Greening the Textile Industry: Seattle's O Ecotextiles

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Seattle-based textile producer O Ecotextiles is hoping to set an example that will raise standards across the textile industry. Founders Leigh Anne Van Dusen and Patty Grossman have set an ambitious mission for their company:

"to change the way textiles are made by proving that it's possible to produce luxurious, sensuous fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable."

O Ecotextiles got its start in 2004 when Van Dusen couldn't find a truly non-toxic or environmentally safe fabric with which to re-upholster her sofa. Motivated by the belief that the things we bring into our homes should not be harmful to our health or the environment, Van Dusen and her sister, Patty Grossman, set out to create what didn't seem to exist: sustainable textiles. Though there were few in the industry using sustainable practices at the time, they were able to find innovative thinkers like designer Emily Todhunter and textile manufacturer Keshi Ikeuchi to help them get started. Todhunter and O Ecotextiles designed a line of fabrics that Todhunter uses in many of the residential and commercial interiors she designs. Ikeuchi was one of a handful of mill owners that O Ecotextiles found who was already beginning to use sustainable manufacturing practices, including getting 100 percent of his mill's energy supply from wind power.

ecotextiles2.jpgWhy sustainable textiles?
The issue reaches far beyond sofas and curtains. Textile production makes up the second-largest industry in the world, after agriculture. The industry employs more than 32 million people, only 750,000 of whom live in the U.S. Textile manufacturing is an incredibly resource-intense process, requiring vast quantities of water and chemicals to turn fibers into yarn, then into fabric. One-half of the world’s contaminated wastewater -- approximately 53 billion gallons -- flows from textile mills. And conventional textile manufacturing uses more than 2,000 toxic substances, including heavy metals such as lead, chromium, and mercury, tons of which end up being released into the environment every year. Years after the production process, these conventionally produced fabrics off-gas chemical fumes that are harmful to human health.

How are O Ecotextiles' fabrics different?
O Ecotextiles starts with natural, organic fibers such as hemp, cotton, linen or bamboo, and then takes every opportunity to replace toxic chemicals normally used in the production process with non-toxic alternatives. During the first stage of the production process where fibers are strengthened for processing, traditionally by applying chemical glues, they use either potato starch or nothing at all. At the bleaching step, where the yarn is whitened, O Ecotextiles uses ozone as the bleaching agent, rather than hypochlorites or hydrogen peroxides. At the dyeing stage, they use low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes, which react with the fabric to achieve the desired color. During finishing, one of the final stages of the process, many textile manufacturers use silicon or belonium chloride to soften the fabric. Here, O Ecotextiles uses natural softeners like beeswax, aloe vera or vitamin E. Lastly, O Ecotextiles treats the water used during processing by recapturing solid waste and neutralizing the pH via enzymes and bacteria to ensure that aquatic systems are not harmed by the manufacturing process.

What is the future of sustainable textiles?
When O Ecotextiles started, there was a very small market for sustainably produced textiles. But over the last year or two, Van Dusen and Grossman have seen textile producers, interior designers, and consumers shift their interest towards greener products, and they hope to see increased demand for sustainable textiles over the next few years. The sisters feel that consumer demand is the key to creating change in the textile industry, and the consumer education is the key to spurring this demand.

To learn more, check Ecotextile News and the U.S. EPA Profile of the Textiles Industry report.

Photos courtesy of O Ecotextiles.

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