News: Nike and Adidas show cautious support for eco-friendly dye technology
New ways of reducing water pollution could transform the textile industry, but come with limitations and a price tag that puts in doubt the wider support of fashion brands
It has been a significant step forward for the textile sector. Up until now the effluent from dye houses that can often be seen in rivers flowing through the textile manufacturing areas of India, China and elsewhere is a result of unabsorbed dyes, chemicals and heavy salts that are used during the dyeing process.
A number of companies, DyeCoo, ColorZen and AirDye have set out to address this pollution by designing waterless dye technology. The result is a reduction in wastewater, energy, chemicals and toxic discharge to such a degree that it could revolutionise the textile industry.
Major brands including Nike and Adidas have been integrating waterless dye technologies into their product lines, but costs and limitations have experts in the textile industry worried that the support will not last.
“Right now there is very low uptake of use of these technologies,” says Andrew Filarowski, technical director at Society of Dyers and Colourists. The textile industry is viewed as low-cost entry into industrialisation of countries, meaning that lower-cost technologies are used even when superior technology is available.
“Cotton is actually fairly difficult to dye and there is a lot of associated pollution,” says Michael Harari, president and co-founder at ColorZen. His company cuts the need for chemicals, salts and alkalis by offering a pre-treatment service for cotton, which makes that cotton more receptive to dye. Harari says “the result is up to 90% less water, 75% less energy and 95% less chemicals, and zero toxic discharge.”
AirDye, which transfers dye from paper to polyester fabric using printing machines, uses up to 95% less water, 86% less energy and 84% less greenhouse gases than conventional print and dye methods. The water savings on a single garment can be as much as 45 gallons. AirDye recycles paper used in the process and the dyes are inert, which means that they can go back to their original state and be reused.
DyeCoo technology, which pressurises powder dye into polyester fabric using CO2, uses zero water and reduces energy and chemical use by 50% compared to traditional dyeing methods. The CO2 is even vacuumed out after use, allowing for 95% recovery and reuse.
Kevin Brigden, a scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, says while waterless dye technologies do help to solve many problems, “dyes and possibly some other chemicals are still used, and it is important that hazardous chemicals are avoided.” “If there is a waste stream – even at a much smaller volume – that needs to be dealt with appropriately.”
The price tag
The most significant problem, says Filarowski, is consumer expectations for inexpensive clothing. The textile industry is consumer-drivern and unless customers are willing to pay more for products made with waterless dye technology, the industry isn’t going to adopt it.
So far textile and garment supplier, the Yeh Group, has spent $3.5m (£2.3m) on each of its DyeCoo machines, and $10m (£6.7m) for equipment, research and development to produce DryDye clothing for Adidas, Peak Performance, Kjus and Mizuno.
Brad Poorman, chief marketing sales officer at the Yeh Group, says the technology is expensive but worth it because in 10 years’ time the savings will have exceeded costs. “The use of zero water, reduction in energy and chemicals translates to tremendous savings, fiscally and environmentally.”
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The environmental impact will, in part, be limited by how widely the technology can be used.
DyeCoo and AirDye technology can only be applied to polyester while ColorZen specialises in cotton with no current plans to expand to other materials.
Poorman says DryDye has worked hard to expand beyond knitted polyester to woven and laminates of the material. It also produces polyester mixed with polypropylene, spandex or lycra and Poorman says, “cotton and nylon are two or three years down the road.”
Steve Richardson, director for materials, sustainability and innovation for the Adidas Group, says Adidas continues to grow its use of DryDye material, increasing its integration by 45% in the past year. The company had used 4myards of DryDye fabric by the end of 2014, saving 100m litres of water.
While the nature of the process imposes certain limitations on material types and colours that can be produced, Adidas has been able to roll out the technology and are working on incorporating DryDye fabric into footwear for running and outdoor, with products coming in 2016. “We are working continuously with the Yeh Group and DyeCoo to expand the range,” Richardson says.
Nike, DyeCoo and textile manufacturer Far Eastern New Century, which manufactures ColorDry with DyeCoo machines for Nike, are also working to develop processes for dyeing cotton.
A spokesperson for Nike says the key to widespread implementation of waterless dye technology is commitment across the textile industry. “Technology to reduce water used in dyeing is still in early development,” the spokesperson says. “Dyeing fabric with water is a long-established industry, and change will require new technologies and multi-industry commitments over many years.”
Filarowski agreesand points that even though IKEA GreenTech, an IKEA Group venture capital company, and Huntsman Textile Effects have invested in waterless technology, DyeCoo, it is still just a drop in the bucket.
The reality is that many brands are trying to hit price points. “Generally, consumers are still not willing to pay higher dollar for textiles, with the exception of sportswear ... brands aren’t willing to make products that no one will buy,” says Filarowski.
“The only way to produce clothing cheaply is to do it abroad without any real control and certainly not by using the most modernised and sustainable technology.”