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Digital Textile Printing Unlocks the Supply Chain & Offers Speed Alongside Sustainability


Here, resident digital printing expert Debbie McKeegan shares the need for true supply chain sustainability in the digital printing marketplace. Debbie is the CEO of TexIntel – an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing Industry.

Digital Textile printing has now been around for more than two decades and is seen by all as the future of print. Early machines were slow and unstable, offering a solution for product sampling and nothing more. It has taken years of research and development to establish Digital Textile Printing as a viable alternative to conventional screen printing for Fashion and Home Furnishings. The development was held back for years by print head and ink technology, which was slow to catch up with the commercial digital print reform that we witnessed in the 1990s for digital paper printing.

Digital Print is now a viable alternative, available to all textile manufacturing businesses and print buyers. It offers incredible versatility and, importantly, addresses the commercial needs of a marketplace that has changed beyond all recognition over the last 15 years. Digital print does still cost more than conventional rotary print, metre for metre, and yet, as a sector, it’s set for massive growth, predicted at 18% in the next 3 years globally. We have to ask ourselves why? There are a number of fundamental drivers that are fuelling the growth in digital print technology. For manufacturing the most important being: sustainability, speed, flexibility and new emerging markets.

But, undoubtedly, the biggest change lies within consumer behaviour, and in the global kick back against two decades of Fast Fashion and a worldwide resistance to mass production. As a new generation of environmentally conscious consumers wield their buying power, the textile marketplace has had to adapt to restructure, and consolidate the manufacturing supply chain, and continues to do so. Software has facilitated this reform, and automation has a huge role to play.

The eco-conscious consumer

Sustainability is driving the agenda, and rightly so. Not so long ago just being organic was considered ‘good enough’, but today’s consumer has an eco-conscience and the market must supply the products that they want to purchase.

Image Copyright: Yunrao Chen

The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water, producing 20 percent of wastewater, while also generating more greenhouse gas emissions and using more energy than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Traditional processes of dyeing and printing textiles put huge strains upon local eco-systems worldwide and the raw material resources of the countries that they operate in.

It is well known that Digital Textile Printing has an extraordinarily low consumption of electricity. It is typically 3.5% of the Screen Printing energy requirement, however it is in its water usage that the difference is really paramount. Taking printed cotton as an example, each metre printed by conventional reactive printing uses between 50 and 60 litres of water per metre produced, in order to generate the colour depth and fastness required. This water is then discharged as effluent into the local water system where the chemicals and dyes used pollute the local environment, unless they are re-processed through expensive effluent treatment plants.

By contrast, digitally printed cotton virtually eliminates the consumption of water and the discharge of noxious effluents.

Using low volumes of liquid dispersions of pigment colours, Digital Print achieves similar physical results to traditional technologies without the huge environmental impact of rotary or flatbed printing. This is because the ink used in Digital Textile Printing is typically 10% of the volume used when compared to screen printing.

Digital Printing using pigments also removes the need for water and energy greed post processing as well, since colour fastness is achieved by heat fixation alone as opposed to lengthy steam fixation and washing off procedures.

The mass market

Digital Textile Printing not only offers the Fashion industry an elegant and cost effective production system, it also offers an opportunity for the industry to dramatically reduce waste and energy consumption as well as improving our chemical and environmental sustainability.

But as the market gears up towards the eventual digital switchover there are issues with the sustainable supply chain of the raw components. Stella McCartney, a lifetime advocate for sustainable manufacture, recently commented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit on the poor availability of sustainable fabrics and components for those manufacturers that want to be greener. There are huge gaps in the supply of core products with a green eco passport. And, what’s more, they are often an expensive option.

Until the large brands that consume vast volumes of cotton and polyester switch to a policy of sustainable supply (and many have pledged to) this will remain the case. Currently Digital Print is measured at between 5-7% of the global textile print marketplace; we are only at the beginning of this journey.

At present, sustainable products are not available to the mass market at an affordable price, and remain a considered purchase with a premium price tag. The lack of readily available, affordable consumables also applies to the digital print industry. Many ink suppliers offer, or are hurrying to develop, eco-friendly inks. But what exactly does eco-friendly mean? It’s not good enough to loosely use a word to define and reassure the consumer as to the precise composition of the raw components in the prints that they procure. Consumers want detailed information as to the chemicals that contact their skin. To meet the growing needs of our future consumers and the preservation of our planet, the print marketplace desperately needs standardisation and clear certification.

Image Copyright: Yunrao Chen

It’s equally difficult to ascertain the chemical composition of printed cotton and polyester base fabrics as a printer (analogue or digital). In order to print digitally for cotton, as an example, the fabric also has to be pre-treated with a chemical mix to fix the printed colour to the surface of the cloth. The base cloth may already contain numerous nasty chemicals added during regular textile processing. Buying consumables from a certified source is critical. The certification of the final product will vary dependent on the ink, coating composition and coating method, alongside the base fabric source.

Only when the entire supply chain is certified can we pass on a truly sustainable product.

A clear future

The end user demands clarity, and it will soon be a requirement of all print manufacturers, large and small, to list the certifications that apply to their products. Currently, these critical details are neither regulated nor compulsory for the sale of many products, and the boundaries remain blurred for required end use.

However, there is light at the end of this complex tunnel and various essential certification for sustainability and ethical supply are now in the public domain – GOTS, Sedex, Reach, UL208, Bluesign, Oeko-Tex, for example – some of which have existed for many years within our industry, and are becoming an increasingly popular and important requirement. Certification is now an essential marketing tool for manufacturers and retailers alike, but in the past would seldom have been used as it is today as marketing collateral. Both printers and print buyers now require certification to offer clients a responsible product with a sustainable integrity.

Sustainable supply and certification is a vast and complex issue. For many digital manufacturers new to the Textile marketplace, it’s an essential learning curve that cannot be overlooked. Professional advice is essential.

In the fast paced world of print-on-demand, and just-in-time manufacturing, new skills are now required for efficient manufacturing. Digital printing technology has without a doubt simplified the print process, and now offers a viable, sustainable alternative to conventional print. We have removed forever many of the inefficient layers of traditional process for the manufacturing of textiles and my wish is that we now strive to remove the toxic chemicals currently used in textile fabric processing.

Digital print technology is versatile, fast, efficient, sustainable and definitely the future.

Collectively, we are now entering a new era of textile technology. And the truth is that, in order to improve global sustainability, we have to now develop new technologies that efficiently address re-cycling, circular design, sustainable process, manufacture and supply.

Creating sustainable products isn’t necessarily a green process. Re-cycling demands energy, water and creates waste. How we address and measure these issues will determine the future.

Consumers are willing to pay more for sustainability; how much more is yet to be defined. As the millennial generation comes of age, buying sustainable products is becoming a primary reason for purchase. Today’s consumers and industry professionals demand sustainable products. As an industry it’s our job to meet those demands and deliver them.

Debbie McKeegan Award winning British designer, Debbie McKeegan, began her digital journey almost two decades ago – pre-Photoshop, and pre-digital print. With a manufacturing background, a vast knowledge of traditional textiles (from both a design and production perspective), and an interest in CAD from its onset, today Debbie serves as an expert in the world of digital print. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. She is the CEO of TextIntel - an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing industry. As a WhichPLM contributor, she is able to pass on her wisdom as a digital pioneer; embracing the creative freedom offered with the advancement of new technology, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge.