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Webinar: Scaling the Industry’s First Zero Wastewater Cotton Dyeing System

When it comes to textile dyeing—the world’s second-biggest cause of water pollution, using 5 trillion liters of water per year—less is definitely more.

But finding a dyeing process that uses less water, less dye, less chemicals and less energy, all without lessening color vibrancy or colorfastness, has long stumped the fashion industry. That’s why partners Dow and Ralph Lauren have made their sustainably innovative Color on Demand dyeing process openly available. They don’t just want to share the knowledge—the second generation of ECOFAST Pure Sustainable Textile Treatment, Color on Demand cuts chemicals by up to 90 percent, overall carbon footprint by up to 60 percent and energy by up to 40 percent. They want to encourage industry-wide change at scale.

The Jan. 10 webinar, “Color on Demand: Transforming How the Industry Dyes Cotton,” brought together Jason Berns, head of product and manufacturing innovation at Ralph Lauren Corporation, and Christian Allemang, technical service & development leader at material sciences company Dow, to discuss their unique partnership and mutual goals for the industry.

Ralph Lauren went for gold right out of the gate. A long-time designer of the Olympics’ official Team USA uniforms, the company highlighted its Color on Demand dyeing results with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games uniforms, bright reds and navy hues a proof of concept for dyeing solid colors.

Color vibrancy might be the most forward-facing result, but behind the scenes, it’s energy and water usage, or minimization thereof, that drives the sustainability angle. “[At Ralph Lauren], we’ve said that we’re going to be net zero emissions by 2040,” Berns said. “So a 40 percent reduction in energy, in addition to that water use is a big deal when it comes to getting to net zero. It’s not ever going to be a single point solution for this. It’s going to be a series of different efforts to get to net zero. This is a piece of the puzzle and we think it can be an important one because of how much cotton we use in our in our business today.”

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Seeing that 20 percent of the world’s wastewater comes from fabric dye, the urgency to find a widespread solution beyond just one company is evident.

“As the industry looks to scale, we can have a really powerful impact on addressing some of the sustainability challenges that confront the textile industry with this technology,” Allemang said, noting that while cotton cationization was nothing new to the industry, Color on Demand broke ground in taking that process one step further. “Dow went back to the molecular level and found a product that eliminated the odor that often resulted [from cationization], and not just at Dow’s level, but downstream in the fabric treatment process.”

Changing minds afraid of change

Change can only move the industry forward if stakeholders are willing to accept it, and there seems to be a natural objection to a chemical company telling a mill or brand to change its long-time ways.

“When you bring a sustainable technology, often people are trying to find the drawback, thinking there’s got to be some sort of negative impact on their final product,” Allemang said, adding that it’s a mental leap for people to realize they can unlock any color and color fastness they want, all with less chemicals and dyes. “But once folks see it in their labs or coming off the production line, then they really start to believe.”

For the most part, the process works with existing equipment, but dye houses using Color on Demand might have to make modest adjustments to color matching, dialing in the right amount of cationization or the right amount of dye.

Companies might have to tweak some of the ratios between the dye stuffs, as different dyes will have slightly different strike rates. To smooth the transition, Dow works closely with partner companies on preliminary work to get things up and running. “All of this can be managed,” Allemang said.

Sharing knowledge via open sourcing

Almost as innovative as the technology itself is the fact that Ralph Lauren and Dow are sharing this process with the industry at large, IP be damned.

“Change isn’t easy in this industry, and the sharing of knowledge becomes crucial to driving a true sustainable transformation,” said Berns. “It can’t happen on its own. We need tools. The broadest adoption, across industry will help us to drive costs down, will encourage other brands and manufacturers to participate, will make it more accessible, and help the whole supply chain.”

But making the process manual available to mills, brands and anyone in the industry not only helps those respective companies, but helps Dow leverage learnings to constantly improve.

“We need to learn too,” Allemang said. “We’re not experts on textiles, but we are experts on the chemistry so by pairing our knowledge bases together, and pulling from the partner mills that Ralph Lauren has chosen, we can really bring out some great solutions here.”

From a logistics point, Color on Demand works at any point in the manufacturing process, and works on cotton, knits, wovens, yarn dyeing, and should work on any cellulosic fiber, Allemang noted. It won’t work on poly blends, however, unless in a heathered look. And while Ralph Lauren will continue to work on dyeing solid fashion items, the next step will be working on dyeing garments that can be colored to meet demand much closer to market.

At the end of the day, the plan for Color on Demand is to gain more partners, even low MOQ suppliers. “The more brands that are on board, the more scalable these benefits become,” Berns said.

To watch “Color on Demand: Transforming How the Industry Dyes Cotton,” click above.