Blending recycled polyester and natural hemp fibers together – are brands able to produce a more eco-friendly alternative to the workout clothes?
Merging natural hemp and recycled polyester together
Recent investigations into hemp fiber have shown that this could be an alternative to organic cotton for it being able to grow at a much faster rate and be more breathable than other synthetic fibers. The antibacterial qualities of the hemp fiber also allow t-shirts and other garments to be worn several times without a need to be washed after a single use. The brands that are using hemp fiber on its own have however highlighted the many issues that they have faced along the way. The fiber being is difficult to work with and creates holes in the garments; prices have to match the manufacturing costs and make a profit. This means that there are many reasons as to why there hasn’t been a surge of interest in hemp products in recent years as it seems impractical to continue to produce these garments when there isn’t a huge customer market out there who can afford these pieces. This lack of profit in the natural hemp garment market has led to further investigations into how potentially we can blend this natural fiber with other synthetic fibers. Companies such as Salewa have started to create a blend called ‘Alpine Hemp’ which allows them to merge natural hemp and recycled polyester together to create a stretcher material which has less of a negative environmental impact than other purely synthetic garments – even if the question stands: mixing natural fibers with synthetic material is a good idea?
Sports garment with a less damaging environmental impact
When it comes to creating sportswear out of 100% natural hemp fiber it can be difficult to make garments that are suitable for movement as hemp doesn’t have a lot of stretch to it. Where sportswear is in general made from synthetic fibers which allow flexible movement, it has been difficult to replicate that with a natural fiber. By blending the two fibers together, companies have started using recycled polyester to help continue the life cycle of fibers for longer, rather than producing brand new polyester for these garments. Recycled polyester (otherwise known as rPET) uses the raw polyester that is found in plastic water bottles. These bottles are sterilized, crushed and then spun into a yarn so that they can be used as fiber for materials. By replacing polyester with rPET, there are less fossil fuels needed in the process which means that less greenhouse gases are emitted during the process. Eight million tons of plastic are put into our oceans every year and so by repurposing these single use plastics and turning them into a fiber we are able to reduce the amount of waste plastics that we emit into our environment after one use. The production of recycled polyester requires 59% less energy than new polyester (according to a study in 2017) and the manufacturing process doesn’t extract crude oil or natural gas from the Earth. With recycled polyester the end cycles of clothing are longer as this is a stronger fiber so it can be reused time and time again meaning that less plastic is ending up in landfills due to a longer lasting fiber replacing polyester that is much more easily disposable.
The issues of using recycled polyester: microplastics
Just like new polyester, rPET sheds microplastics when it is washed which then end up in the ocean causing more plastic waste. This is something that can be reduced by using washing machine bags such as GuppyFriend which catch the microplastics in the wash, however this isn’t a perfect solution and doesn’t ensure that no microplastics make their way into the ocean. Another risk of using rPET is that it can contain chemicals which are harmful to your skin and even if textile experts reassure us that the content of these chemicals in the fiber is not high enough to cause real damage, it doesn’t help with the worry that some people may have when wearing garments made out of rPET. This fiber might be called recycled polyester but it is not actually as easy to recycle as first thought, especially when blended with other fibers in the way that it is in Alpine Hemp. Companies who produce this fiber often lack the correct machinery and infrastructure to be able break down the plastic correctly for it to be able to be reused. This makes it difficult to recycle the fabric as sometimes it has to be mixed with other fibers to be strong enough to create a garment with. rPET garments are also not able to be heated down and recycled infinitely because each time it is melted, parts of the plastic are emitted into our environment. The overall process requires less energy when producing this fiber but there is still plastic waste being produced each time due to the manufacturing process. While recycled polyester is a vast improvement to creating new polyester every time, there are still environmental damages and repercussions when using this ‘sustainable’ fiber.
Blended fibers taking that step from synthetic sportswear to a more natural garment
When it comes to blending recycled polyester with the natural hemp fiber, like they do at Salewa, there are factors to consider. Sportswear (which is what they focus on mainly) requires stretch and breathability to be able to be successful for those who take part in extreme sports. By blending the natural hemp fiber with rPET, they are able to ensure that these criteria are met. When they started developing Alpine Hemp they realized that hemp has natural self-cleaning properties due to it being anti-bacterial. This means that these garments don’t need to be washed quite so frequently as they almost clean themselves. Despite rPET still emitting microplastics when it is washed, with it being needed to be washed less frequently, we can ultimately reduce the amount of microplastics entering our oceans. Another feature of this hybrid material is its ability to regulate the body’s temperature. Its thermoregulating ability ensures that you stay warm when it’s cold out, and cool when it’s hot out, which is a vital property of the fabric for those who climb mountains in the height of summer and winter. The blended fiber, Alpine Hemp, allows you to take that step from synthetic sportswear to a more natural garment without losing the elasticity that is beneficial from polyester. While it doesn’t prevent all microplastics from being exposed to the environment, it lessens the amount and allows you to explore natural fibers until there is a completely sustainable solution. To note is that the breathability of the pure hemp fiber has not been jeopardized when blended with a synthetic fiber.
An improvement from completely synthetic products
When speaking to Christine Ladstaetter, the Innovation and Special Projects Manager at Salewa, she admitted that while this hybrid material is not a perfect solution, it is a positive step in the right direction for Salewa. «Even if we only blend recycled polyester into our garments, only a part of our products are actually biodegradable». This means that, despite synthetic fibers not being able to biodegrade, hemp fiber is able to, and so half of each garment can biodegrade which is an improvement from other, completely synthetic products. At this moment in time, this blending of natural and synthetic fibers is a necessary step for Salewa to take when producing their new products and materials. Until they can learn how to use these natural fibers on their own to produce successful products, Salewa are focusing on learning as much as they can from the natural fibers to ensure that they can continue to progress towards a more sustainable future. This hybrid approach to sustainable fashion allows Salewa to blend the traditional parts of their culture with new technology to create brand new products. By experimenting with various collaborators, Salewa has been able to produce a new hybrid fiber that will hopefully change the face of sustainable fashion as we continue to look for more sustainable clothing choices within the upcoming years. While Alpine Hemp might not be a perfect sustainable solution, it is a more environmentally friendly alternative to the synthetic sportswear garments that are currently on the market. It may still emit microplastics into our environments and it may not be able to be completely compostable like pure hemp garments, but it is allowing the fashion industry to investigate further into how to create these garments in a more sustainable way. While this research is underway, and more solutions are discussed, Alpine Hemp allows us to reduce our carbon footprint in the meantime.
Based in the Italian Alps, Salewa creates mountain climbing products for local mountaineers out of a newly developed Alpine Hemp composition. This fiber is grown, blended and turned into products out in Northern China before being shipped over to Italy to be sold to their customers. Alpine Hemp is composed of hemp, recycled polyester, organic cotton and recycled elastane to produce a material that can easily be woven together to create longer lasting, environmentally friendly products with a longer end of life cycle.