The Nexus of Digital Textiles and Sustainability

Determine the right media on your step toward going ‘green.’

Before talking about sustainability, it’s important to start with its definition. Coming from the perspective of the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) and SGIA, it’s the triple bottom line. This approach combines standard metrics of financial achievement with those that measure environmental stewardship and social issues. All three need to be considered when judging the success of a sustainable business. When discussing sustainability and digital textiles, we consider overarching sustainability factors that often drive the decisions of printers as well as customers. The three factors that spring to mind are greenhouse gas emissions, the issue of toxic chemicals, and recyclability or recycled content. All are drivers for the use of digital textile printing.

But before we begin to look at this topic, a caution. There are no certifications for digital textile materials that set one above another. And, this article is not suggesting that if all factors are considered, it becomes a “sustainable” or “green” product. What we are seeking to offer is food for thought: factors to be considered when debating the use of one material or another. Ultimately, the decision regarding the use of a substrate depends on the use of the final product, as well as the need of the customer.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions lead one to calculate a carbon footprint. The primary sources of these gases are generated through production of electricity, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels. A carbon footprint is often defined as the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, or product, expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalent. Once calculated, a lower carbon footprint indicates a reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Digital textiles can be viewed as a pathway to a lower carbon footprint. Reduced weight in shipping the final printed product can lead to lower shipping costs. If quantified, the production of the printed textile with less energy can lead to a reduced carbon footprint – both desirable outcomes.

Toxic Chemicals
The focus on chemicals found in all substrates that do not contain toxins continues. This push is driven by both environmental and health concerns. The driver of building rating systems continues to push the need for materials to be used that do not contain identified toxins. The most often cited standard, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is a certification program targeted primarily on new, commercial-building projects and based upon a points system. Well Building Standards, closely modeled on LEED, focuses exclusively on occupant health, which is just one of the numerous factors in LEED. Both standards provide higher points for non-toxic materials.

Recyclability or recycled content is also a strong sustainability driver when discussing digital textiles. When considering these claims, PSPs need to understand the differences between recycled content and recyclability. According to the Federal Trade Commission, recycled content claims can only be made for materials that have been recovered or otherwise diverted from the waste stream, either during the manufacturing process (pre-consumer) or after consumer use.

To make a claim of recyclability, it must be shown that the product can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream for reuse, or in the manufacturing or assembly of another package or product, through an established recycling program that is available to 60 percent of consumers.

The use of any material that leads to a lower carbon footprint, contains less (or zero) toxic materials, or has a good story to tell regarding end of life – such as recycling – does indeed exhibit sustainable attributes. But the use of such a substrate by a printing company does not, on its own, create a sustainable business. A sustainable print operation is one that embraces and embeds sustainable practices into its entire operation, thus considering the impacts on the planet and the people that work in the facility while maintaining a strong bottom line. For printing, sustainability is not just about the product, but it’s a good place to start.

Read more from Big Picture's November/December 2017 issue featuring the first-ever Interior Décor & Textiles special edition.

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