The designer’s narratives provided insight into their understanding of and consideration for the potential human health and environmental impacts of interior textiles throughout the product life cycle. Content analysis of these designers’ narratives on the topic of sustainability (or DfE) as it relates to the design and development of commercial and residential interior textiles revealed six themes that coalesce around the stages of the product life cycle: raw material selection; textile fabrication; textile finishes and treatments; product packaging and transportation; consumer purchase, use, and care; and post-consumer use. The designers’ narratives also revealed how engagement with and/or responsibilities toward stakeholders supported their efforts toward creating sustainable interior textile products.
Raw material selection
Material selection, specifically choice of fibers, was a common theme in the designer’s narratives on product design for interior textiles. When discussing material selection, multiple designers expressed concerns regarding the human health and environmental impacts of interior textiles, although such concerns were not usually the primary or singular factor in their decision-making. For example, one participant explained that the decision to use natural and/or synthetic fibers in interior textiles involved environmental considerations as well as esthetic or performance characteristics (i.e., drape):
I found a completely recycled fabric…50 % organic cotton, 30 % organic hemp and some recycled polyester. There are a lot of folks who feel differently about polyester…but I knew having some polyester in the fabric was going to help as far as draping…So I folded it and tested it and looked at how it would drape. (Participant 1)
For this designer, the selection of a material constructed from organic fibers and recycled polyester presented an ideal compromise because the desired esthetic or performance is achieved with minimal environmental impact, specifically through the reuse of waste material through recycling. DfE designers participating in this study also expressed the idea that, at times, esthetic or performance needs may limit the selection of sustainable raw materials, as conveyed in the following quote:
If we’re looking at a colorful panel, but we need to do it in a recycled polyester…but then a post-industrial recycled polyester doesn’t take color as well as a post-consumer recycled [polyester] might, so it might deter us from using that yarn because we cannot get the colors we want. (Participant 6)
This quote suggests that options for recycled raw materials within the DfE framework may be influenced by original product use (i.e., industrial vs. consumer); however, this opinion on esthetic quality may have been influenced strictly by the designer’s individual experience. The performance qualities of post-industrial and post-consumer recycled materials cannot be generalized because the esthetic quality of the color would likely be dependent upon the specific material and the specific dye technique. Another participant noted an esthetic concern with respect to printing on blended fibers.
Because of the recycled (polyester) content in combination with the natural (fiber) content, you get a lot of variation in the color of the fibers and you also get a lot of little slugs in the fibers and because it’s only surface printing…if a little slug is raised then there is no printing there. (Participant 1)
This designer experienced difficulty with both the color consistency and the surface quality of a base cloth due to the fiber choice. The concern evident in this quote is the impact the fiber choice may have on the final product, especially when using a surface printing method.
The designers’ narratives demonstrated a rich understanding of the potential human health and environmental impacts of selected raw materials. When speaking about a textile wall covering, one participant provided a more comprehensive explanation for material selection, stating that it “had a really nice sustainability profile, good recycle content, it didn’t contain PVC [polyvinyl chloride], POAs [polyalphaolefins] or any harsh chemicals, very low VOC [volatile organic compound] emissions” (participant 1). Designers also conveyed understanding of how material selection may diminish the human health and environmental impacts of interior textiles at later stages of the product life cycle. One participant stated that material selection was directly influenced by fiber decomposition at the end-of-life stage of the product life cycle:
The materials I’ve chosen to use are kinds of materials that literally can be put into a landfill and biodegrade, they’re not just sitting there forever. (Participant 5)
In order to reduce the amount of product that ends up in landfills at the end-of-life stage of the product life cycle, this designer chose materials that would be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.
Textile fabrication: weaving, printing and dyeing
A second theme of discussion was textile fabrication, which involves decisions related to weaving, printing, and dyeing processes. The designers’ narratives revealed that textile fabrication methods are selected for a variety of reasons, including market demand; preferences or requirements for esthetics, pattern design, and quality; a designer’s experience with various processes, and environmental impacts. Six of the participants represented companies that strictly design woven textiles, whereas the other six represented companies that engage in the design of printed textiles, or both woven and printed textiles.
With respect to textile fabrication, participants addressed the direct relationship between human health and environmental impact when discussing digital printing only. Two DfE-oriented designers specifically noted an environmental benefit of using digital textile printing technology because, unlike screen printing, which requires cutting large screens based on each design, a digital printer can quickly translate and produce patterns with little labor and less fabric for testing. As such, smaller yardage minimums are required for digital printing production and designers are able to print small runs of their fabrics to sell according to demand, thus reducing the potential for waste in the form of unused fabric.
Although most participants were not directly involved in the selection of textile dyes used in the printing processes, four participants explicitly noted the role of dye and print professionals in improving product sustainability, stating that they deliberately opted to work with textile mills that used “environmentally” or “water-based” dyes. For example, when asked about the criteria for choosing a textile printer, one designer stated “it’s all water based (dyes), not solvent based so it still fits my parameters of being sustainable and eco” (participant 5). Another designer, who worked in a screen print facility and was directly involved in dye decisions, explained that water-based dyes are less toxic than other dyes, but noted that water-based dyes may include additives to improve the performance (e.g., colorfastness, stain resistance) of the finished product:
Our pigments are water based and low tox[icity]…base products are essentially a binder, a thickener and our base pigment, our saturated base pigment, and there are other variable elements…let’s just call them, for lack of a better word-chemicals, that you would add to things to [create] different properties maybe, you add another additive when you print on an already treated material and that helps it suck into the fiber which is kind of like rubbing alcohol. You might add a mildew [resistant] or UV [protectant] additive so the pigment lasts longer in direct sunlight. For most pigments you typically don’t add any of those things, it’s water, it’s a binder, it’s a thickener and a base color. (Participant 7)
This quote demonstrates the variety of components that may be integrated into a dye as well as the potential for additives to be integrated early in the life cycle of the textile product, including into dyes that are considered to be less harmful to human health and the environment.
When discussing textile fabrication/product manufacturing, multiple participants addressed their partnerships with a key stakeholder group—textile mills and/or production factories. As noted by one participant, decisions to work with mills or factories were often based upon a shared commitment to the environment:
From a conscious level of being a provider of textiles we make sure that mills are behaving properly and that’s also on how they deal with their water, their dyes, their machinery and down to are they using recycled boxes. (Participant 4)
This quote conveys the textile company’s holistic sense of responsibility to ensuring that production practices—all the way through to product packaging methods—at the mills they choose to work with are aligned with their own company’s values. Another participant, who works for a company that utilizes US manufacturing, touched on the difficulty of finding partners overseas that share the company’s values:
As of now we have not done anything in Asia, it’s not out of the question we just haven’t found the right partner, there’s a lot of things we don’t agree with when we try to do business out there. (Participant 6)
When discussing textile fabrication, participants frequently addressed partnerships with NGOs, specifically third-party organizations, such as the Association of Contract Textiles (ACT), the GOTS, and the ISO, which provide standards, testing, certification for textiles, and/or monitoring of environmental and social records for mills. Multiple participants cited third-party organizations, including factory monitors/inspectors, as important stakeholders in their efforts to minimize the human health and environmental impacts of interior textile products. For example, the ISO’s production standards and certifications can be used to assess factory performance related to working conditions and environmental impacts:
In all honesty in my opinion within the world of textiles, whether it’s clothing or textiles it’s not a very environmental idea, the dyes into yarn, you’re getting into factors that are not necessarily great for the environment. And I will not stand here and say to you that I am fully versed in environmental aspects of products. What I can tell you is that every mill that we work with goes through a very strong background check from us in terms of being ISO 9000 certified, I believe is the number [for clarification, ISO 14000 and 26000 are the numbers currently used by the ISO], and everyone is on board in terms of their practices, what happens in their mills, water consumption, recyclability, how they treat their employees. When we work with mills overseas like India, do they have the proper work environment? All of that is signed off on. (Participant 4)
As another participant noted, partnering with third parties provides a greater level of assurance with respect to the human and environmental impacts of production:
The (fabrics) are coming from a company that focuses on how the workers are treated, how the fibers are being grown, all those kinds of things, but to a certain degree you have to rely on third-parties for those things. (Participant 1)
Explicit in these quotes is the reliance that these designers place upon NGOs in evaluating and monitoring factory performance in support of sustainable textile production.
With respect to the third-party standards employed by their own companies, participants’ narratives also revealed some limitations in the scope of current human health and environmental standards and certifications:
It’s hemp that I focus on, you know you can’t even get hemp certified it’s just not in the parameters [of GOTS]. (Participant 5)
The suggestion here is that some companies might be engaged in sustainable practices but do not engage in the third-party certification or labeling owing to the fact that not all materials or processes are addressed within third-party standards. Further, it is implied that NGOs could play an even greater role in advancing the development and production of sustainable interior textile products by expanding the scope of their certifications or regulations. One participant specifically noted that his/her company worked to achieve higher standards than those addressed in third-party certifications:
We look at third-party certifications as a bench mark of where we want to go from, we’re really trying to do better than to just hit that [benchmark]. (Participant 6)
Although organizations such as ACT offer sustainability tools (e.g., checklists and certifications), some compliant companies may rely more on self monitoring and, thus, may be incorporating sustainable practices that exceed third-party standards. Also, the general lack of enforcement of such standards was noted as problematic with respect to how products are marketed:
What I believe would help is more accountability…I think there should be a third-party team…(that) would actually do something when people don’t do what they say they’re doing, putting things out there like vinyl which is a proven human carcinogen and putting it next to green vinyl or recycled vinyl. (Participant 6)
This quote highlights the lack of oversight and authority among NGOs to prevent “greenwashing.” This may, in part, be attributed to the voluntary nature of partnering with an NGO such as GOTS, wherein the NGO only has the authority to certify a company that requests certification. Further, for voluntary certifications such as GOTS, the only discipline a company may face for noncompliance is the removal of the certification label.
Another participant alluded to the magnitude of factors that need to be considered when attempting to assess sustainability and the need for comprehensive evaluation system or tool would benefit product designers/developers, mills, and consumers:
Years down the road [sustainability] might be something that is more strictly enforced and be a standard…because there are so many different aspects, there are thousands (of) different aspects that make one textile look really environmental…I think having that tool simplifies it for not only the mill but the developers…the consumers so they really know what they're buying and having it simple and comprehensive. (Participant 8)
Finishes and treatments
The third theme identified through content analysis was textile finishes and treatments. Although textiles can be treated at different points throughout the weaving and printing processes, a majority of the participants addressed finishes that were applied after the textile is manufactured. The designers explained that chemical finishes are applied to the textiles for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, industry imposed standards (i.e., flame-retardant, antimicrobial) and market demands related to performance (i.e., UV protection, stain resistance). One participant explained that contract textiles—textiles used in hospitals, offices, and schools—need to be high-performance materials meaning that they need to be more durable, to withstand cleaning by harsher chemicals, and to follow state and federal guidelines for safety:
We choose finishes based on the market that we want to go after…for instance, we have a textile coming out we want to market towards a higher education application and hospitality, both of those fields look for high abrasion results and for stain resistance, and kind of bigger, more hefty [fabrics]. It’s probably not going to get a lot of wear so we probably won’t finish it at all. (Participant 8)
Three DfE-oriented designers also discussed the importance of exploring nanotechnology, the science of modifying the fiber on a molecular level to increase performance, as an alternative to chemical finishes. Although these designers seem to suggest that the application of nanotechnology to textiles may reduce negative impacts, it should be acknowledged that the full human health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials are unknown (i.e., understudied) at this time (Nanotechnology textiles 2010; Rivera, Seely, and Sutherland 2012). Almost all of the participants, however, acknowledged that the healthiest textiles are the ones without any finish treatment:
We are really big believers in no finish is the best finish…there are many finishes that won’t allow bacteria to grow, but then the finish is bad for the environment, bad for you to inhale so we don’t go that route. (Participant 6)
This participant’s position demonstrates the dilemma associated with the use of some chemical treatments, which is that although a finish may eliminate one problem, such as bacteria, it also may create other health and environmental problems. Another participant echoed the notion that the “greenest” approach is to avoid the use of finishes altogether, and explained how one stakeholder group—customers’ concerns over finishes at the consumption stage of the product life cycle—influenced the company’s decisions related to its product assortment:
A few companies offer greener options as far as finishes…but the greenest way to finish a fabric honestly is not to finish it at all. And it really comes down to the market, for instance, in California, a lot of people won’t use fabrics that have any finishes so we do warehouse a few of our popular fabrics that come with a standard finish, [or] without a finish. (Participant 8)
Packaging and transportation
Product packaging and transportation also was a theme in the participating designers’ narratives on interior textile products. More than half of the participants indicated that their companies sourced materials or manufactured component parts of the textile product through mills in the USA, Europe, and/or Asia. When discussing issues of waste, cost, carbon footprint, and chemicals related to sourcing and production, all participants expressed the desire to reduce the negative impacts of packaging and transportation. However, the designers implied that the ways in which products are packed and shipped were outside their personal control/responsibility, either because the product was packaged at the mill or because it was handled by another department in their company. One participant expressed awareness of package waste but also implied that the amount of waste could only be determined at the end of the transportation chain and that the responsibility for how things are packed was in the hands of another employee:
Some of our rugs, they’re in a bag inside a bag, inside a bag, and then we re-bag them. It’s something our warehouse manager has been looking at, but it takes looking at something after a container comes in and broken down and product put on shelves, the amount of waste is a lot. (Participant 10)
Another participant demonstrated a holistic approach to using environmentally sensitive materials for daily operations, including business communications and product packaging:
I print all my [letter] head on it (hemp paper), I print my business cards on it, I use recycled brown tissue paper and recycled brown pages for my products…I use recycled paper from [name omitted] if I’m sending pages and pages of my eco data to someone. (Participant 5)
The participants also tended to view the method of transportation as outside the scope of their control or responsibility. One participant, however, addressed transportation issues in a comparison of carbon footprints when sourcing cotton fabric in India versus the USA:
Three or four years ago I tried to analyze the carbon footprint of India vs. U.S. production …in the United States the fabric was bouncing around from so many different locations [but it’s] fully vertical in India. The footprint in India was much larger, but not as drastic as you would think. Trucking [U.S.] is so much more carbon intensive than boat, which is how the fabric gets to us [from India], by boat and then by train. (Participant 3)
The implication here is that US sourcing, which often involves horizontally integrated production (i.e., weaving, dyeing, and finishing occurring at separate locations), compared to vertically integrated production in another country may generate a larger negative environmental impact during the production and distribution stages of the product life cycle owing to greater reliance on truck transportation throughout the production processes. A study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (2013) indicating that heavy-duty trucks account for 22 %, aircraft accounts for 8 %, and boats account for only 3 % of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the transportation sector lends some support to this implication.
Another concern at the transportation phase of the interior textile life cycle was the use of chemicals to protect freight while being shipped. One participant claimed that formaldehyde is frequently used in containers shipped from countries such as China and India:
I don’t care if it was organic in India or organic in China because it has then been sprayed with formaldehyde when it’s brought into this country so it’s really no longer organic and that is a really amazing awareness to have, especially when the marketplace advertised this as such desired quality…in essence unless it’s been flown in, that’s the only thing that prevents it from being sprayed with formaldehyde…that element is very important because on top of the carbon footprint, which is huge because you’re shipping something from another country, you’re also exposing it to formaldehyde which negates the organic element. (Participant 7)
Research suggests that fumigants are used in shipping containers and can be harmful to the health of workers, even those who handle clothing; however, the claim specific to organic textiles is not addressed in the current research (Preisser et al. 2012). This quote raises yet another issue regarding the human health and environmental impact resulting from the selected method of product transport, specifically the potentially harmful chemicals or other substances that fabrics or products might be exposed to during this phase. This participant’s account of chemical use at the transport stage suggests that exposure to chemicals influences human health and the organic nature of a product, and, therefore, textiles should only be air freighted when sourced internationally. Further implied is that what happens during the transportation stage should be transparent to the consumer, in particular, for credibility of an organic-labeled product.
Consumer purchase, use, and care
The designers’ narratives with respect to creating more sustainable interior textiles also addressed consumer purchase, use, and care and included observations about consumer demand, knowledge, and education related to interior textiles. Although the market for sustainable textile products appears to be relatively small, analysis revealed a shared perception among participants regarding an increase in consumer demand for, as well as a growing availability of, DfE products and materials over time. As the following quote implies, consumers are playing an increasingly important stakeholder role in the advancement of sustainable interior textiles:
There’s more organic cotton, more choices in construction of weaves, because customers are asking for it, even interior designers ask for it. I’m amazed that they say “I’m coming in because you’re offering an eco-fabric and I can’t find it around here”. I never heard that when I started out, they were like “What does it mean? I thought organics were only in food.” (Participant 5)
These designers also perceived an increase in consumer demand for information about or knowledge of the potential human health and environmental impacts of the textile manufacturing processes:
The textile supply chain is a fairly deep and long one and accessing data from far upstream has become more important to our end customers, there’s a lot of demand for transparency whether that be around issues of …how employees are treated…chemical inputs and their potential health hazard, it could be related to energy and carbon aspect. (Participant 11)
This observation suggests that consumers are developing a more sophisticated understanding of the textile product supply chain that may, in turn, inform a more holistic assessment of the potential human health and environmental impacts throughout the product life cycle among designers and consumers alike.
The participants also noted an increase in consumer knowledge of issues surrounding the production of sustainable textiles; however, four participants addressed the need to further educate consumers about the human health and environmental impacts of interior textile products. One participant specifically noted the need to educate consumers about the issue of off-gassing and poor indoor air quality, which can occur in the home environment through the use of glues and stain-resistant finishes on carpeting, upholstered furniture, and other textile products:
You have the whole process of educating people on…bringing materials into your home that may be off-gassing and how much time they spend inside. (Participant 1)
Another participant expressed the importance of consumer education in the context of DfE-oriented design and specifically, and explicitly, addressed the designers’ role as educators:
I think my calling is probably education and doing more on that because I think what’s really missing is that the consumer doesn’t understand why it (sustainability) is important and unless somebody tells that story they’re not really going to know. (Participant 3)
The implication here is that education about the importance of sustainability would likely be understood and well received if it was provided in a manner (i.e., story) that is relevant to the consumer. The designers’ narratives also conveyed a shared role and responsibility for educating consumers—for providing the information and knowledge needed so that consumers may make fully informed choices relative to the selection of more sustainable interior textile products.
Multiple participants addressed the potential impacts of interior textiles during the use phase of the textile product life cycle, including concerns related to chemicals in the home, indoor air quality, and off-gassing. When addressing the question of sustainability in relation to interior textile product use, one participant specifically noted human health impacts:
It’s (about) making something that lasts that isn’t going to affect us in any harmful way, leaching chemicals or off-gassing in my case. (Participant 5)
This participant’s use of the word “my” implies a sense of personal responsibility to create products that will not negatively impact consumers’ health.
Participants’ narratives also addressed the issue of how consumers care for interior textile products. The majority of participants stated that they provide care recommendations for their products, and as demonstrated in the following quote, these recommendations often involved environmental considerations:
We have washing instructions on our site which is basically using environmentally [friendly] detergent and hang dry when you can, all of our fabric can be put in the dryer but for environmental reasons we recommend hang dry. (Participant 3)
Such recommendations may encourage consumers to embrace product care methods that will minimize the environmental impacts inherent in the laundering process, thereby engaging stakeholders in a company effort to improve the sustainability of interior textile products.
The designers’ narratives further revealed that multiple stakeholders may play a role in informing the establishment of textile care instructions to minimize environmental impacts:
I recommend that [customers] use an environmentally friendly dry cleaner and…my drapery guy…doesn’t even recommend you have your draperies dry cleaned unless you are a smoker, or unless you have animals or unless you have a lot of pollutants in the air that will damage the product. But I also tested the product to see if it would machine wash and go through those steps to try to figure out what I say about this product, a lot of people look at specifications, some don’t. (Participant 1)
The final theme revealed in participants’ accounts was post-consumer use, which was discussed in terms of product longevity, consumer waste, and product return programs. As might be expected, participants’ discussions of post-consumer use emphasized the consumer as a key stakeholder at this stage of the product life cycle. Two designers described their products as timeless and expressed the hope that their products would never be disposed of, but rather might be given a second life; an idea that is conveyed in the following quote:
The U.S. consumer is really, really wasteful and, again, it’s something in our company, we want to make things that you’re going to pass down, we don’t sell products that you’re going to throw away (Participant 10).
Explicit here is a commitment to product longevity—producing products that will last for a long time and that may be passed down through generations and therefore used and cared for in a treasured manner. Similarly, one participant discussed disassembly as a way by which to make the product last longer:
If they [the furniture] need to be laundered or cleaned they can be dissembled, I kind of have my eye on archival concerns, because I want my work to last as long as it can…I want it to totally be cleanable so like most upholstered furniture, you can remove the fabric and clean it. (Participant 2)
This designer recognizes the role of consumer care in creating a more sustainable product. Disassembling a piece of furniture to clean the textile is a DfE strategy and contradictory to the notion of fast furnishing, which encourages consumers to discard furniture pieces when they appear dirty and used.
Multiple participants also discussed product longevity as a means by which to reduce overconsumption and waste, using consumer demand for fast fashion to illustrate the point:
Nobody buys clothing anymore to sit in your closet for ten years, they buy it and get rid of it. Think about what that does for the environment, because they can buy for $10 versus investing in something that will last a long time. (Participant 4)
The suggestion here is that consumers can help to lessen the environmental impact of textile and clothing products by buying better quality products that last longer.
Upcycling, the reuse of materials at the post-use stage of the life cycle, as a strategy for waste reduction was not specifically mentioned by any participants; however, one participant did address a company-operated textile product return program as an alternative to post use disposal:
We have a responsible return program, you can send it back and it will get burnt down and made into energy or something else in the polypropylene line. (Participant 6)
In this program, a used textile may be manipulated in one of two ways—by creating energy utilized during textile manufacturing or by reusing the material to create fibers for a new textile. A product return program of this type suggests value in building a company-consumer partnership to encourage the return (rather than the discard) of products after use, again helping to lessen the environmental impact of interior textile products.
Another designer focused the discussion of post-use strategies on creating new raw materials, the last step of a closed-loop life cycle:
Our guiding principle of sustainability [is] that things should either be technical nutrients, you know traveling through a technical cycle or a repeatable technical cycle, or biological nutrients where that product can go back through, can be biodegraded and contribute to compost to feed the next generation of wool and ramie for the [new] product. (Participant 12)
This designer isolated two different post-use strategies based upon type of material—inorganic vs. organic (McDonough and Braungart 2002). As this designer pointed out, inorganic materials may be placed within a “repeatable cycle” (e.g., reuse or recycling), an approach that may reduce the need to grow or manufacture new raw materials; whereas an organic compound may contribute to the growth of a new natural fiber.