How can the use of harmful chemicals at every stage in the life of the product be reduced by design?
It used to be said you could predict the next seasons’ trends by checking the colour of the water in Lake Como.
All that’s now changed where European textile industry manufacturers conform to a controlled strict best practice where chemical use, recovery and disposal is concerned. This came about through a combination of sensible environmental legislation and the measurable realization that it can pay dividends to be cleaner and more attuned to the concerns of an increasingly eco-aware consumer.
Most ‘chemistry’ is deployed during conventional dyeing and finishing processes, and raw materials suppliers play a huge role in developing a better approach today whether natural or man-made.
Woolmark, the organization charged with promoting wool to the industry, are developing their ongoing CEW improvement strategy. As explained by Jim Johnston, their aim is to reduce Chemical, Energy and Water use in response to their retailers looking for better CSR metrics. They have developed an audited matrix of chemicals currently used and are researching dyestuff alternatives to chrome based dyes and also working on performance dyes that work at 80 degrees as opposed to the current 100 degree boil techniques.
The cellulosic gap or the shortage of cotton to meet demand has meant manufacturers like Lenzing in Austria have refined their offer to tailor products to specific end uses that go somewhere to closing that gap. A fact that’s motivated other new fibre production research, such as the development of Cellunova in Sweden, part of the larger MISTRA project that’s looking at ways to build a broad mix of long term, more sustainable manufacturing businesses.
Viscose and Modal fibre production used to be the bad boys of regenerated cellulosics, and at Lenzing it became a priority to reverse this. In 1990, millions of Euros were invested to clean and control their chemical, water and energy use. A program of best practice, of doing things less ‘bad’ has been the ongoing approach that’s fueled an extra and sustainable business where the necessary chemicals are captured, transformed and traded as stand alone commodities, such as sodium sulphate for the detergent industry, acetic acid for food manufacture and xylose as a new natural sweetener.
The end result is a clean process that uses mini closed loops to near match their Tencel production, which is the super clean lyocell process, where the single active chemical ingredient used is completely contained, recovered and reused, making it a the only GOTS certified man-made natural based fibre around today. And when talking with Lenzing’s Michael Kininmonth, who has been working on Tencel’s innovation program since the 90s, he believes the notion of a smarter use and better management of chemistry is a rational sustainable alternative to a simple blanket chemical reduction call out.
However, their new solution dyed fine Modal program completely sidesteps the need to control conventional dyestuffs, offering ready made, fully permanent colours without using water or chemicals in conventional dyeing. [Figure 1] This isn’t new, as it exists already in conventional viscose production, but the potential for innovation on a more sustainable level could come from applying the same processes to lyocell fibre. Add to that a more responsive interaction with the market for new colours, and a new way to manage and apply the technology that fits with design needs could see a time where chemical management issues are reduced significantly more.
Another bête noir of textiles is denim, and this single product has undergone total transformation in terms of chemical reduction. In place are new ozone technologies and computer controlled laser engraving. The Wattwash process by Marithe et Francois Girbaud some 5 years ago [Figure 2], paved the way many more design driven innovations to be developed by integrated fabric to garment operations worldwide including Levis. And Michael Kininmonth, in his role as the denim expert within Lenzing, and in his wider role as part of the steering committee for the RITE group, states that current research is now closing the loop on the downside of synthetic indigo dyeing in the development of electro-chemical processes, and using bacterial-driven reduction of indigo to offer a new and sustainable process for the industry.
Carriagi, one of the best cashmere spinners in Italy has, in response to demand for specialism combined with organic colouration, developed and reintroduced the use of the old local crop Guado to apply to their super luxury cashmere yarns. Guado is the same as woad, the European ‘version’ of indigo, which was overtaken by indigo from India in the 1700s. The mill has a good eco-luxury reputation, offering natural dyed products, and this new initiative is as much about local organics as the poetry of the story. It is part of their research to find ways to offer real and valuable designed colour choices in the face of some dystuffs and colours becoming impossible to use because of their chemical content.
Much of the fully commercial use of natural dyes is disputed – reproducibility, fastness, wash off, effluent etc, but one company in the US, Ploughboy Organics Inc, has developed a patent pending range of tinctures called Avani, derived from tobacco plants, [Figure 3] claiming a full range of colours available that need less water and produce a cleaner wash off. Also, these materials are claimed to benefit other natural dyeing techniques acting as an accelerated fix and mordant, potentially minimizing the amount of dyestuff needed to produce consistent, fast colour. [Figure 4]
More than ever before, materials suppliers are looking to consumers and retail to point them in the right direction, and it will be the task of design to articulate the detail of these new directions, whether it be in the definition and direction of colour choices or in the developing a more acute visual language for laser technologies in the future. Everyone wants choice, and the industry is clearly moving towards a seamless adoption of better, more sustainable options for consumers to freely enjoy.