Speak with an expert

Have questions about our products? Get in touch with one of our industry experts.

Contact us  

Speak with an expert

Have questions about our products? Get in touch with one of our industry experts.

Contact Us  

Speak with an expert

Have questions about our products? Get in touch with one of our industry experts.

Contact us  

Integrating sustainable fabrics in PPE workwear clothing

Why sustainable fabrics have become an essential part of workwear and PPE clothing

In recent years, we have seen strong growth in the integration of sustainable workwear fabrics within PPE clothing. At its core, this is driven by a need for global industries to come together to reduce their environmental footprint. Across the entire PPE clothing supply chain, there are many choices to be made around fabric purchases to manufacture and maintain more sustainable protective clothing.  

On this page, we explain:

  • Why sustainable fabrics are becoming increasingly important in workwear and PPE clothing

  • The different types of sustainable fabrics and fibres currently in use

  • How to select suitable sustainable fabrics for your needs
3

1. Why are sustainable fabrics becoming increasingly important in workwear and PPE clothing?

In today’s climate, where we know that dramatic changes need to be made to protect the Earth for decades and centuries to come, every industry must undergo profound changes to significantly mitigate their ecological footprint.

The textile industry is one that, historically, produces one of the highest amounts of waste. Therefore, we must look for sustainable solutions in the fabrics we use, in order to lessen our impact on the environment through decreased waste, increased longevity, and, ideally, textiles that can be recycled and reused where possible. 

2. Key elements of sustainability in the value chain

There are four essential elements in the sustainable protective clothing supply chain: 

  • Raw materials as sustainable
    Sustainability starts with examining our choice of raw materials. TENCEL™ Lyocell is fast becoming a replacement for standard cotton. Made from wood pulp, it uses up to 95% less water in its production compared to standard cotton, requires less pesticides, and offers better moisture management. Recycled polyester is also a great alternative as a dynamic, affordable and strong substance that compares favourably against virgin polyester.

    REPREVE® recycled polyester fibres in particular are a popular choice. Made from recycled plastic bottles, REPREVE® fibres feature FiberPrint®: an inbuilt tracing technology that allow the fibres to be verified. TENCEL™ Lyocell and recycled polyester have the added advantage of remaining durable during industrial laundering.

  • Production process optimisation
    We can optimise our production processes for fabrics to be more sustainable by reusing water, decreased and greener energy usage, and smarter transport choices. We can also reconsider what dyes we use on fabrics, for instance choosing to use natural dye (whilst being mindful that different applications of natural dye may affect flame resistant properties). 

  • Lifetime maximisation
    When it comes to sustainability, the lifetime of a garment is equally as important as how it is produced, as it lessens waste in the long term. To extend a garment’s lifetime, we must produce fabrics that are able to withstand frequent industrial washing, thus providing maximum durability.

  • Circular approach to lifecycle sustainability 
    Circularity is about embedding fabric reuse and recycling at the heart of our sustainable business practices. While it is an important goal to work towards, there are challenges which prevent us from fully achieving this at present.

    What we can do now though is work on building up circular partnerships, as well as seeking textile expertise regarding the quality of recycled fibres to develop new solutions for new, high-quality workwear fabrics in the future. 

    In the future, it is essential to continue seeking out and developing new technologies and innovations, such as chemical recycling solutions. In addition, procurement for workwear with recycled content needs to be stimulated towards end-users, meaning future fabric choices may differ slightly from traditional workwear solutions. 

To learn more about the sustainable protective clothing supply chain, click here.

supply-chain-graphicpng

Visualisation of the protective clothing supply chain. The segments of the chain that involve a protective fabric supplier (such as TenCate Protective Fabrics) are highlighted in orange.

26

3. Sustainable fibres for workwear and PPE clothing

The most commonly used sustainable fibres for workwear can be broken down into four levels, based on their sustainability attributes. These levels, from least to most sustainable, are: 

  1. Conventional
  2. Improved
  3. Progressive
  4. Advanced

sustainable fibresSources include Environmental Benchmark for fibres from Textile Exchange, Mady-by, Modint Fiber Matrix and others. Information is subject to change with ongoing sustainability developments in textiles. Contact us for updates.

There are a range of cellulosic and synthetic fibres available on the market, across these four levels. They include:

 

Cellulosic fibres

  • Conventional: Cotton
    Cotton is one of the most commonly used low-cost fibres on the market. However, its manufacture requires high volumes of water, as well as pesticides that can be damaging to the environment.

  • Improved: BCI-cotton or Fairtrade cotton
    Both of these non-profit organisations prioritise better cotton cultivation. Where Fairtrade mainly creates new opportunities for economically disadvantaged farmers in third-world countries, BCI cotton promotes better programs for global cotton production by taking social and environmental aspects into account. With the use of mass-balance models – fibres from both programs can be mixed with conventional cotton sources, but as they move through the supply chain an exact account of the volume ratios is kept.

    FairTrade also offers the Black Cotton Mark, which certifies that a blended workwear fabric contains 100% Fairtrade cotton, produced, traded, and kept separate from conventional cotton.

  • Progressive: Organic cotton, or TENCEL™ Lyocell
    Organic cotton is cultivated without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and requires less water consumption. The certification standards like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) provide third-party assurance on organic product claims, including environmental and social responsibility in processing.

    TENCEL™ Lyocell is one of the most popular sustainable fibre options on the market today. It is made from wood pulp, which has hardly any water scarcity impact compared to (bio)cotton, and in many cases requires less pesticides and/or chemical fertilisers. It is excellent for the environment and enhances wearer comfort too.

  • Advanced: Recycled cotton or cellulosic
    Recycled cotton or cellulosic fibres sit at the top of the list of sustainable fibres because they achieve optimum circularity. Recycled fibres are often blended with virgin (improved or progressive) fibres to make them suitable for re-use. A good example is TENCEL™ Lyocell blended with the REFIBRA™ technology from Lenzing™. This is the first cellulose fibre featuring recycled material on a commercial scale, with the REFIBRA™ technology drawing on natural resources such as cotton scraps and wood.

Synthetic fibres

  • Conventional: Virgin 
    Polyester and nylon, like cotton, are among the most common and popular options for fibres. However, their manufacture is energy-intensive and consumes large amounts of fossil fuels. Conventional synthetic FR-fibres are modacrylics and aramids.

  • Improved: Bio-Based 
    The advantage of bio-based materials is that they are developed from renewable and bio-based feedstocks like sugarcane and corn, feeding into a better supply chain. Many conventional fibres enter the market with a portion of bio-based content. We can already see trends in the polyester, nylon and aramid space.

  • Advanced: Recycled 
    Well-known recycled fibres in today’s workwear market include recycled polyester (such as Repreve®) and recycled nylon (such as Econyl®). Repreve® is made from post-consumer PET bottles. This means less depletion of non-renewable resources, and less impact on the environment by using less energy and water and smaller greenhouse gas emissions. It also contains embedded with FiberPrint®, a technology that makes each fibre traceable, providing evidence of the product's origins. 

    Recycled aramids are already regenerated and applied in settings other than workwear (for instance, non-wovens). However, as technology advances, we expect to see small-scale initiatives in the protective clothing industry.
 
14

4. Sustainable fabrics for workwear and PPE clothing

When it comes to picking more sustainable fabrics, there are a number of options available across workwear and PPE clothing. Overall, we see a move towards swapping out virgin fibres for recycled ones, like with polyester, or finding more sustainable options, like with cotton.

PPE

The most popular more sustainable fabric solutions within the PPE market are the following blends:

  • 50/30/19/1% cotton/TENCEL™ lyocell/recycled polyester/anti-static
  • 54/45/1% modacrylic/TENCEL™ lyocell/anti-static

PPE-1

Workwear

The most popular fabric solutions currently on the market are two blends:

  • 65/35% ratio of recycled polyester to cotton
  • 50/50% ratio of recycled polyester to cotton

Workwear

Cotton and polyester options

When it comes to selecting the specific type of cotton for a blend, there are a number of options to choose from, such as BCI, Fairtrade and organic cotton. The same goes for polyester, for instance, you can select a polyester with extra stretch characteristics. 

Another popular choice is a blend where cotton is replaced by TENCEL™ lyocell. The ratios for these blends are:

  • 65/35% recycled polyester/TENCEL™ lyocell
  • 50/50% recycled polyester/TENCEL™ lyocell

Workwear (2)

 

5. The challenges of integrating sustainability within the workwear and PPE supply chain

When it comes to sustainable PPE clothing creation, many parties in the value chain are involved. First of all, fabric manufacturers (such as TenCate Protective Fabrics) play a crucial role in helping you select the right fabric, based on your company's safety, comfort, and uniformity standards.

Secondly, a garment manufacturer is responsible for the design and manufacturing of the desired clothing. 

Thirdly, agreements with industrial laundries  ensure that your garments are taken care of in terms of washing and repairing, to make sure that they will live up to their expected lifetime.

Throughout these parties, numerous questions are asked around sustainability, including:

  • Fibres: what fibres are used? Where do they come from, how and where are they made?

  • Fabrics: which fabrics are considered sustainable? Which arent? How will I be able to choose fabrics that are made with recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester?

  • Production process: can sustainable adjustments be made in the spinning, weaving, dyeing or finishing process of the fabric?

  • Workwear lifetime: what is the lifetime in wear and wash and what chemicals are used during washings? Where is the ‘ecological breaking point’ of garments, where renewing the entire garment becomes favourable over washing or repairing it?

  • Recycling: how can I evaluate whether recycling of garments is possible to contribute to a circular economy?

With all these questions, it’s safe to say that we must be rigorous regarding sustainable garment creation. We boil it down to two main areas of advice:

  • When selecting workwear: let all parties that are involved in your tender process know what your wants and needs are, and do not hesitate to ask questions to better understand sustainability in the world of fabrics. 

  • When developing workwear: make sure you know what your customers’ sustainability needs are and what materials you can use to increase the durability of the product. 

To learn more about integrating sustainability within workwear and PPE clothing, click here. 

2

6. Maintenance and washing for an extended garment lifetime

Maintaining your protective clothing properly, through adherence to proper washing and care protocols, will help extend its lifetime and lessen the frequency at which you need to replace garments. For instance, healthcare garments have seen proven lifecycles of a minimum of 100-120 washes, and sometimes even beyond that. 

This is a marked difference to the consumer textiles market, where such lifecycle extension is unheard of. Indeed, there is an emphasis on extending garment lifetime within the ETSA manifesto, which states that ‘the textile service value chain is inherently circular, with the potential for products to be repaired, reused and recycled throughout their lifecycle.’ 

The manifesto adds that industrial safety’s emphasis on reparability ‘allows products to be kept in use for longer periods of time, thereby drastically reducing carbon emissions and resource extraction needed in the production of new material.’

Here are a few top tips for maintenance:

  • Wash your garment according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, e.g. temperature.

  • Wash your garment more often and in line with regional / industry-based recommendations.

  • When purchasing your suit, check with your manufacturer about what care and maintenance programmes they offer, and how frequently they recommend taking advantage of these in order to keep your suit in top working condition.

  • Store your garments properly.

  • Be aware of your garment’s colourfastness after washing and wearing.

  • Know the functionality of your garment to prevent damage through incorrect usage.

To learn more about extending the lifetime of your garment, click here.

3-3

7. Circularity

Circularity refers to extending the service life of a product through reuse, repair, remanufacture, and recycling. To design circular protective workwear, the aim is to develop materials that can be reclaimed in a closed loop at the end of the garment's life by recovering the fibre material. 

Circular workwear is becoming a necessity because in our current climate, non-regenerative resources are being depleted at a rapid rate. On top of that, the textiles industry has the fourth-highest impact when it comes to pollution, due to discarded garments and the use of unsustainable raw materials. Therefore, we must pursue alternatives that operate in a closed-loop circular system, instead of the traditional take-make-waste model. 

It’s worth keeping in mind that circularity doesn’t, by association, mean ecologically friendly. There are several options for handling the allocation of a product when looking at recycling or circularity. What is key here is to refer to the LCA, as it can assist to predict impacts and understand trade-offs, therefore helping you understand if opting for circularity is the best solution in a particular circumstance. 

To learn more about the importance of circularity within the protective clothing industry, click here.

Sustainability_mechanical_recycling_EN_2Supply chain of circularity within the protective clothing industry

8. Regulations

There are many opportunities for improvement around ecological footprint within the textiles industry. That’s why end users increasingly want to ensure their protective workwear is produced in a responsible way — in terms of both environmental and social impact — alongside being confident that the garment is safe to wear.

This is where regulations, such as the OEKO-TEX® Made in Green label, come in. This label on a textile or leather product guarantees that it fulfils the highest criteria when it comes to sustainability, safety and social responsibility. 

Made in Green brings together two certifications: OEKO-TEX® Standard 100, which is a product certification; and OEKO-TEX® STeP, which is a manufacturing facility certification. Achieving both of these, leading to the OEKO-TEX® Made in Green label, ensures that: the protective fabric is made in an environmentally-friendly facility; passes safety testing against harmful substances; and is made in a socially responsible and safe workplace. 

visualmadeingreenkader (1)

 
19

9. Practical tips for selecting sustainable fabrics

When it comes to choosing between the different sustainable fabric options on the market, it’s increasingly desirable to compare clear data. This is by no means a simple exercise, but here are some of our top tips to help you in your comparisons:


  • Use our Fabric Selector. This free online tool helps you find the best fabric for your needs in just 3 easy steps. Simply select your role, industry and requirements, and the Fabric Selector will present you with a shortlist of the best fabric options based on your input.

  • Conduct a Proclaud® protective clothing audit. The audit can help take the stress out of decision-making by delivering a custom set of sustainable clothing solutions informed by your department’s unique needs, wants and budget. 

  • Engage your employees in a wear trial. After all — they will be the ones who will be wearing the protective clothing on a daily basis, so getting their insights and feedback on which fabrics are most effective and comfortable for them is crucial. 

  • Use our Eco-Fabrics Footprint Calculator. This free online calculator is designed to help model the environmental impact of workwear fabrics, so that you can instantly get a picture of a fabric’s footprint before making your selection. 

    Just select the number of garments or fabric metres, and the type of sustainable fabrics you aim to use. The calculator will then provide you with estimated figures on sustainable content usage, as well as water and CO2 reductions, compared to a conventional solution. The calculator uses partly general available data as well as proprietary data; so it’s worth keeping in mind that it provides the best possible estimate, rather than exact figures.

  • Read our case studies, where we examine how other companies have actively placed sustainability at the heart of their workwear. Why not start with our Infrabel case study, which tracks how railway infrastructure manager Infrabel translated its corporate sustainability strategy into sustainable workwear.  
1-3

10. Next steps: the selection process

When preparing to select your next sustainable fabric, it helps to consider the full value chain. We have a joint responsibility throughout the entire workwear value chain to find the best solutions for a sustainable way of providing workwear to the market. For your next selection process, consider the following areas for a more sustainable solution:

  • Sourcing
    The chain starts with the sourcing of (raw) materials. This is where recycled polyester can be selected to reduce energy consumption, and Lyocell as a way to reduce water usage.

  • Fabrics
    The second step is to select a high performing sustainable fabric that offers the ultimate wearing experience (in terms of moisture management, softness, comfort), as well as long-lasting looks.

  • Garment manufacturers
    The third step is to produce a high-quality garment: this is where the garment manufacturer comes into play. The garment maker can take responsibility by minimising the use of material as much as possible, as well as selecting sustainable yarns, zippers and striping. They can also look at the packaging of their material to reduce the use of plastic.

  • End users
    Next in line is the end user, who should be aware of their responsibility to reduce their environmental impact. It's not just the environmental and social aspects that matter; end users can also enhance their corporate image and invest in their employees' wellbeing by using sustainable fabrics in their workwear.

  • Laundries
    The last party in the workwear value chain that needs to be taken into account are industrial laundries. They play an important role in the process, as the washing and drying process have a significant environmental impact. Fabric suppliers can help industrial laundries by developing sustainable fabrics that are designed for energy-efficient laundering.

Peace of mind: the Environmental Product Declaration

All of the partners in the work

wear value chain should aim for high-quality and comfortable workwear with the smallest environmental footprint possible. These “green” claims need to be substantiated. That is where the EPD® — or Environmental Product Declaration — comes in.

EPD_cover-6

The EPD® document is a type III declaration compliant with ISO 14025, which makes the environmental impact throughout the manufacturing chain more transparent. It provides relevant and verified information about the lifecycle environmental impact of products. It includes, for example, the impacts associated with a garment’s production, such as raw material acquisition, energy use and efficiency, the content of materials and chemical substances, emissions to air, soil and water and waste generation.

Sustainability: a core part of the future of protective fabrics

It’s clear that thinking sustainably must be embedded into workwear and PPE clothing in order for the textiles industry to significantly improve its environmental impact. No matter what part of the value chain you represent, TenCate Protective Fabrics is here to help when it comes to making more informed choices next time you are selecting your sustainable fabric solution.

4-3

Let us help you

Feel free to get in touch with us today for more information on any of the aspects discussed in this guide. Our specialist team will be more than happy to assist you.

Get in touch