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Are biobased textiles really viable? Talking about castor oil and viscose

«Our goal is to create products made of compostable bioplastics» – exploring sustainable fabrics and yarns to make a change. In conversation with Creative Director Alberto Pezzato

Rubelli decided to work with an EVO biopolymer produced from castor oil, which is emerging as a raw material because it can be utilized in different industrial applications. Also, it proved to be more sustainable than other alternatives such as corn oil or sugar cane oil – thanks to the fact that it is not used for the food industry, and it grows in desert areas, despite not being compostable. Because of the wide range of applications of castor oil and its derivatives in various sectors, the world castor seed production has increased from 1.055 million tons in 2003 to 1.440 million tons in 2013 according to a report about Sustainable Chemical Process report from 2016 regarding ‘Castor oil as a potential renewable resource for the production of functional materials’, with India being the leading producer and accounting for over 75% of the total production followed by China and Brazil each accounting for 12.5% and 5.5% respectively. «We wanted an eco-friendlier nylon, and we were looking for an environmentally sustainable nylon made with bio-renewable sources that do not conflict with plants for human consumption», explains Alberto Pezzato, Rubelli’s Creative Director. «The outcome is a fiber not too shiny, not too opaque, strong and versatile». As resistant as nylon crafted from fossil sources, EVO yarn is the compromise Rubelli design studio found at the moment, but the aim is to find a 100% recyclable and compostable material in the next future. «Maintaining the balance between aesthetics and the commitment of being more sustainable is challenging – our eco-friendly line is still not fully recyclable», says Pezzato, to ensure transparency in communicating their collection, which features a high percentage of viscose, a topic that is raising attention in the field. Viscose is a fabric derived from the cellulose of fast-growing trees such as eucalyptus, beech, pine, and plants such as bamboo and sugar cane. This cellulose material is dissolved in a chemical solution to produce a viscous substance. The two main concerns regarding viscose come from the wood pulp source and the processes to turn it into a fabric, which is highly polluting and releases toxic chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding production plants. The production of viscose is contributing to habitat destruction and forest depletion. «We add to the fabric a viscose which comes almost exclusively from traceable supply chain. Our goal for the future is to create products made of compostable bio-plastics – recycled and recyclable – while still ensuring to customers that fabric is durable and resistant».

Alberto Pezzato, Rubelli’s creative director, points out that «the markets demand for more sustainable products and a wider range of eco-friendly solutions when it comes to yarns and fabrics encouraged us to experiment in this direction». A selection of five bio-based fabrics, made with a viscose weft and a bio-sourced fiber, a yarn produced from biological extracts of castor beans, a not-for-feeding plant that grows spontaneously and without the use of pesticides, making it a renewable resource that does not require high amounts of water nor subtracts arable land for food uses. Rubelli is an Italian family-firm founded in 1858 that produces fabrics for top-end furnishings, that leveraged its experience in the field with researches about eco-friendly yarns to innovate their production from a more viable point of view. 

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The furnishing accessories of the home section, Ph Beppe Brancato, Styling Alessandra Salaris

The rise in demand for eco-conscious fibers has led to a change in the textile industry, but using biobased materials for fabric production raises attention, questioning on the sustainability of this solution. Textiles include the most extensive range of biobased materials compared to any other category, and among the natural fibers, like cotton and wool, and the semi-synthetic ones, there are also fibers made from biobased plastics. For textiles, material sourcing is a matter of concern for the environmental profile – processing the raw material into fiber, turning it into fabric, and finishing the products are all contributing to pollution. Switching from non-renewable sources to renewable ones has environmental benefits, but these are overshadowed by manufacturing impacts, which causes other ecological problems. When it comes to yarn produced with corn oil, i.e., the farming carries an eco-unfriendly footprint because of the soil erosion, pesticides, water use, and land hogging. Even the fermentation process itself entails chemical transformations. It is still considered renewable since it does not involve any fossil resources. Finding sustainable alternatives for fabrics that guarantee performance — when it comes to furnishing fabrics and outdoor ones — while not damaging the environment is challenging. Plastics sourced from biological materials or biopolymers are seeing – compared to the fossil-fuel-based options – increasing market success. 

Biodegradable and compostable fabrics are one of the most awaited milestones in this industry and refer to those materials which are designed to break down within landfills or decompose thanks to microorganisms. The biodegradability of fabrics is determined by the amount of chemicals used in the textile life-cycle, meaning that the more chemicals used, the longer it takes for the material to biodegrade and causes more damage to the environment. This is not the only criteria to keep in mind when considering whether a material is eco-friendly or not: fibers, to be considered sustainable, need to undergo a production process that has a low impact on the environment and meets at least half of some criteria, such as low water and energy need, being waste-made or from renewable sources, not causing soil erosion and being GMO-free. From this point of view, research is currently going on recycled fabrics, making textile from pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. Among the many goals set for 2022, Rubelli’s aim is not restricted to finding more eco-friendly yarns but also to reducing waste and making internal waste management more viable, taking distance from the past, when remnants were thrown away instead of re-dyed and re-used. «We want to use our remnants and recycle them to create new yarns, minimizing waste and putting it all back into circulation», explains Pezzato. Talking about waste and recycle, another goal is working with mono-component, and with recyclable fabrics: «even Polypropylene can be the answer, if properly used: consumers can discard it in the plastic bin, but we have to make sure they recycle it in the right way».

Despite all the efforts, the interior design industry is still a long way from the perfect scenario compared to the fashion and the agro-alimentary ones, which pioneered the change. Even if final customer awareness is growing, mostly in northern European countries and among the younger generations, many designers and producers still prefer to use not-sustainable options for different reasons, as explains Loredana di Pascale, marketing director at Rubelli. «In the field of interior design, there is a need for education, for example, teaching consumers and producers to see the beauty of imperfection in natural products, since in nature not everything is cyclical, and small differences can be added values, instead of flaws». On the other hand, some players, such as design studios that work with furnishings for hotels and ships, are already asking for eco-friendly solutions: «they know this is the way to go, that this is an additional benefit», comments Pezzato, when asked about the market response to their sustainable collections. Becoming aware that the industry impacts the environment and understanding that this is a problem that urges a solution is already a first step, as di Pascale states. «Two years ago, we were not focusing on these issues, we were not trying to understand the impact that each step of production has, from supplying the raw material, to the consequences of their disposal on the environment, and this is already an acknowledgment» 

IMAGE GALLERY

Rubelli is an Italian family-firm founded in 1858 that produces fabrics for top-end furnishings, that leveraged its experience in the field with research about eco-friendly yarns to innovate their production from a more viable point of view. For 2021, Rubelli presented Di Varia Natura, a collection that introduces five fabrics produced from biological extracts of castor beans, proving that the fabric market is already taking a shift in this direction. 

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