Design & Sustainability on

Sustainable Chemistry: Changing the Alchemy of Apparel

— By: The Team at Nau

Here’s a sobering stat: 80,000 chemicals are currently used around the world today. Most of these chemicals are untested and a surprising portion are used to make your clothes. From dying and finishing to spinning, ginning and even laundering, chemicals are used in every step of the textile process making even natural fibers unsustainable. But the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)—along with Jamie Bainbridge, our Director of Textile Development and Sustainability—is spearheading an initiative that hopes to change all of that. How? By adopting a mission of continuous improvement and establishing a carefully cultivated list of preferred chemicals. Sounds simple, sure. But first the OIA has to convince an entire disparate and often complex global manufacturing industry that sustainable chemistry is good for business.

Let’s back up a minute. Before an industry can change, we need to know where the current process fails. Take the lifecycle of a simple, blue organic cotton T-shirt. Let’s assume the tee is made from GOTS-certified organically grown cotton (that’s what we use here at Nau) which currently sets the strictest standards for the chemical processing of organic cotton. So we’ve eliminated the use of pesticides and fertilizers up front. However, up to five separate chemicals are added at each subsequent stage thereafter. Spinning lubricants are added during cleaning and ginning which allow the raw cotton fibers to be spun into yarn. Lubricant compounds are then added during knitting to allow the fiber to easily pass through machinery. Mordants and salts are added during dying to affix the color to the fabric. This is the most toxic and chemical-consuming phase where OIA is focusing its initial sustainability efforts. Even natural dyes require heavy use of mordants, salts and water in order for the dye to be effective. In the finishing process, chemicals like silicones and formaldehyde are added to impart the desired hand of the fabric. Finally, consumers add their own mix of bleaches, detergents, softeners, and starches to mold and shape the tee into the perfect blue shirt.

This is where things start to get increasingly complex. Each one of the 5000 chemical compounds used in textile production are considered proprietary which means no one— not the OIA, not the EPA, not even the apparel industry—knows what chemicals are used to make a simple blue t-shirt. Jamie, our textile maven, likens it to the manufacturer’s secret sauce that is highly guarded due to its perceived competitive advantage. With such a massive barrier to sustainable business, the only way the apparel industry has been able to dictate which chemicals are used in their products is through a Restricted Substance List (RSL). But with 80,000 chemicals on the market, most of which remain untested, an RSL falls short of being a sustainable solution. But it’s all we have—until now.

The Chemicals Management Working Group, a strategic subgroup of OIA dedicated to sustainable chemistry, is working with big and small retailers and their manufacturers to bring transparency to each stage in the textile process. Using the EPA’s twelve principles of green chemistry as a foundation, they’re building a Preferred Substance List (PSL) that would offer sustainable substitutions for unsafe and untested chemicals. For example, a PSL would provide safe alternatives to formaldehyde, a ubiquitous, toxic chemical currently used to create wrinkle-free fabrics.

In addition, the industry is perfecting the use of low-impact or high-exhaustion dyes which require less water and less dyestuff during one of the most polluting textile processes. With less water being used in the process, more money is being saved by the manufactures which is a tremendous incentive for change. Once the manufacturing industry realizes that sustainable business is good for business then we’ll have a sustainable solution. But until then, the OIA and Nau won’t stop until we find one.


Words by Leighann Franson.