By Cameron Walker and Jitong Li

In the spring of 2018, graduate students taught by Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management professor Dr. Karen K. Leonas partnered with industry leaders from American & Efird and The Sustainability Consortium to work on pressing sustainability concerns in the textile field. Through two separate projects, graduate students in TTM 591 sought solutions to problems in the areas of dyes and chemicals, packaging sustainability, recycling and wastewater. They learned along the way that although these challenges are complex and industry-wide, small groups of enthusiastic minds can make great strides toward change.

“Working with industry partners such as A&E, who are leaders in the area of sustainability, provides the students with an opportunity to work with industry professionals in addressing real industry challenges,” said Leonas. “These opportunities and experiences are important and prepare our students to be industry ready upon graduation in their journey to become future industry leaders.”

American & Efird

American & Efird (A&E), one of the largest manufacturers of sewing and embroidery threads in the world, asked Leonas’ students for help with the following challenges: developing an evaluation tool — a scorecard — through which the company can score packaging using sustainability metrics, assessing their current method for reviewing dyes and chemicals against customers’ restricted substances list, and improving the separation and collection of recyclable items.

Jimmy Summers, vice president of environmental health and safety and sustainability at American & Efird, introduced students to the project through an in-class presentation at the beginning of the semester. The class then took a field trip to tour the Mount Holly, NC, plant, where students met members of the management staff — many of whom are Wolfpack alumni.

“A&E is committed to operating its business in a sustainable way because it is the right and ethical thing to do,” said Summers. “We were very excited to host Dr. Leonas and her graduate Sustainability class this past semester as they visited our Mt. Holly facility and completed sustainability related projects for us.”

[marketing-quote color=’green’ align=’center’ img=” source=’Textile Engineering graduate student Julia Kempf’ quotes=’true’]We’ve been given the Earth and its resources to enjoy, which requires taking care of it for future generations to be able to enjoy as much as we do.[/marketing-quote]

Master of Textiles student Julia Kinney worked on the recycling project.

“Through this project, I learned that being zero-waste-to-landfill is a great goal but doesn’t necessarily mean the entire operation is environmentally friendly,” said Kinney. “I was, however, really encouraged to see that A&E wants to be zero-waste-to-landfill as well as cut down on the amount of trash going to the incinerator because of its effects on air quality and the overall carbon footprint of the company. The project as a whole showed me just how big of a word sustainability is; sustainability is important to me because I want to be an educated consumer and designer.”

Graduate student Xinyi Sun (Master of Textiles) also worked on the recycling project.

“Sustainability is a must for companies nowadays,” said Sun. “It’s important to me since everyone is supposed to do their part to preserve the environment.”

Lilah Halbkat, working toward her Master of Science in Textiles, volunteered for the packaging project.

“It was very interesting to be able to tour the facility and see how the company handles their packaging and inventory systems,” said Halbkat. “I feel that the company is making great strides toward sustainability, which I feel is extremely important in the textile industry. (It) is important to me due to the huge impact our industry has on the planet and on every single person who interacts with clothing or textiles. Billions of people are involved in our industry in some way, shape or form, and it is imperative that we take responsibility for how we affect them.”

Master of Science in Textile Engineering student Julia Kempf learned much during her work on the project.

“Through the course and the project I’ve learned that sustainability is multifaceted and complex,” said Kempf. “Change starts with education and using the scorecard will show A&E where improvements can be made…We’ve been given the Earth and its resources to enjoy, which requires taking care of it for future generations to be able to enjoy as much as we do.”

The Sustainability Consortium

The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is a global nonprofit organization comprised of manufacturers, service providers, retailers, suppliers, academics, civil society organizations, governmental agencies and more who are working to develop more sustainable consumer goods. Leonas is co-chair of the organization’s Clothing, Footwear and Textiles committee, which identified wastewater management as a key issue at its 2017 summit; the committee designated a task force to work on the problem, called the Wastewater Challenge Project, including members from Wrangler, HanesBrands, Fruit of the Loom and others. Six students from TTM 591 assisted the task force on the project.   

“I was thoroughly impressed with the contributions of the project team from NC State to our wastewater project,” said Philip Henson, senior manager of energy and environmental sustainability at HanesBrands. “The Wastewater Challenge project is in its infancy stage and has the potential to reshape the treatment of textile water discharge in areas of the world that are most impacted by poor treatment practices and direct wastewater discharge. The team was given the difficult task of researching the landscape of current treatment practices and synthesizing tons of data for presentation to an audience of industry experts. I was proud of the NC State team for their involvement in the project; they met the challenge and delivered a very professional presentation at The Sustainability Consortium’s 2018 Summit.”

Students met with Leonas frequently to share information and set goals.

“The opportunity for our students to participate in the development of the TSC WasteWater Toolkit, Phase 1, allowed them to use their research skills and textile knowledge in the investigation of the state of the industry; related standards, regulations and certifications; state-of-the-art technology used on wastewater treatment and other related world issues,” said Leonas. “They worked closely with industry thought leaders in this area.”

During these meetings, they communicated with Dr. Sarah Lewis, senior director of innovation with The Sustainability Consortium.

“Dr. Leonas and her team were excellent to work with,” said Lewis. “They created an initial landscape analysis for our project in improving wastewater treatment in the textiles industry, examining the regions where textiles clusters exist, the types of regulations and standards in place in those regions, the types of training materials available to various audiences in the textiles industry, as well as the initiatives that are actively working to address this issue. As a result of their work, we’ve been able to build out a more in-depth plan for the project that will enable the group to further investigate the factors that lead to wastewater treatment and non-treatment in the industry.”

Students also met in person with Roian Atwood, task force member and director of sustainability for Wrangler Jeanswear, and several group members traveled to the 2018 TSC summit in Chicago in early May.

“This project is massive,” said Kinney. “I am learning so much about water in general, but also about the ways in which different companies, countries and global regions treat wastewater from textile plants. You might think there is one solution or standard but that is so far from the truth.”

Master of Textiles student Mariah Parker volunteered for the wastewater project.

“From my research on the TSC project, I discovered some of the inconsistencies in the standards, regulations and certifications in the textile and apparel industry,” said Parker. “This discovery taught me about the importance of collaboration within the textile industry, especially with sustainability…What we do with our clothes today determines our quality of life in the future.”  

Master of Science in Textiles student Jacqueline Sewell also worked on the TSC project; she was struck by the enormity of the challenge of treating wastewater.

“There is great global disparity in wastewater treatment and there is no platform to go to which will educate a person on why to treat wastewater, the benefits of treating (it), the investment and return, the equipment need…as well as the expertise and a general how-to guide on how to treat wastewater,” said Sewell. “While the situation is a negative one, I feel optimistic about my future role in the industry. This project and class has impacted and changed my views greatly and I now feel equipped to make an impact on the sustainability of the textile industry in my professional career.”

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