The textile industry is the backbone of many developing economies. It is also heavily reliant on water. New technologies and simple fixes are helping mills remain competitive while reducing their dependence on water and contributing to a better environment.
From farm to factory to your favourite store, your new cotton T-shirt required approximately 2,650 litres of water to grow, produce and transport.
A substantial proportion of this water usage - 20 percent and more when using conventional methods - is used in just the dyeing phase of the process. Up to 100 litres of fresh water, and very high amount of energy, is required to dye just one kilogram of cotton fabric.
Much of this water ends up contaminated by the salt used to promote the absorption of the dye.
This salinated wastewater is difficult to treat, and it cannot be safely consumed or used for irrigation, and it is harmful to aquatic life.
These challenges are exacerbated in regions facing acute water scarcity. Unfortunately, many of the world’s largest textile-producing nations – China, India, Bangladesh and Brazil, for example – are also those most vulnerable to water shortages.
On the cusp of change
The public in these textile-producing countries is becoming increasingly vocal about deteriorating water quality and the lack of sufficient clean water for homes and agriculture. People in the developed world are also beginning to demand that the garments and textile products they buy are eco-friendly.
This attitude change is putting pressure on brands and retailers to show that their supply chains are clean and transparent. Governments too have reacted by mandating more stringent environmental legislation and by more strictly enforcing their pollution laws.
Even so, the United Nations is warning that half the global population could be facing water shortages by 2030.
Taken together, all of these factors make reducing our use of water one of the most pressing challenges facing the textile industry.
Addressing the challenge
Waterless dyeing technology has been under development for several years. Recently, innovative sustainable products were developed by using recyclable carbon dioxide (supercritical CO2) as the application medium to infuse colour into fabric instead of water. This completely eliminated the use of water in the textile dyeing process and would benefit the industry in years to come.
Digital textile printing has also come of age. It requires mills to invest heavily in digital printing machines and to retrain staff and use high-quality specialist inks, but it is now cost-effective for higher value fabrics. Digital printing allows mills to print an almost unlimited array of colours and complex patterns in short runs. It is also a very clean process that minimises waste and substantially reduces water and energy consumption.
Perhaps even more promising, however, are developments that help mills make dramatic savings without requiring substantial investment in new plant or equipment. These new innovation are a range of reactive dyes for cotton and cellulosic fibres using technology that assists in them getting absorbed by textile fibres more rapidly, using less salt during dyeing and less water during the wash-off process. These unique set of properties ensure high-quality results at much lower costs along with improved environment acceptability.
Even more dramatic gains are delivered against conventional dye house technologies, which many mills in developing nations still use. Statistically, this new and exciting technology could potentially save more than 820 billion litres of water per year, which equates to 1.3 litres of fresh water per person per day in the major Asian textile processing countries
Accelerating the change
Our industry is at an inflection point today, with environmental and competitive pressures demanding new approaches. Where can we go next?
To reduce our reliance on cotton, the industry will invest in less-thirsty alternative fibres, such as bamboo and other man-made fibres and recycled polyester. We will improve laundry equipment and detergents for industrial and home use.
It is only necessary that we must lead the way with new dye technologies and cleaner processes that save water and energy.
However, substantially changing the supply chain in an industry as complex and global as ours will take time. Mills that serve high-volume, low-cost retailers have very small margins and we are already seeing some closing because they cannot meet tougher environmental regulations. I expect this to continue.
Changing the mindset of producers about water conservation will need to be an industry priority if we are to accelerate the pace of change. Simple changes like fixing leaks, installing sensors and water meters, collecting the monsoon rains, and switching to new dyes can all pay big dividends. As an incentive for change, cost savings are hard to beat.
Paul Hulme is president of Huntsman Textile Effects, a division of Huntsman Corporation, USA