New materials – a big step forward in sustainability

Sustainability is a process and a work in progress. I didn’t come up with that profound thought. I read it somewhere, and it’s especially relevant to me now, just after we found some amazing new bag materials (and following my last post about sustainability). In that post I mentioned that certain recycled materials we tested showed some brittleness and tendency to tear under load. Of course, we were disappointed in its durability compared to virgin yarn – the fabric ripped apart – and if we’d sent the bags out, they would’ve ended up in a landfill, or shipped all the way back to us. Either way, it would defeat the purpose.

As they say, ‘durability is sustainability’. But it’s not always easy to see the big picture when chasing numbers and protecting margins. Thankfully we have a great team, many of whom focus solely on sourcing and some of whom study cutting edge fashion and global trends — not just fashion but macro-economic and social shifts in the way people see the world and how the world reacts to that and sometimes even pre-empts them.

Of course one such shift is the demand for sustainable materials, and our customers ask about them every order cycle. I’ve voiced my concerns to them, that the recycled materials we’ve seen are less durable than virgin yarn. But as if to answer my worries, when we were sourcing materials for delivery bags, these new samples are interesting new PVC alternatives — non-chlorinated vinyls (EVA, PEVA, PVA and PVB). Very exciting. Receiving new, cutting edge materials is one of the highlights of my job.

From the research we’ve done, the materials show outstanding binding efficiency and durability and weatherability. In manufacturing processes it uses 53 litres less water consumption, 18kW less power and 17kg less CO2, per 1kg. It was previously used as the inner sandwich layer in armoured glass and just as exciting is that it’s the first time a recycled material is the same price as a virgin material.

In Oecotextiles’ blog they aptly say, “The absence of chlorine alone does not make these other vinyls the final answer in the search for green polymers. There are still plenty of toxic challenges and untested chemicals in the life cycle of any petrochemical product. As is the case with most other polymers competing with PVC, however, the weight of available evidence indicates that the absence of chlorine in the formula will generally render the lifecycle environmental health impacts of PVB and the other vinyls less harmful than PVC – and initial studies are bearing this out.

“Like the polyolefin plastics, the use of PVB and the other non- chlorinated vinyls represents a step forward in the search for alternatives to PVC. In summary, with the exception of paints, glues and certain films, “vinyl” as a product description almost always means made of PVC. The term vinyl in ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA), polyvinyl acetate (PVA), and polyvinyl butyral (PVB), however, does not refer to PVC and does not raise the same concerns associated with chlorinated molecules like PVC. When in doubt about the use of the term “vinyl”, ask if it is PVC or PVB .

“With PVB The manufacturing process begins by washing and sorting the collected bottles before they are shredded and turned into pellets. The pellets are then converted into fibres that are spun and woven into fabric. To achieve the weather-resistant finish, the bags are coated in a recycled PVB made from old windshields. Anya Hindmarch partnered with a Taiwanese company for the finish, which appears to be the only one of its kind that has achieved Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certification.”

And then, there’s good old wool. As a surprising alternative in sustainable materials, wool offers superior insulation and is being used, on a fairly large scale, for packaging for the transportation of temperature-sensitive goods. ‘Created by nature, driven by science’ is what they are saying. Wool is one of nature’s most remarkable ‘smart fibres’, with a complex structure and natural properties that cope with extremes of cold and heat. Wool fibres are hygroscopic, absorbing and releasing moisture, a natural thermostat that maintains stable temperatures. Back to nature…

I’d never claim to be one that can influence world opinion, but we can try to look beyond the bare minimum and ticking the boxes when it comes to meeting the legislations. We all need to invest in the intent, meaning that even if sustainability is not necessarily immediately clear, it influences market demands and in turn the brands of the world. The in turn leads to real change in the long term. Like they say, work in progress.