NEW YORK — The green movement is continuing to build momentum in the textile and apparel industries, fueled this past year by big strides in recycled polyester.
Organically grown cotton, cleaner dyeing and finishing processes and waste reduction practices are becoming a greater part of everyday thinking in the business. Some makers of environment-friendly apparel also claim fashion success, gaining acceptance at stores for which style takes greater priority over ecological concerns.
Here is a roundup of what some apparel companies and textile mills have been doing to combine fashion with an environmentally responsible approach.
One of the first mainstream clothing companies to make apparel exclusively of 100 percent certified organic cotton is O Wear, a division of VF Corp.
O Wear, which was rolled nationally last year, eliminates all formaldehyde fixatives in the fabric-finishing stage and uses only hot water and environmentally safe soaps, rather than chemical washes, to clean and preshrink garments.
“We are both an environmentally friendly product and a fashion product,” said John Riley, O Wear’s vice president. “We sell both the green retailers and better specialty stores, but for the specialty stores, the consumer sees it as more of a fashion item. The fact that it’s environmentally friendly is maybe third or fourth on the list of buying criteria.”
O Wear encompasses men’s and women’s tops and bottoms in a range of colors, Riley said, adding that the firm works with cotton ginning, spinning, knitting and dyeing facilities to create the products.
O Wear is still a very small part of VF’s overall sales. But Riley, while declining to divulge figures, said, “We are looking to grow this area slowly but surely, and are investigating opportunities for this type of activity throughout VF Corp.”
A year ago, executives at O Wear forecast its sales would hit $20 million in 1993.
Esprit is also taking a green approach with its Ecollection designed by Lynda Grose. Among the features found in various apparel and accessories items are organically grown cotton and linen, natural and low-impact dyes, Tencel (Courtauld’s Fibers cellulosic made from harvested wood pulp), and reconstituted glass and tagua nut buttons.
Espirit, said Grose, even uses its own waste fabric to create products.
Another firm making apparel from organically grown cotton is Ecosport, Hackensack, N.J. The firm, formed four years ago, began as a supplier of unbleached T-shirts and now manufactures organically and color-grown cotton tops and bottoms. “I think the green movement is definitely moving mainstream,” said Marylou Marsh, vice president. “Five years ago, hardly anybody was doing this type of thing. Now, all types of people are getting into it.”
The biggest splash in the textile greening game over the past year has been made by polyester staple fibers recycled from plastic soda bottles. They have been getting a substantially favorable response from the activewear fabric market, which traditionally hasn’t been a polyester user.
Users of the recycled material said they were tapping into activewear customers’ high level of environmental awareness with 100 percent recycled polyester, or blends with virgin polyester. Depending on the application, it takes, on average, about 25 plastic soda bottles to make one garment.
The recycled polyester is being produced by Wellman Inc. and Hoechst Celanese, both of which unveiled it last year. Wellman’s is called Fortrel EcoSpun; Hoechst’s is Trevira II. DuPont, the world’s largest polyester producer, expects to get into the recycling act with its own material by the middle of next year.
“We’ve made Fortrel EcoSpun a key part of our polyester line,” said Jim Casey, president of Wellman’s fibers division. For Wellman, the world’s largest plastics recycler, “the move to get into that part of the polyester business was a natural,” Casey said. Through an arrangement with Dyersburg Fabrics and Patagonia, EcoSpun is being knitted into DyerSport Eco, a fleece fabric used in Patagonia outerwear. The fabric is constructed of at least 80 percent EcoSpun and 20 percent virgin Fortrel polyester filament.
“The product meets a dual demand, one from the public looking to be more environmentally friendly, the other from the consumer who wants a product that has value and is attractive,” said Alan Burchett, Dyersburg’s director of safety, health and environment.
Another company using Wellman’s Fortrel EcoSpun is the Brookwood Cos., which has put Wellman’s product into a new fabric line called The New Earth Collection, aimed at the outerwear and activewear markets.
Malden Mills Industries, the leading fleece fabric producer, has incorporated Trevira II into its Polartec 100 line, a collection of underwear layer fabrics, and its 200 and 300 lines, a series of lightweight outerwear fabrics. They are all available in prints and solids. Patagonia, Timberland, L.L. Bean and even the Nicole Miller women’s ready-to-wear collection all have integrated the fabrics into their 1994-’95 lineups.
Howard Ackerman, Malden’s general manager, said the fabrics accounted for about 10 percent of Malden’s total apparel fleece line, whereas in 1993 they accounted for less than 1 percent.
“I think, looking down the road two to three years, they could become 50 percent, 60 percent or even 70 percent of our line,” Ackerman said.
In other product developments, Burlington Industries, aiming to cut down on the amount of effluence during denim laundering, has come out with Stone Free, a dyeing process that allows indigo shades to break down 50 percent faster in the laundering cycle — without the use of stones and chemicals.
The fabrics will become available to Burlington’s customers for spring 1995 apparel lines.
Another denim product that aims to be more environmentally friendly is Swift Textiles’ new Paris Black Fabric, designed to reduce cycle times in the laundry and, thus, be less harmful to the environment than traditional, overdyed black fabrics. Nevertheless, Sally Fox, president of Natural Cotton Colors, Wickenberg, Ariz., a pioneer in growing cotton organically, maintains many firms are only hyping the movement, and their efforts, while a step in the right direction, have not made a big dent in solving environmental problems.
“Just because you are making a fabric using a cleaner dyeing process doesn’t mean it’s totally clean,” Fox said. “It is still using an enzyme or formaldehyde, something that will pollute the environment, only maybe not as much as before.”
Fox, who spent nine years developing the product in California, and now in Arizona produces about 4,000 bales per year, supplies Levi Strauss with the cotton for use in jeans in the company’s Natural lines. Fox also works with Ecosport.
The cotton, trademarked as FoxFibre, is grown using special brown seeds, and Fox has also developed a green cotton by cross-pollinating two brown seeds. The green movement also has seen some casualties. In 1992, Dixie Yarns came out with Earthwise, a collection of naturally dyed cotton yarns. Although the yarns were well received initially, problems with colorfastness forced Dixie to take them off the market last year.
On the production front, the textile industry’s national trade association, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, launched its Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program in 1992.
“Environmental protection is one of the most important business issues today,” said Henry A. Truslow 3rd, outgoing president of the ATMI and president of Sunbury Textile Mills, Sunbury, Pa.
The E3 program calls for textile companies to implement a 10-point plan that starts with a corporate environmental policy and includes a detailed environmental audit of facilities; an outreach program to suppliers and customers that encourages recycling, establishment of corporate environmental goals and the development of employee education, and community awareness programs.
As of April 30, 55 of 125 member firms were participating in the program.
Among the pacesetters, Flynt Fabrics, Hillsborough, N.C., last week won the state’s 1993 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Waste Reduction. Flynt was cited for innovative waste reduction strategies, the amount of waste reduction it achieved in 1993, documented cost savings and management and employee involvement in the program.
Through an installation of recycling systems, Flynt has gone from using an average 24 gallons of water per pound of dyed fabrics to around 19.4 gallons. Flynt dyes about 11 million pounds of fabric per year, so the savings is about 56 million gallons of water.