Tomorrow's World

New sustainable materials at Sustainability Spotlight

by FESPA Staff | 22/04/2024
New sustainable materials at Sustainability Spotlight

Sustainability Spotlight returned by popular demand to FESPA Global Print Expo last month in an exhibit curated by The Good Factory.

Last month, FESPA collaborated with The Good Factory at the FESPA Global Print Expo (GPE) in Amsterdam to showcase the Sustainability Spotlight, a textile material display across four categories: leather and leather alternatives, synthetic fabrics, cellulosic fabrics and natural fabrics. Each material was evaluated to provide visitors to the FESPA GPE with transparent and relevant information for material use in short-term graphics, interior décor and fashion. And of course the display itself, made from sustainable Re-board, had a carbon footprint 3,269kg CO2e lighter than its MDF counterpart.

As a textile and sourcing expert specialising in sustainability, Sam Taylor, founder of The Good Factory, has been working with FESPA for the past two years gathering and curating a wide range of sustainable materials, editing them down from hundreds of possible exhibits to the 40+ on display. Curating the content requires a clear understanding what printers need and distilling it into useful and relevant information for them to digest and act upon.

Why is Sustainability Spotlight important?

Brands are increasingly looking at the benefits of reducing scope 3 emissions and bringing transparency into their supply chains. They are demanding greener materials and greater accountability because their customers are, and sustainable materials are valuable in certification and carbon calculation schemes. The high price of energy means firms are focused more on renewables to increase their energy efficiency, and the efficient use of sustainable materials also leads to lower emissions and cost benefits.

Each item in the Sustainability Spotlight comes with its own information sheet, providing the following check list: manufacturer information and location, associated quality standards, composition, weight, width, stock service, low/high minimum order quantity, recycled content, recyclability and lower emissions. In addition, it was stated whether the manufacturer had a water policy, energy policy or social policy and if yarns were fully traceable. An accompanying certifications key covered Global Recycling Standard, GPTS, OEKO-TEX, Bluesign, Crib 5, fire retardant certification and Martindale results.

A questionnaire also accompanied each product. These searching questions, designed to thoroughly test the true underlying sustainability of the product, can be seen at the end of the article. As well as determining how well the product can potentially fit into the circular economy, the questions explore the social and financial impacts of each specific material.

So how are sustainable materials developing?

Next-generation materials go through an incredibly long process and can take years to fully develop. Products such as mycelium (the substance in the root structure of mushrooms that can form leather alternatives) or algae-based materials may seem new but they have been experimented with and refined over years, says Sam. For example, a patent was filed by Ecovative for a packaging made from mycelium back in 2006.

Mycelium is particularly pertinent as leather is set to be impacted by the EU’s deforestation regulation and brands are already looking at leather alternatives. Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon have all partnered with Mylo, a mycelium leather, to create handbags, trainers and yoga mats.

“However, the EU regulation doesn’t apply to recycled products,” says Sam. “So I expect to see a lot more recycled leather come through to the supply chain. The only other choice is bio-based materials. But unfortunately bio-based still contains plastic, because the best proportion of bio-material to some kind of plastic binder is about 85% bio-based. So, it can’t be part of a fully circular workflow, but it fits in well with net zero strategies.”

So what are the best leather alternatives? “You could use natural rubber products – Natural Fiber Welding makes Mirum [a plastic-free alternative to leather made from natural rubber and plant-based oils]. But these materials also need to comply with EU deforestation regulation, which can make the process more difficult.

“The benefits of mycelium is that it’s cheap, abundant and quick to turn around, although it’s not as hard-wearing as real leather.”

Bio-based products, especially from food, are also becoming more popular, particularly in apparel. “There is a high amount of waste from banana leaves, and the benefit is that bananas are an unbelievably popular fruit,” says Sam. “Materials from food waste becomes more difficult when the food is not a popular product or it requires extra processing. But it’s a great way of being part of the circular economy.”

Another area the Sustainability Spotlight looked at was cellulosics, materials made from dissolved wood pulp. Sam says: “It is also possible to take waste products and make them into cellulosics. I think that is the future, particularly with the US textile strategy, which is introducing a fabrics take-back scheme. So cellulosics will form part of the EU textile waste strategy and the US Green Deal.

Recycled synthetics are clearly going to become bigger, and without a doubt the use of virgin synthetics will start to reduce at some point. However, as Sam points out: “You can make 6,000 products out of a barrel of oil so you will always find some form of virgin polyester in the market. So recycling remains crucial in this sector.”

Greenwashing and carbon capture

The new greenwashing laws in the UK and EU will affect this market greatly. “It’s greenwashing to say you are using recycled plastic bottles to make fabrics when the bottles go straight from the factory into the recycler without being sold first.”

Some brands have become front-runners already. “Businesses like Lululemon have now set up their own recycling plants and their own retail raw material supply,” says Sam. “And bio-based materials will then start filling that textile gap.”

In addition, carbon capture technology is a growth area, says Sam: for example, H&M showcased a collection last year using materials made from CO2 captured in steel mills. In the future, perhaps fabric manufacturers could be co-located with factories and carbon capture technology installed next to their smokestacks to them.

So what will appear at the Sustainability Spotlight next year, at the 2025 FESPA Global Print Expo in Berlin? Sam says: “Every year, we exhibit only a very small percentage of the work that we have done. This is great, because every time you go, you will discover new materials you have never seen before.”

Sustainability Spotlight material questions

Does the product have the potential to contribute to the circular economy?

  • Can it be repurposed at end of life?
  • Is it reusable?
  • Is it readily recyclable using existing infrastructure?
  • Has it been made from fewer materials, making it easier to recycle (eg the core is the same as the surface)?
  • Does it contain recycled content?

Does the manufacturing or processing reduce energy consumption?

  • Does the product have less embodied energy or carbon (eg less energy used in manufacturing, renewable resources used to provide the energy used in manufacturing)?

Has the product been developed to offer more efficient use of resources?

  • Does it use less material in manufacture?
  • Does it allow less material to be used in finished product applications (eg can be printed on direct so no need for paper to be laminated on)?

Is the material more energy efficient in its use (eg less processing is required to create finish product, such as no lamination required)?

The impact of the material on the natural environment, including raw material sourcing, manufacturing the item, working with it to produce finished items, the item or goods made using the item in life or at end of life.

  • Reduced air pollution in manufacture, use or at end of life (eg pollution issues around PVC, volatile organic compound emissions from inks)
  • Reduced aquatic pollution in manufacture, use or at end of life (eg elimination or reduction of microplastics, improvements to factory effluent streams)
  • Reduced deforestation/biodiversity (eg soya used in inks not contributing to deforestation

Social benefits: active policies around the treatment of workers and supply chain implemented and evidenced

  • Financial, to support decent work for all, such as fair pay, equal pay for women, apprenticeship and other schemes to bring people into training and work?
  • Social, such as diversity (across genders, ages, ethnicities, religions, disabilities), inclusion, protection of labour rights?
  • Is the manufacturer certified as B Corp, Fairtrade, living wage or other?


by FESPA Staff Back to News

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