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The Intersection of 2020 and the Future of Textiles

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In her final piece for WhichPLM this year, resident digital printing expert Debbie McKeegan here explores the state of the climate, and the future of textiles. Debbie is the CEO of TexIntel – an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing Industry.

As the year draws to a close it’s always a good time for positive reflection, an opportunity to put the past behind us (and leave it there!) and to take the year’s commercial achievements forward. It’s an opportunity to build on proven strategies and push the boundaries for the year ahead. So, what did we learn commercially in 2019? Has it been a smart year for the Textile industry?

The biggest headline for 2019 has to be sustainability, and rightly so. Finally the global business community, politicians and consumers have awakened to the facts. Climate change is real! It affects each and every one of us to a greater or lesser degree (irony noted), and as a global population we have to bring about change, together. Small steps cumulatively will make a huge positive impact for mankind.

Driven by the consumers’ demand for carbon neutrality the Textile industry is adapting its manufacturing processes and facing up to its responsibilities, albeit slowly, and perhaps too slowly to fully reverse the damage of the past. However, numerous new technologies have emerged onto the market this year and progress is gaining pace. Although it has to be said that, whilst not in the public domain, many of these technologies have been years in the making.

All products, be they intended for Fashion, Interiors or Apparel, use textiles. The fabrics that we use in our daily lives are the bedrock of necessary change.

The environmental footprint of the Textile Industry is now under scrutiny as one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, for its use of precious resources, toxic waste and intensive use of non-renewable energy.

Whilst I accept that there is a lot of green washing in the media, pushed by inscrutable marketeers who seek to profit from the sustainability trend, this isn’t a trend; the Textile industry is making serious commitments to bring about change by investing billions into sustainable alternatives and, through blue chip company collaboration, these initiatives are making an impact.

Gap and Arvind (both billion-dollar companies) this year fulfilled their pledge to build a joint bioreactor project that will save over 2.5 billion litres of water annually. Global apparel retailer GAP INC, and the global textile manufacturer Arvind LTD unveiled a new water treatment facility that will eliminate the use of freshwater at Arvind’s denim manufacturing facility in Ahmedabad. This marks a significant milestone in the ongoing efforts of both companies to reduce the amount of water used in the apparel production pipeline.

The new facility will save 8 million litres of fresh water daily, or 2.5 billion litres of fresh water on a yearly basis, preserving the local communities’ vital freshwater resources.

The apparel industry is one of the most intensive users of water in the world and, in India, 54 percent of the population faces a high to extremely high water risk. Arvind’s denim manufacturing facility in Ahmedabad, the first mill in India to manufacture denim, will now operate entirely with reclaimed water using a membrane bioreactor technology, which will treat domestic water drawn from the surrounding community without chemicals in the process. A newly constructed pipeline will draw wastewater from the local municipal pipeline.

In the face of local water scarcity, the facility will also reduce the business risk for Arvind and other businesses that source from the facility due to the new reliable availability of water. Across the globe similar projects are in progress.

Fibres too are seeing a new dawn, and we see numerous initiatives making a significant sustainable impact.

All fabrics begin as fibres, be that synthetic or natural, and in recent years the industry has found sustainable alternatives in short supply. But in the last year alone huge strides have been made in the technical production and availability of sustainable fibre production. With huge investments promised, the availability of circular substrates is set to improve in the year ahead.

Currently there are approximately 31 manufacturers worldwide of wood pulp fibre, and Lenzing are leading the field. Responsible sourcing and sustainability are key elements of Lenzing’s corporate strategy. They help preserve global forests and prevent deforestation, which in turn makes a substantial contribution to climate protection. Ranking in first position in the Canopy certification, re-confirms Lenzing’s responsible procurement of wood (a fibre used to make viscose) and underpins their role as a leader in sustainable fibre technology. Lenzing also helps to preserve the global forests to facilitate the production of cellulose fibres for textile yarns, and fabrics, and have made over 100 million dollars of investment this year alone to both improve the ecological footprint of the Lenzing site and to increase sustainable pulp (wood fibre) production.

On the subject of micro-fibres and the damage that they are doing to the environment, and by way of a tribute to the power of collaboration, Arcelik, the parent company to 12 leading home appliance brands (including two of Europe’s largest: Beko and Grundig), announced at IFA 2019 its commitment to make its micro-fibre filtering technologies available to competitors in the Home Appliance industry. The company has developed the world’s first washing machine with a built-in synthetic micro-fibre filtration system, which will be available for purchase in 2020.

More than 1 million micro-fibres per wash cycle are flushed down the drain, to end up in our oceans and are proven to be contaminating the food chain. The new technology will block 90% of this contamination.

In his keynote speech, Arcelik CEO, Hakan Bulgurlu, called for closer industry partnerships and is ready to share the new cutting edge technology for the greater good. Bulgurlu asserted that humanity faces a global crisis by damaging and destroying the environment at a quicker rate than it can regenerate itself. “As a company with a global footprint, with products and services in 146 countries, we made it our mission to do everything within our power to make a change as time is running out in the fight against environmental disasters – most importantly climate catastrophe. That’s why we believe creating a value through reducing the environmental damage that we are causing as an industry is a key opportunity we should seize. This technology is one of the most important innovations to come out of Arçelik and it has the potential to create far-reaching and significant change in our world.”

Circularity is also big business, and points the way to a sustainable future; the next year will see this initiative grow and grow. We have to move to a circular economy if we are to save precious resources, and the only way we can do that is to change the fundamental principles of product design and utilize recycled fabrics and fibres where possible.

Recycling is the keystone to a circular economy, and as yet, it has to be said that we do not have the facilities, or global infrastructure, to deal with the volume of textiles that need to be recycled, or the technology to repurpose the blended volume of fibres required for recycled yarn production worldwide. But progress is being made and, once established, these technologies will require scaling to meet demand. By way of example, Poseidon Plastics, a waste recycling company and the co-developers of a unique monomer recycling technology that converts polyester waste to recycled raw materials (BHET) to produce RPET has signed an MOU contract with Dupont, and Teijin Films to assist and develop a pathway to constructing an initial 1,000 tons per year with a further increase to 10,000 tons per plant per year achievable.

And so, as technology begins to catch up with our newly invigorated demand for sustainable fabrics, great care needs to be taken in the sourcing of such fabrics. All is not as it seems, we need to be transparent and to truly understand the recycling process utilized in the fabrics we choose if we are to correctly define for end-use. The consumer needs clarification, and the manufacturer needs certification to ensure that the carbon footprint, and environmental impact of the recycled fabrics we choose, is less than the original version.

I for one have expanded my knowledge of sustainable practice 500% this year, and it has on occasion become a full time obsession, but, it’s early days for the industry as a whole; and for practitioners within the Textile industry, designers and manufacturers alike, we all need to learn fast to make critical progress and save the planet’s precious resources.

The Textile workbook has changed forever; forget the principles of the past, read as much as you can in the year ahead, listen to your mentors and collaborative peers, take on board as much information as possible, collaborate – and together we can all make a huge change…

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.