Could Nanotechnology Dramatically Reduce Clothing’s Environmental Impact?

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by Kathleen Webber

Image: Dropel Fabrics
Image: Dropel Fabrics

If washing and drying clothes is a major culprit in the environmental waste wars, what if there were more natural fabrics that repelled stains, resulting in fewer washings? One such solution, introduced by Kelby & Co. at the Fashion Tech Lab demo day this summer, is being rolled out in the market next month.

Dropel fuses hydrophobic (water- & stain-repellent) nanotechnology with cotton fibers to create enhanced cotton that resists stains as stubborn as soy sauce and red wine. Spills can be rinsed off with a squirt of water.

Founders Sim Gulati and Brad Feinstein are working with cotton now, though they say they have the capabilities to blend all types of natural fabrics such as cashmere, silk, linen and wool.

“Maintaining natural feel (softness), breathability, draping and all other fabric characteristics are our differentiators,” Feinstein says.

He says Dropel is working in the types of innovation usually reserved for polyester.

“We want to move away from synthetics towards a world where we can use natural textiles with added benefits that require less energy and resources in the process,” he says. ”We’ve used synthetics for decades and we believe we’re at a point now where we no longer need to resort to petroleum-based fabrics for innovative properties. We provide a sustainable alternative.”

The proprietary development process was designed in a research lab and adapted for mass-scale manufacturing. Feinstein and Gilutai have filed their first patent application for Dropel.

While the company is currently working with a handful of luxury menswear ecommerce companies, the team sees the fabric as being suitable for women’s and children’s wear, home furnishings, and uniforms. Dropel Fabrics is expected to come to market soon – the company has begun trials with several brands for Spring and Summer 2016, with some doing full garment manufacturing with the company and others sourcing the fabric. Regardless, the company says brands like that the innovative fabric with embedded technology is a purchase consumers can feel good about.

“We feel sustainability and environmental care are elements of our value proposition,” Feinstein says.

Dropel is the latest in a spate of recent fabric innovations aimed at decreasing the environmental impact of textile production and use:

  • In 2014, Scientists at City University in Hong Kong revealed a new treatment for cashmere that enables it to self-clean with some help from the sun. The technology coats cashmere fibers with tiny particles of the mineral anatase titanium dioxide. When exposed to sunlight for 24 hours, the mineral starts a chemical reaction creating oxidants that act as tiny electric currents to break down dust, dirt, bacteria and even trickier stains such as coffee and wine. If the project succeeds and is commercialized, it could lead to substantial savings on energy, water, washing liquids and dry cleaning chemicals.
  • In April, textile upcycler Worn Again announced a partnership with H&M and Kering to trial a first-of-its-kind textile-to-textile chemical recycling technology that is able to separate and extract polyester and cotton from old or end-of-use clothing and textiles. Once separated, the aim is for this unique process to enable the ‘recaptured’ polyester and cellulose from cotton to be spun into new fabric, creating a circular resource model for textiles.
  • In August, Swiss upcycled bag and clothing brand Freitag expanded its F-abric line of European-grown and -produced workwear with a compostable, cotton-free jean — the E500 jean line will comprise 81 percent linen and 19 percent hemp. The jeans will contain neither rivets nor nylon thread, making each pair 100 percent compostable after the removal of buttons.
  • In September, adidas announced Sport Infinity, the sportswear giant’s plan for a new breed of sporting goods that will never be thrown away. Instead, football (soccer) players will be able to constantly reimagine and recycle their dream products using an inexhaustible 3-D “super-material.” The company’s goal is for every gram of sportswear to eventually be broken down to be remolded again into new products in a waste-free, adhesive-free process
  • And just last month, Levi Strauss launched its Levi’s Wellthread™ Collection, which touts a holistic approach to sustainable product design: The line was made in 100 percent cotton for easier recyclability, by empowered workers — and includes the first garments to feature Levi’s Water<Less™ fabric, which saves more than 65 percent of the water in the dye process, as well as Water<Less denim finishes, which use up to 50 percent less water.

*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands.

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