Nanotechnology, the scientific process of manipulating matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale is revolutionising fashion by manipulating fabrics for sustainable operations within the industry. Beginning in the mid 2000s, fashion manufacturers began incorporating nanotechnology though silver nanoparticles which were built into their fabrics. The silver nanoparticles are antimicrobial, meaning that they kill bacteria which causes bad odours.
2017, dubbed ‘the year sustainable fashion got sexy’ by Vogue, fashion contributors and thinkers began looking into the future of fabrics and how the second most polluting industry in the world would be instrumental in a sustainable future. The year opened up the industry to many and new ways of conducting business, but most importantly it showcased the materials which the future of fashion could benefit from and pushed nano textiles into mainstream media.
The incorporation of nanotechnology in the development of new materials in the fashion industry is substantial. The industry has two options, on the one hand existing functionality can be improved using nanotechnology and the other option would introduce the manufacturing of textiles with entirely new properties or the combination of different functions in one textile material. My view is that the current status quo does not allow for us to make a decision between the two options, both options will be viable for different times in scientific and technological advancement.
The benefits of nano textiles
A first generation of nano-enhanced textiles benefitted from nano fishing, a process of coating the surface of textiles and clothing with nanoparticles. Nano fishing can be used in support of the first option, enhancing existing functionality by coating highly active surfaces to have UV-blocking, antimicrobial, antistatic, flame retardant, water and oil repellent, wrinkle resistant and self-cleaning properties. Highlighting these properties made possible by nanotechnology is useful for the fashion industry to decide which of its everyday functions will require improvement.
These innovations are meant to improve the exposure of active surfaces to the surrounding environment by making use of nano-specific properties. For example, UV-blocking, self cleaning and flame retardant properties are exerted by nano-metal oxide coatings while antimicrobial properties are exerted by nano silver coatings. Although this knowledge is inherent to nanotechnologies and its experts, it is important for fabric and clothing manufacturers interested in sustainable operations to know the basics of what will benefit them. Some manufacturers are already using nanotechnology on clothing items such as socks and t-shirts to prevent odours and dirt.
Nanotechnology has shown us how instrumental it can be in improving environmental responses to textiles and clothes, but we also have to consider its disadvantages. Nano material enhanced textiles are struggling to infiltrate the commercial market because the added nano properties come off when the clothes are washed. Nano coatings on textiles are insufficient, unstable and can release harmful metals into the environment when sent to landfill.
The obstacles of nano textiles
Although nano textiles are high functioning at first, improving everyday production functionality for manufacturers alone will not be enough. The particles being released into the environment, not harmful to humans though, still pose a threat to aquatic and wildlife that might otherwise ingest those particles. This is where my idea to embrace both options available to the fashion industry through nanotechnologies comes in. The industry would benefit more from nanotechnology by researching ways to create a combination of different functions in one textile material.
There are many ideas related to nano textiles and its advancement, like a wearable textile battery that can be charged by sunlight. The new innovations are characterised by lessening harmful properties and not completely killing them off. This is the direction that second generation nano engineers are taking, realising that environmental sustainability is a gradual process and cannot be completely fixed with one idea. The environment is a web of different working functions, all useful in their nature, which pushes engineers, scientists and technology experts to enhance all the useful environmental functions through nanotechnology by eliminating the human element of destruction.
Newer nano textiles have their own issues, although not thoroughly studied, and present lots of potential in assisting the fashion industry to reduce their environmental impact. It is in the interests of the industry to recognise the disadvantages of nanotechnologies in comparison to its temporary usefulness. The industry can enhance everyday functionality by adopting nano practises. The long term functionality of this solution will be determined by how effectively nano particles can be adopted through scientific and technological advancement to create a combination of different functions in one nano textile material.