive concepts for using resources sparingly and reducing the strain on the ecology. These include not only their own operational processes but also the preliminary stages. Based on the principle of sustainability, these efforts are the result of many individual steps. Therefore it remains debatable whether an assessment of such steps can be standardised.

How much water is needed to produce a garment? What kinds of resources are needed for the regular care that it requires? What is done with the residues? The trend towards sustainability has increasingly engaged public interest in these and other questions. It was not long before the first answers were given. Usually they took, and still take, the form of a single key number, derived through systems like the Life Cycle Assessment or the sustainability index.

 In principle there is nothing wrong with the idea of a rating scale, which is kept as simple as possible. However, results in the form of single figures somehow bring the cult film Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to mind, where a supercomputer named Deep Thought is roped in to assess the meaning of life. The computer needs seven million years of calculation time in order to take all influencing factors into account – and finally comes up with the figure 42 as the end result.

It is similar in the production and care of textiles. Not only individual factors like the consumption of water, auxiliary resources and energy play a role when it comes to sustainability, but aspects like the quality of the merchandise, the best possible logistics, packaging and uninterrupted operations, also have a significant impact on production which is easy on resources.

Looking at the various factors separately – which, for example, was also the basis when key performance indicators were recently discussed - does not reflect the multitude of individual steps. It does not do sufficient justice to the individual goals of companies striving for more and better protection of the environment. On the other hand companies are of course, also looking for a feasible management approach.

Less may be too little

Water plays a major role in the production and treatment of textiles and garments. On the one hand it is the swelling agent for natural fibres and on the other hand the solvent for the chemicals and auxiliary substances used in the process. Furthermore, water dissolves dirt and carries it. It is a fact that the technology of today needs water for the smooth flow of processes. But the question of quantities consumed comes up with increasing frequency.

As machinery becomes more and more sophisticated, it becomes possible to decrease water consumption further and further. New machinery therefore fares better in a sustainability assessment than older equipment does. However, that applies only if fewer resources are needed for making the new machine, than are saved in the production process with that machine. At the same time total consumption can be further decreased with method that requires less water.

Contemplation of individual factors therefore shows an ecologically positive result for the ‘water’ parameter. It is further improved by measures such as water reclamation systems. But the picture may look different in an all-inclusive approach. A lower water level requires increased mechanical input, which in turn affects the lifespan of a textile product. It will have to be disposed of sooner than a garment that has been produced by the best possible method.

Higher pollutant concentration in reclaimed water has the same effect. Pollutant content increases in low volumes of water and this in turn hampers cleanliness. At the same time concentrated wastewater requires more powerful wastewater treatment. “Less” may therefore be “too little” when it comes to water consumption. In fact it may happen that through low consumption of resources, the endeavour for sustainability soon has the opposite effect.

Reclaiming energy

Heat is another indispensable factor in the production and treatment of textiles and garments. In aqueous systems, temperature reduces the physical interaction at the interfaces between textiles, water, chemicals and adhering particles, and thus speeds up the processes. This is the reason why diverse processes are carried out within high temperature ranges. However, important resources such as oil, electricity and gas are needed to generate thermal energy.

Consumption of thermal energy can be reduced by heat exchangers. They extract energy from spent air and the water used during processes, and at the same time, they lower the discharge temperature of wastewater. Such measures have become standard. But there are further possibilities for improving a company’s heating budget. They include, for example, optimised short supply channels, prevention of leakages and energy reclamation from steam.

They are the result of discussing ecological questions within the company, which are then dealt with comprehensively and systematically within the scope of eco-management systems. Their major advantage is that individual situations on site are taken into account. In this way, tailor-made measures for saving energy are devised with sustainable effect.

Avoiding stresses and strains

The important area of chemicals, surfactants and auxiliary agents has a part to play in the ecological assessment of production. These substances give a textile product its specific properties, or restore them. But their effects depend on the best possible process parameters and correct dosages.

The days when more was thought to have a better effect have long since been relegated to the past. Instead, a fine-tuned dosage technique combined with modern equipment and technology, safeguard precise process control. In this way, excessive addition of chemicals, with a resultant increase in production costs are prevented.

At the same time, unnecessary burdening of wastewater is avoided by sensible dosages and fibres are protected from damage, which would lead to premature discarding of the textiles. A company’s commitment to sustainability may extend far beyond the normal standard, however. Such commitment includes working without pollutants, for example, and using ecologically unobjectionable substances that are made from renewable raw materials and are biodegradable. Making do without phosphates or perfluorinated hydrocarbons also improves the wastewater situation.

Furthermore, the use of highly concentrated substances reduces packaging waste, transport volumes and necessary storage space. All this goes to show that far more than a standardised contemplation is necessary when a production company is to be assessed ecologically. Only the result of all measures viewed together reveals how serious a company really is about sustainability. 

Qualified raw materials

Another factor that affects the ecological footprint of a company is the quality of the raw materials to be processed. They should be geared to their use in the best possible way – irrespective of whether it is a fibre or a completed piece of clothing. Products that meet their required specifications have a long lifespan. They have to be exchanged and replaced less often. As a result, the use of resources decreases considerably in some cases.

Thus a company’s procurement policies have a major impact on its ecological results. Within the framework of an environmental management system, possible weaknesses in procurement are exposed and can be remedied with appropriate measures. The same result cannot be achieved by simply calculating an index - based on waste volumes, for example. At best, such a calculation points in the same direction in a very limited way.

When comparing disposable with reusable goods, a look behind the scenes is also always worthwhile. Questions as to whether to use paper or cloth napkins, paper or cloth-based surgery textiles, disposable or reusable protective suits etc. have to be looked at in their entirety. While the use of raw materials for the production of disposable goods is carried out on a major scale, the care of reusable textiles cannot be affected without resources either.

The concept of sustainability is based on the principle of living off the yield without digging into the substance. This encourages an integrated analysis of all processes including the preliminary stages. It is not enough to simply focus on the classic consumables in a company. For example, organisation of the vehicle fleet and company documents, guidelines for business travel, packaging types of delivered goods, etc., also have to be considered when assessing sustainability. Environmental management systems can be seen as tools on the way to an organisation based on the principles of sustainability. But it does help to single out individual parameters.


Sabine Anton-Katzenbach

Textile finishing specialist Cert-eng. Sabine Anton-Katzenbach provides technical consultancy services for the textile and apparel industries through her company, Büro für Textiltechnische Beratung. She is also an accredited journalist and her clients include companies from the chemical, fibre, textile and apparel industries, textile service companies, marketing agencies and publishers. sak@textilberatung.com