Skip to main content

Sustainable Textiles in the Modern Era: Navigating Demand, Environmental Needs

March 25, 2024 Circular arrows to show sustainable textiles blog from IE Cleantech Corner intern.

The ever-increasing demand for textiles has led to advancements in the manufacturing and production of these material goods. But how can we ensure that our produced goods are sustainable in today’s world with fast fashion?

One such method is through a Life Cycle Assessment. In early-stage innovation, research and development teams must determine the environmental impacts a product will have at every point in its life from extraction to disposal. Their goal is to determine the long-term effects of the material on the planet and to see if it is better than what is currently on the market. If it is, the material will be approved for use and production will begin.

Libby Sommer, an expert in this field, took the time to speak with me about it. Although her parent’s activism in the environmental realm influenced her growing up, she found herself drawn to what she calls a “solutions space.” The apparel industry is one such industry that is invested in finding solutions and generating more sustainable garments. Her background in chemistry has given her the upper hand working with Lululemon, Nike, and now small start-ups to conduct a life cycle assessment—to determine the impact of these chemicals and if any better alternatives exist. At Lululemon, she invented and implemented a chemical program to comply with hazardous regulations and preemptively remove chemicals from the manufacturing process that would likely be regulated in the future. She put it best when she said “Chemistry is fundamental to making products,” whether it be defoliants or treatments to whiten, soften, or make a material water-resistant.

Not only do companies have to think about what current regulations limit their chemical usage, but they must also consider what chemicals may get banned in the future. To do this, she held showcases about PFAS (water-repelling) chemicals to inform the headquarters staff about why the company should move away from using this chemical. She also brought in a representative of Adidas to explain how the company transitioned away from certain chemicals, and separately brought in suppliers who no longer used phthalates (chemicals that increase durability) to reveal the plausibility of a transition away from these chemicals and the benefits it would have. Part of what drew Sommer to the apparel industry was its focus on innovation, which has proved to be true. But what about those companies that are not?

The Hurdle of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion has a wide appeal because of its price tag, but we pay the price in a different way, i.e. environmental harm. These cheap and typically lower-quality clothes lack durability and environmentally conscious efforts. That’s where sustainable textile companies come in. One such company was Renewcell, where former UNC Kenan-Flagler graduate and moderator of the sustainable textiles panel Joe Rinkevich worked. This company took used denim and recycled it into new denim. This enterprise may have been ahead of its time, as there was not enough demand, but it certainly established a circular thinking within this industry.

So much of our wardrobe eventually ends up in a landfill. With the current usage and extraction rates of materials, the possibility of running out of resources increases. Over time, the brands whose philosophies are tied to sustainability will stand the test of time, argues Rinkevich. Industries without this circular thinking will be at risk because there won’t be any more resources for them to extract. Even if the resources last, turning the industry into a circular one is a goal all apparel companies should and are striving for. By shifting the source of our materials into those that have been previously used, brands have the backing of environmentally-driven consumers to change the game through long-term and sustainable thinking.

At the 2024 Clean Tech summit, both of these individuals spoke on how they have disrupted the textile industry. A strong sense of curiosity, flexibility, and honesty are the philosophies that Rinkevich has carried with him to get to today, while Sommer reminds us not to let perfection get in the way of achieving our goals, and always take action to create the change we want to see.


This article was written by Genevieve Marti, an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern and UNC-Chapel Hill student.

About the Author