Considering Bio-Based Fibers in Protective Apparel

Considering Bio-Based Fibers in Protective Apparel

How the protective apparel industry is integrating sustainability alongside traditional pillars of protection, comfort, and value, ushering in a new era of eco-conscious choices without compromising safety.

Millions of American workers require flame-resistant, arc-rated (FR/AR) apparel to safely perform their jobs. Historically, apparel manufacturers and their suppliers focus on three key areas of consideration when designing workwear for these professionals — protection, comfort, and value. But as science and the industry’s insight into how we must operate evolves, an additional consideration is quickly ascending to a must-have feature: sustainability.

The textile industry broadly has been challenged to find ways to become more sustainable. It’s thanks to a variety of considerations: the energy and water use needed to manufacture, transparency in supply chains, waste generation during the development process, and end-of-life considerations for garments. For example, the fast fashion industry is producing twice the amount of clothes today than in 2000, leading to an increase in pre- and post-production textile waste.

With a closer eye on the impact the textile industry places on the environment, regulations and operational requirements are following suit. In the United States and Europe, proposed legislation will require brands and retailers to report on pollution and waste, pressure-testing the industry in ways it has never felt before.

Making the Right Decisions of the Long Haul

But the protective apparel industry, still in its infancy with sustainability, has something that fast fashion never will — longevity. When designed correctly, durable materials that last longer without sacrificing comfort or performance are the best way for the protective apparel industry to reduce its environmental impact, whether end users are calling for it now or not.

Seemingly small decisions when choosing fabric for FR/AR programs can have a big impact. The longer a garment can maintain its protective properties for a worker on the job, the longer that garment stays out of the landfill.

Beyond longevity, choosing materials that contain renewable fiber sources is an environmentally conscious choice for an apparel program. That’s why, in part, the industry is beginning to see more incorporation of bio-based fibers to offset some of the use of traditional synthetic fibers, which are typically petroleum-based and more difficult to biodegrade.

Synthetic fibers are widely known and used in protective apparel due to their durability and performance capabilities. Nylon, for example, is often used in many fabrics to improve abrasion resistance, while a synthetic fiber like spandex is typically used in denim applications that require a bit more give or stretch to the garment. But what exactly are bio-based fibers? Bio-based fibers are made from renewable resources, like plants or trees and are typically categorized into two camps — natural and regenerated.

Natural bio-based fibers are some of the most well-known fiber sources and include cotton, wool and linen. Due to strict safety standards required in the protective apparel, the most likely natural fiber you’ll find in the industry is cotton, which is typically blended with a synthetic fiber to improve shrinkage and abrasion properties.

Regenerated fibers are slightly different than natural fibers in that they’re derived from natural materials but must undergo a manufacturing process to be transformed into usable fiber. One common type of regenerated fiber found in the protective apparel space is lyocell, a regenerated cellulosic fiber that is made from wood pulp using a closed-loop system. They are recognized for their comfort, aiding the process of blending them into a range of textile fibers when applied to technical fabrics.

While bio-based fibers are a great step to making the protective apparel industry more sustainable, it’s critical to remember that FR/AR garments are highly technical apparel that require the highest consideration for safety. If your motivation to incorporate fabrics that use bio-based fibers into your program is to have a more sustainable program in place, it’s important to consider the full life cycle of the fabric. Working with suppliers who have net-zero targets in place is one way to ensure the products they’re providing are part of a broader sustainability program. Transparency and ethical reporting of sustainability metrics at a product and enterprise level are important in evaluating the supply chain.

Filling a Growing Need

Protection, comfort, and value remain the priorities for determining what protective garments are used in the industry. Sustainability (bio-based, recycled content, etc.) is quickly becoming a component of the overall product value equation without sacrificing protection and comfort. Manufacturers are stepping up to fill the gap and are developing more sustainable options to meet market expectations in the future.

While the protective apparel industry may not be demanding sustainable garments now, keeping an eye on the future is critical to any successful FR/AR apparel program. Adding sustainability as an additional consideration alongside protection, comfort and value won’t just positively impact the industry in the future but ultimately protect workers in new ways they might not (yet) consider.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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