By  on April 8, 2008

In an effort to keep pace with the rising demand for organic and environmentally friendly fabrics and apparel, synthetic fiber manufacturers have sought to improve their production practices while introducing a host of lower-impact products.

The amount of energy used to manufacture man-made fibers makes claiming environmental bona fides a difficult task. Synthetics such as nylon and polyester begin as hard polymer pellets that are melted at high temperatures. Achieving those temperatures requires factories to burn oil or natural gas. Once melted, the product is forced through a series of extruders that allow it to be worked into a fiber.

Invista was early to introduce a synthetic product with a lower environmental impact. In 2002, Invista, which was a part of DuPont at the time, introduced Easy Set Lycra spandex, which enables fabrics to be heat-set at lower temperatures without losing performance characteristics. The fiber allows Lycra to be used with delicate fibers such as silk and wool, which can't withstand extreme temperatures. Invista is touting Easy Set Lycra as a way for manufacturers to save energy and a product that works well with natural textiles such as bamboo, soy, hemp and organic cotton.

Other synthetic giants have been racing to come up with similar lower-impact products. In January 2007, Toray Industries announced it would be introducing a line of textiles manufactured from recycled nylon 6 fibers, a key component in the production of outwear and athletic wear.

In an interview with WWD at the time, Kenny Gotcher, a sales executive with Toray, said the new process allows post-industrial waste yarn to be remelted and spun back into a yarn. Since the fiber has already gone through the production process, recycled nylon 6 uses only 15 percent of the energy necessary to make virgin nylon.

Hyosung's Creora spandex business introduced a suite of lower-impact products during the Intertextile Shanghai trade show in 2007. Creora unveiled two low-temperature set spandex products as well as a new black spandex engineered to reduce the use of dyes and other finishing products. According to the company's research, by developing a fiber with a set temperature 15 degrees lower than traditional spandex, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 162 tons a year — roughly the amount emitted by 84 cars in a year."I think we still need to do more work on helping customers merchandise the energy savings to the consumers," said Ria Stern, Creora's global marketing and brand director. Stern said the company is looking to develop a labeling system similar to the Energy Star label to help easily convey the benefits of certain products to consumers.

More recently, Hyosung announced it was launching a recycled nylon and polyester program. The company's nylon business is collecting nylon fishing nets, rope and fabrics and breaking them back down to their chemical ingredients in order to produce a recycled nylon. They're also collecting plastic bottles to produce recycled polyester.

"By doing it this way, the quality of the product we produce is the same as if you were making virgin nylon, but you reduce landfill waste and reduce energy usage," said Stern.

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