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Chemical Management Key to Achieving Production Sustainability

Chemical management is often aimed at reducing hazards and risks in products and processes, but making positive chemical choices can also improve the overall impact of production processes.

On a panel dubbed “Chemistry and Climate Change: Exploring Supply Chain Opportunities,” at Textile Exchange’s virtual Sustainability Conference, experts discussed where in the supply chain opportunities might exist to measure and improve climate change impacts, as well strategies companies are already using to expand beyond material choices to achieve global climate change goals.

Kevin Myette, director of global brand services for Bluesign technologies, which takes a systems approach by connecting key supply-chain partners such as chemical suppliers, manufacturers and brands, discussed why there is so much CO2 in the apparel and textile supply chain.

A key reason is that an extreme amount of water, often quite hot, is necessary for wet processing garments and that a significant amount of energy is needed to heat water for process use, as well as in the generation of steam to run machinery for dyeing, finishing, coating and washing.

“The most effective interventions are not always the easiest to reduce waste,” Myette said.

These include fixing leaks in system, insulating and utilizing heat recapture strategies, and “dramatically improve operational efficiency” by focusing on the best available technique for process improvements. Companies should also choose and use better chemistry from what is already available and change energy sources, such as swapping out coal fired boilers for renewable energy sources.

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Bluesign conducted informal research with more than 50 brands to assess their chemical integrity programs and processes, he noted. Key findings were that “the single most important sustainability ‘to-do’ for almost every brand is to get better at knowing their supply network, in particular Tier 2 where their materials are made,” Myette said.

“No matter how well you think you know and manage your supplier network, it is likely not good enough,” he said.

The study also found that most relationships are managed between brands and suppliers, not facilities. In multiple facility organizations, many sites have dramatically different practices and purchasing can often be local and different between facilities.

Additional takeaways were that using supply network intermediaries is not inherently a bad strategy, but opaque ones create challenges for transparency and traceability. A best practice, for those who use such partners, is to develop a relationship where full disclosure is a must.

“We might not know the total impact of the textile industry, however we are clear it is significant and we do know where the biggest impacts reside,” Myette added. “It is in Tier 2, wet processing. Pre-treatment and dyeing are by far the biggest contributors. Anywhere we can reduce heated water use, we are making very significant impact reductions. Brands engaging with their suppliers in a proactive, supportive and collaborative way to explore solutions could unleash significant advances.”

Ben Mead, managing director for Hohenstein Institute Americas, who overseas Oeko-Tex for the United States and promotes Hohenstein’s expertise as a globally recognized leader in textile research and testing, said every organization needs to know their positioning on sustainability performance.

Understanding this will lead to scope identification, strength identification and a clear path can then be drawn to reach and organization’s sustainability goal. Mead said there are numerous assessment tools to evaluate this and one such tool is STeP from Hohenstein Institute.

“STeP certification has taken us through a journey of change in the way we looked at things,” said Prashant Patil, quality assurance and sustainability head at Indo Count Industries. “With the implementation of STeP across various departments, we have observed multifold benefits and improved performance results. STeP’s chemical management requirement has changed the way we looked at inventories and has assisted in streamlining them more efficiently.

Waste management practices have been modified to have clear segregation, storage and handling procedures. It guides the company more toward recyclability and biodegradability.

“Our processing and stitching units are now STeP and Oekotex certified compliance unit,” Patil said.

The company had a series of discussions with the Hohenstein India team, he said and “they explained to…to create a correlation, and this is now a business practice we follow for selecting chemicals.”

Mead also addressed greenhouse gas reduction, stressing that the industry is not going to achieve that solely based on materials changes.

“We’re going to have to focus on whether the other impact areas are, which is the processing,” he said. “Those are all impacted by the chemical choices we make.”

He cited some examples such as a catalyst introduced into bleaches that lowers the bleaching time and temperature, reducing the energy emissions, as well as products that introduce enzymes and bacteria into color dyes to reduce water and energy consumption.

There are also processes being developed to impart color directly onto yarns instead of using liquid dyes.

“All those examples have a lot of cache, they carry a lot of marketing stories with them, but sometimes the solution isn’t that complicated,” Mead said. “It might be as simple as working with the existing chemical or equipment supplier to ask them to quantify energy use.”