Let Science Drive Sustainability

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Let Science Drive Sustainability

Polartec circular knit machine

Recently, Polartec hosted a digital event on the theme of ‘The Science of Sustainability’, covering circularity, biodegradability, recycled plastics, testing and measurements. It’s a complex subject and one that impacts all our lives.

In his introduction, Polartec President Steve Layton noted, Polartec has been engineering sustainably made fabrics for over 25 years. We are proud to have repurposed over 2 billion bottles in our fabrics. It’s not just what we make – it’s a full systems approach which is ingrained in the Polartec culture. It’s where we make it and how we make it that matters too.”

It set the scene for a wide-ranging consideration not only of the science but also of the business of sustainability. A panel of speakers explored these key elements in the equation, offering info, insight and opinion as well as posing challenging questions:

  • Eva Karlsson – CEO, Houdini Sportswear
  • Dr Morton A Barlaz – Head of the Department of Civil, Construction & Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University
  • Jeff Stahan, Ph.D. – Director of Research, Compliance and Sustainability, Milliken & Company
  • Bruno de Wilde – Laboratory Manager of Organic Waste Systems, Ghent, Belgium.

Design & Manufacturing

Karlsson said, “In 2001 we realised that we needed to move from linear to circular thinking. The idea was to mimic nature and the amazing and complex functioning system that it is. We found that it was dangerous for us to stay focused on climate and carbon. We needed to understand how we impact the land system, oceans and climates – to have a holistic and systemic insight.”

For developing outdoor sportswear, she shared the company’s design checklist:

  • Does this product deserve to exist?
  • Will it last?
  • Is it versatile?
  • Will it age with beauty?
  • Add nothing that isn’t needed
  • Is it fit for sharing, remaking and reselling?
  • Does it have a next life solution?

The questions are a useful reference point for consumers’ ethical choices.

Material lifecycle

Barlaz teased out the detail in considerations of how to address the challenge of waste products. “When we talk about biodegradability the first thing that is important to focus on is exactly what problem are we trying to solve?  If you ask customers, manufacturers and policy makers, these are their concerns:

  • Plastic accumulation in the oceans
  • Litter
  • Landfill space
  • Overall environmental footprint and sustainability.

It’s important to answer the question of what exactly the problem is and design materials appropriately.  The above are very different problems and the solutions will be different.  How do we analyse an alternative?  Is circularity best?  Is a biodegradable material actually desirable in the context of a textile?”

He continued, “When we ask, ‘Are we making the best possible material or is our material sustainable’, I think it’s crucial that we talk about three phases of the entire life cycle of a material:

  • Manufacturing the material
  • How that material is used
  • What we do with it at end of life

Life Cycle Analysis

In a particularly thought-provoking presentation, Stahan ended with, “We have to look at the complete picture from beginning to end. Where do I think we’re going? I believe LCA will continue to improve and become commonplace. I’m an optimist at heart, and I think business and policy decisions will be driven by science and those facts and data will drive what we do. I think the textile industry will play a key role. We are part of the problem right now so we have to be part of the solution.”


De Wilde challenged popular misconception the impact of waste disposal, “We need to distinguish it from disintegration when it visually disappears and biodegradation where it changes to water, biomass and CO2. The only true parameter is CO2 production, that’s why all the standards are focused on measuring that.”

The above gives a flavour of the unique value of the event. You can watch the full programme HERE.

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