Tremendous advances in sustainable practices have been made all along the global textile manufacturing chain in the past few years – from the fibre through to the finished garment. But textile manufacturers should be in no doubt that there will be continuous pressure from their retail customers to make further improvements.
H&M, for example, estimates that fabric production accounts for around 36% of the environmental impact of its entire garment value chain, and sets the bar high for its suppliers, regularly checking how well they are living up to its demands.
Living Wage Strategy
Its latest focus is on guaranteeing workers in developing countries a living wage. “I believe that customers will increasingly demand products that not only look good and are affordable but that are also made sustainably,” says H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson. “To drive change throughout the industry requires long-term work as well as a great deal of patience. One example of this is the H&M Fair Living Wage Strategy, aiming for the suppliers in the production countries to pay wages that cover the worker needs. This strategy was launched a year ago and initially tested in three role model factories. The evaluation has now started and there are already some positive indications. H&M is prepared to pay the prices enabling suppliers to pay fair living wages.”
Considering the fact that H&M sources from 1,900 factories alone – reaching 1.6 million people – the potential for change is immense.
Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, started its ambitious Plan A programme back in January 2007, setting out 100 commitments to achieve in five years. Having done so, it has now introduced Plan A 2020, which consists of 100 new, revised and existing commitments, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer.
“We will lead our sector in sustainable consumption and production, offering our customers good value, high quality products and services, sold through an efficient multi-channel operation,” says CEO Marc Bolland. “We will produce our products with integrity – our aims are to use the most sustainable raw materials available and to work with factories operating to the highest environmental and social standards.”
As far as textile manufacturing is concerned, the latest M&S guidelines encompass:
- Sustainable products
- Sustainable raw materials
- Sustainable manufacturing
- Transparency and traceability
- Effective reporting
Among gains to date, in 2014, M&S achieved carbon neutrality for all of its operated and joint venture retail operations across the world, by reducing emissions, sourcing renewable electricity and buying and retiring carbon offsets.
M&S is also launching its updated Global Sourcing Principles which have been strengthened to include human rights, gender equality, community, fairness and small farmers to all business suppliers. It will now provide an annual update on its progress in supporting the supply chain to meet what are much higher standards than in the past.
Master the Art
These activities are just the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to new demands on textile and garment manufacturers, and it’s timely that ITMA 2015 has adopted the theme ‘Master the Art of Sustainable Innovation’.
“Sustainability, as we all know, is a major concern for global businesses involved in the textile and garment making chain,” explains Charles Beauduin, President of CEMATEX.
As just one initiative in many planned for ITMA 2015 in Milan, CEMATEX, the European Committee of Textile Machinery Manufacturers, has launched the ITMA Sustainable Innovation Award. This special award recognises textile and garment manufacturers who have developed new technological innovations that significantly benefit people, planet and profit.
For John Mowbray, editor of Ecotextile News and a member of the ITMA Sustainable Innovation Award judging panel, the textile machinery developments that have contributed the most to sustainable manufacturing in recent years have been those that not only minimise water and energy use, but also give textile manufacturers an advantage in terms of productivity and/or product innovation.
“Sustainability is not a just about resource efficiency – it’s also about improving the bottom line and competitiveness,” he says. “Over the last few years, advances in low liquor ratio dyeing have been impressive, as well as minimising waste during fabric production – such as knitting complete garments.”
There has also been much excitement about new waterless dyeing technologies.
In conventional textile dyeing, huge amounts of water are employed both in terms of the input of fresh water and the waste water that needs cleaning or disposing of after use. Water is also required in many pre-treatment and finishing processes, such as washing, scouring, bleaching and dyeing.
A new technology developed by Dyecoo in the Netherlands employs supercritical carbon dioxide in place of water and has already been adopted by high profile brands including Adidas, Ikea and Nike. It will be on display at ITMA 2015, but the fact that there is currently estimated to be around 28 billion kilos of textile fabric processed on traditional dyeing ranges globally each year, gives an indication of the size of the industry and the enormous task of achieving that perfect balance between resource savings, productivity and improving profitability.
On average, it has traditionally taken an estimated 100-150 litres of water to process 1 kg of fabric, but even assuming that completely waterless dyeing will become more widely adopted, this is already being considerably reduced. Not only have liquor ratios of as low as 2:1 been achieved with conventional dyeing technology, but the time taken to carry out the entire processing cycle has been drastically cut too.
Advanced dyestuffs are also making a very significant contribution, with new formulations developed by the major chemical producers allowing the water required for successful dyeing to be cut down to around 15-20 litres per kilo of fabric. This is even without the switch to new capital equipment, which is simply not possible for the majority of textile manufacturers any time soon, but simply by replacing one dyestuff with another and adjusting processing parameters accordingly.
Incremental improvements in spinning systems and weaving and knitting machines meanwhile, mean the latest models are on average 25% more efficient than they were a decade ago, due to a combination of higher automation and improved electronic drives, along with a general reduction in parts and lighter components.
A Holistic Event
There is, however, much more to sustainability than just machinery ‘efficiency’ – although not every ITMA exhibitor may see it that way just yet.
ITMA is becoming a more holistic textile event and attached to this are environmental issues related to waste reduction, green chemistry, recycling, raw material selection and environmental standards, labels and legislation.
To simply concentrate on machinery efficiency is in some ways missing the point, since the textile industry involves early-stage polymer production right through to post-consumer issues such as garment care and waste disposal, recycling and pollution remediation.
New solutions for these industry sectors are certainly becoming more visible at ITMA events and raw materials suppliers also bring a huge amount of knowledge to the table in terms of environmental issues. In many respects, whether it’s synthetic, man-made or natural fibre/yarn suppliers, these companies have headed the field in terms of environmental progress.
Water and energy are usually costly resources, so savings here result in improved profit margins. Yet this is not true in every textile-producing region. The industrial use of water is currently free in Bangladesh, which has contributed to the pollution seen there today. As a consequence, water saving textile dyes and chemicals and process machinery are hard to sell there. Yet in other ‘polluting’ countries such as China, the situation has changed very quickly.
In China, energy costs have risen significantly in recent years and textile mills are desperately looking for energy-saving technology.
And in terms of water, legislation is a key driver. The China ‘Clean Water Act’ will be released early in 2015, and the new ‘Air Pollutant Discharge Standards for the Textile Printing and Dyeing Industry’ will be released in 2016.
As such, providers of textile machinery that help producers meet these new criteria will benefit significantly and it’s only a matter of time before legislators in the rest of Asia and the Indian sub-continent will follow. In fact, it’s already happening now.
We love insights from our readers into how sustainable practices can be integrated seamlessly with existing operations in the textile and garment industry. Please feel free to leave your comments below.