Sustainably dyed clothes
THAT SIT MORE LIGHTLY ON YOUR CONSCIENCE
Enjoying the great outdoors is probably one of the finest ways to spend your free time, especially in the summer. Yet when going hiking, surfing, or skiing in the winter, what you wear on your body can seriously detract from your enjoyment of the scenery. Not because your clothing and gear doesn’t fit or is out of style. But because you might be uneasy about the way it’s been manufactured and dyed, and how much of a burden these methods can put on nature.
As far as manufacture is concerned, one thing is clear: Light, tough, water-resistant and fast-drying clothes made from polyester or nylon are way superior when it comes to sports and other outdoor activities, and also last longer than natural-based ones. So if you take good care of them, don’t buy a new set every season and perhaps even pick items from recycled sources, you should probably be able to feel reasonably okay in this respect.
Leaves the question of how your clothes have been given their nice color. You’ve probably seen pictures of how in China and India, where most of the world’s clothing is made, untreated wastewater from dyeing factories can turn rivers pink or blue. Perhaps you’ve also read about initiatives by governments and NGOs to make the processes involved more sustainable. Apparently this will still take some effort, however – and being able to feel entirely comfortable about this aspect of your clothes may still be a while off.
What you might not know is that there’s a simple trick that could actually make dyeing clothes a lot more sustainable in this very instant – and with practically no effort at all. Applicable to polyester fibers, which are increasingly used for both outdoor and other clothing, it simply changes the timing of when color is added to items. The surprising thing is that it has been the accepted standard in many other industries for decades but is only now catching on in the fashion industry thanks to the innovative aha moment of a Swedish start-up company.
The moment came to Martin Berling, head of We aRe SpinDye®, while talking to an engineer from the auto industry. Berling himself was working for a large Swedish outdoor brand at the time. And when he heard how the fabrics of seats, carpets and other textiles in cars were usually given color, he instantly wondered why this wasn’t also the method of choice in his own industry.
»In its fundamentals, the way clothes are dyed hasn’t changed for centuries,« Berling explains. »First, fibers are spun into yarn and yarn is woven into fabrics. These fabrics then go through several baths in dyed water to pick up their hue. After this, they’re turned into garments and other products, like backpacks, tents or sleeping bags.«
How many baths a fabric needs, how warm these have to be and what chemicals must be added to make the dye stick all depend on what kind of fibers are used. Especially for cotton, the process requires high temperatures, large amounts of fixatives and lots of water, both for dyeing and rinsing off unfixed dye. Very often, the process is fueled by coal, and wastewater is such a problem that according to studies cited by the World Bank a fifth of all water pollution may come from industrial treatment and dyeing of textiles. Overall, textiles production has been estimated to emit more greenhouse gases per year than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Since it picks up color more readily than cotton, dyeing polyester doesn’t require quite as many resources and chemicals. But in a sense it’s even more unsustainable – because there’s a much easier way to do it.
»Essentially, polyester fibers are polymers, or plastic,« Berling points out. »And if you look for other polymers that receive color that late in the process, you’ll probably have a hard time finding one. From Lego blocks to bike helmets, virtually everything made from polymers is given color at the very start. This is how it’s done with most polyester fabrics for cars – and how I think it should be done with those for clothes and outdoor gear.«
The process is called spin-dyeing and essentially comes down to coloring the fiber instead of the fabric. Changing the timing allows this to be done in the same way as for a Lego block. The clear polyester pellets that serve as raw material for the fiber are melted together with special color-giving pellets – called masterbatches. This makes the color an integral part of the yarn that is spun and drawn from the molten polymer, and naturally also of the fabric woven from the yarn.
According to We aRe SpinDye®’s calculations, this masterbatch-based method of dyeing fibers on average needs 75% less water, 90% less chemicals and up to 40% less energy throughout the coloring process compared to regular piece dyeing. It is also stated to reduce the CO2 footprint by 30%.
Clariant is a world-leading specialist for masterbatches and has long-standing experience of giving color to polymers like polyester, whether used as fabrics in cars or other products. Seeing the tremendous sustainability benefits Berling’s idea could bring, it recognized We aRe SpinDye® as a perfect candidate for one of its sustainability-focused value chain collaborations.
Together, the partners developed a method for spin-dyeing polyester fibers in a range of nearly 2,000 different colors. The method not only has the potential to save large amounts of resources and, chemicals but also brings other advantages. For one thing, it is so precise and reliable that it prevents off-color batches, a frequent problem in conventional dyeing that can send otherwise perfect items straight to the landfill. And it also makes fabrics virtually unfadable, further extending the life cycle of the sustainably dyed clothes.
Backing its impressive claims with validation from the Swedish research group Swerea and providing the kind of traceability that consumers increasingly look for, We aRe SpinDye® has already started making a noticeable splash in the industry. After its first collaboration with Berling’s former employer Fjällräven, who used the method for a recycled version of its iconic Kånken backpack, cooperations with other high-profile brands such as Quiksilver soon followed.
With their partner Clariant, the Swedish color reformers are looking to establish spin-dyeing as the new default method for the global outdoor, sports and fashion industries. To give dyeing a better timing – and consumers a more carefree time when wearing dyed clothes.