Making Clothes Green: How Sustainable Fashion Drives Textile Technology

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When Chinese manufacturing plants faced government crackdowns due to environmental concerns, a transition to sustainable fashion technologies began to shift the industry towards greener alternatives.

Long before sustainable fashion was a thing, my grandma refused to wear green. It was a Victorian superstition about the bad luck that would befall anyone who dared to wear a color the fairies held dear. But it may have also had something to do with the fact that when the paper and fabric dye known as Scheele’s Green became damp it would give off a poisonous vapour that contained arsenic.

These days, the new meaning of green should make it obvious that nobody will collapse from being steamed by a damp dress, but it’s not only arsenic that is a threat to us and our surroundings: textile dyeing poses a threat to the environment. Until now, because that is, at long last, being addressed.

In China, back in 2017, something extraordinary happened in China that we are still feeling some positive effects from. In June of that year, Dalton Cheng, the technology lead at Intech Digital, a Hong Kong-based textile printing company, noticed a pivotal shift in the industry. As reported by textile trade magazine Chemical and Engineering News, Intech’s clientele was buzzing with news of a drastic shutdown of major synthetic dye-producing factories in China’s Jiangsu province. The Chinese government had initiated this in an ambitious bid to curb pollution from its large-scale manufacturing sectors. This was not the first or last of such actions – throughout 2017 and since, thousands of factories have had to close doors temporarily for stringent environmental inspections.

The impact of this move by the Chinese government has been significant. Cheng stated that approximately 60% of China’s denim-dyeing chemical capacity, which is equivalent to about 30% of the global capacity, was halted. Consequently, the demand for Intech Digital’s services spiked as the firm’s expertise in digital textile printing provided a solution to the looming supply crisis in the global apparel industry.

Digital textile printing, one of Intech Digital’s specialties, holds promise for the future of sustainable fashion. The technique, which involves printing textiles with pigments instead of dyes, requires minimal water use and generates considerably less waste than conventional dyeing methods. This eco-friendly technology caters to fabrics like cotton and other cellulosic materials such as rayon.

Alongside digital printing, a range of new and sustainable fabric-coloring technologies are being introduced by both large-scale suppliers and smaller start-ups in the chemical and biotech sector. They are seizing the opportunity to address the current industry’s detrimental water and energy practices and its heavy reliance on toxic chemicals, a major cause of environmental and health concerns completely unknown to my grandma.

However, the journey towards sustainable textile technology is laden with formidable challenges. The $3 trillion-per-year textile industry, employing close to 60 million workers worldwide, as data from Euler Hermes and FashionUnited shows, is under tremendous pressure due to aggressive price competition, fluctuating raw material costs, and increasing wages. Despite several apparel brands publicly pledging to adopt more sustainable practices, suppliers reportedly say that even a slight increase in the cost of a finished product is a deterrent for their customers.

The sudden factory shutdowns in China have indeed stirred the global textile supply chain. According to Holger Schlaefke, Global Marketing Manager at Huntsman’s textile effects segment, this disruption has not only affected large-scale dye and textile chemical suppliers like Huntsman, Archroma, and DyStar, but also retailers who are now grappling with uncertainties in price and availability.

The repercussions of the factory shutdowns are especially felt in the supply and pricing of disperse dyes, commonly used for coloring synthetic fibers like polyester, and reactive dyes, typically used on cotton. While India, a cotton-rich country, could potentially offset the shortage of reactive dyes, it is simultaneously grappling with its water resource management.

India is witnessing a significant investment influx in wastewater treatment to curtail water wastage in the textile industry. In a trend-setting initiative, factories are now reusing up to 90% of their water.

Traditional cotton and polyester dyeing processes are inherently water and heat-intensive. Cotton, with its negatively charged surface, doesn’t easily bond with negatively charged dye compounds, leading to only about 75% of dye being absorbed even with additional salts and alkalis. The resulting fabric or yarn must then be repeatedly washed in hot water to ensure colorfastness, producing considerable wastewater.

On average, producing 1 kg of fabric necessitates about 200 liters of water. Analysis of wastewater treatment steps reveals that textile effluent is laden with high concentrations of dyes and hazardous chemicals such as chromium, arsenic, copper, and zinc. These substances not only contaminate waterways but also block sunlight, thereby elevating biological oxygen demand.

As the fashion industry reckons with the undeniable need for more sustainable practices, the advancements in textile technologies, from digital printing to water reutilization, are critical steps towards a greener future. It’s an uphill battle, but one that carries the potential to reshape the fashion industry for the better, one garment at a time.

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