Home Opinion Graphene – the wonder material that could help fix unsustainable fashion?
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Graphene – the wonder material that could help fix unsustainable fashion?

by uma

By Neill Ricketts, CEO of Versarien

The global sports and leisurewear market has exploded in the last few years and is expected to be worth over $379 million by the end of this year. To capitalise on this growth, businesses need to consider how to respond to consumer demands to stay ahead of their competitors. 

Consumer demands have largely been sparked by bad press associated with the fashion industry and its environmental impact. The fashion and textiles production makes up for 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and signals that clothing businesses and manufacturers need to move towards more sustainable products. There is already a consumer move towards increased sustainability with 81% of people preferring to buy from sustainable sellers. However, the real solution to creating a more sustainable clothing market starts with the manufacturers and brands who make them and those who don’t make this move are at risk of losing out to competitors

One way companies are trying to become more sustainable is through utilising new and innovative materials that are better for the environment without any compromise to performance. Enter graphene. The commercialisation of graphene is mostly in its infancy, but the rewards of using the material are being seen by sports and leisure wear brands across the globe.

Introducing graphene to the textiles market

Graphene is a single-layer sheet of carbon that has been isolated from Graphite. Scientists first isolated it in 2004 at the University of Manchester, and subsequently won a Nobel prize for their efforts. This advancement in the isolation of graphene paved the way for technological advancement across many industries, including textiles. It can be manufactured through various methods, but most graphene produced today is in ‘nanoplatelet’ form, which are particles of varying shapes and sizes of a few layers of graphene layers bonded together. 

High-quality, single-layer graphene is transparent and almost invisible to the human eye. Each layer of graphene absorbs around 3% of all light, and therefore in its most common nanoplatelet form, it is a black substance that turns its host material a greyish colour. 

Graphene and related materials are still relatively young in their development, but they have enormous potential to lead technological transformation within the textile industry.

Working with wearer’s wishes

Graphene products have been gradually entering the textiles space in recent years, with sports and leisurewear brands becoming increasingly aware of a shift in customer expectations of what they expect from their clothing items and their brands of choice. 

Customers are now looking for convenience and multi-functionality, meaning brands are embracing the latest technologies to push the limits of production, manufacturing, marketing, and wearability. Graphene enables this breakdown of limitations.  

There are many benefits to incorporating graphene into textiles both for performance enhancement and for safety. With UV resistance and fire retardancy, graphene can provide added safety aspects to clothing and certain sectors such as, fire defences, can harness these benefits. Graphene – although yet to be registered as a biocide – can also provide antiviral and antibacterial properties making it very useful in healthcare garments.

Most notable for the sports and leisurewear industry, graphene provides textiles with improved thermal and moisture management. On top of the performance benefits this provides, clothing can often become uncomfortable when exercising. Implementing thermal and moisture management can provide comfort and ease, therefore removing distractions for athletes from professional through amateur. There is also the potential in the future for graphene to allow for more flexibility in garments as well as increasing durability and stretch of clothing, which would allow for more dynamic movement. 

Graphene-WearTM technology in textiles has shown a 100% enhancement in wicking rate, a 50% improvement in increased drying rates, and an 18% improvement in thermal transmittance. This is due to the surface properties promoting moisture to move from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric and spread laterally at a greater rate. This allows moisture to be lost to evaporation more efficiently and promotes evaporative cooling.  

Graphene’s ability to help regulate heat and moisture within fabrics are some of the key reasons it is invaluable in the leisurewear industry. In leisure and competitive sportswear, this excess build-up of heat can make exercise challenging and negatively affect the wearer’s experience. Maintaining optimal core temperature is essential to many bodily functions, such as metabolic rate and tissue mechanics. Graphene is enabling wearers to have an optimal experience by having better regulation over many of these factors.

The backing of big brands

At Versarien, we are beginning to see companies invest in enhanced garments, with many collaborating and partnering with advanced material pioneers to create these more durable and sustainable products. Umbro and Superdry are just two of the global names we have partnered with recently to incorporate our Graphene-WearTM technology. Umbro has partnered with Versarien for its 2023 Elite Pro-Training Kit garments. For Umbro, they needed clothing that would help with the team’s performance. The clothing will use our Graphene-Wear™ ink formula to provide these previously mentioned performance-enhancing qualities.  

So, what’s next?

The demand for fast fashion simply cannot continue to grow at its current rate. According to the Ethical Consumer and Greenpeace’s Journal, ‘Unearthed’, if the demand for fast fashion continues to grow at its current rate, we could see the total carbon footprint of our clothing reach 26% by 2050. Sustainability in the textile industry is at the forefront of consumers’ minds and it need to be a priority for fashion brands.

Not surprisingly, the fast fashion model takes a heavy toll on the planet and its people. The textile industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution and 10% of carbon emissions. Extracting the needed resources comes at tremendous cost. The new formation of the expert-led initiative Textiles 2030 seeks to harness the knowledge and expertise of UK leaders within the sustainability sector to help accelerate the textile’s industry move towards circularity and system change. With such movements forming alongside consumer demands, graphene-enhanced materials are quickly becoming a more realistic and viable option in the move towards sustainability. 

The need for graphene

Graphene’s assistance in utilising recycled materials in textile production can be revolutionary. With the use of polyester growing, particularly in the sports and leisurewear industry, there is a significant opportunity to increase the use of recycled polyester to minimise carbon emissions. There is one primary disadvantage to this. Recycled material is often weaker and far less durable than its virgin predecessor. Adding graphene in such circumstances can help to produce a more robust, longer-lasting material and by virtue reducing unneeded waste of products.  

Graphene’s ability to help regulate heat and moisture within fabrics are some of the main reasons it can offer so much to the textile industry. As well as also being highly durable, brands that utilise graphene in their products can become more sustainable with clothes that are comfortable and last longer. With the growing desire amongst shoppers to select their purchases with a higher degree of consideration for the planet, the brands that make a step in this direction will see growth and returning customers for years to come.

Brands now need to act quickly to help overcome the issues of fast fashion and produce more sustainable clothing. Not only can graphene help with this, but graphene-enhanced clothing is great for customers with its unique and desirable benefits. This wonder material could help overcome so many challenges we are facing as a society and make big brands consider more about their production and manufacturing lines.

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