In the 18th century, cotton was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in the UK, propelling the textiles market into a new age with the invention of the spinning jenny, the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel. Since then, the process of manufacturing cotton fibres into diversified fabrics – from jeans, to curtains and knits – has come a long way.
Now, cotton represents just over one-third of the world textile fibre demand, and the sheer size of the supply chain means there’s much room for innovation and efficiency gains. “Cotton is cultivated across 80 countries and manufactured in over 160, meaning it has a truly global supply chain”, says Mark Messura, Executive Vice-President, Global Supply Chain Marketing for Cotton Incorporated, a leading organisation working on innovation and research on cotton worldwide. He sums up the challenge: “With five steps for processing fibres into fabric, and a myriad of actors involved at each step, reducing its main impacts on water, energy and pollution from chemicals isn’t an easy task.”
True: we often forget that, before it materialises as a garment or bed sheet, the cotton plant is first cultivated and harvested, the fibre is extracted, there are preparation processes such as cleaning and combing to turn that raw cotton into yarn; then there’s the spinning and weaving, and finally finishing processes like dyeing, bleaching, scouring and printing.
Peter Salcedo, a Trader specialising in sustainable supply at Plexus Cotton, a major global procurer, points to the complexity of the cotton supply chain as an obstacle to sustainability. The key to more sustainable cotton, he believes, lies in strong relationships between different actors in the chain. That way, brands will be able to communicate much more to consumers about the process behind the products they choose, potentially driving demand for best practice.
Plexus Cotton lives up to its creed that traceability is the way forward, starting with raw material production. The company connects East African farmers with each other, and then with mills which can supply global brands. This way, the cotton delivered to the brand can easily be traced back to producers.
Of course, one way to navigate the complexity of the cotton supply chain is to keep textiles production and manufacturing close to home. The UK retailer John Lewis has been maintaining relationships with local producers, and is now celebrating the 60th anniversary of Herbert Parkinson, the textile factory in Lancashire which it owns. The factory produces John Lewis’ own-brand duvets and pillows, weaves furnishing fabrics and fulfils the department store’s made-to-measure curtain service.
Biological enzymes remove the need for highly corrosive and polluting chemicals
Meanwhile, behind the closed doors of milling factories, new approaches are minimising the impact of cotton manufacturing, one step at a time. One new development is the use of biological enzymes, which remove the need for highly corrosive and polluting chemicals traditionally used in cotton manufacturing processes for scouring and bleaching, denim abrasion and shade change. Enzymes allow treatments to be undertaken at lower temperatures, with neutral PH solutions; this chemical-free process requires less washing, thereby decreasing water and energy consumption.
DuPont Industrial Biosciences (DIB), a leader in the sphere, has been trialling its new bio-enzyme set PrimaGreen since 2009. Following a pilot with Cotton Incorporated in 2011, it has now designed a way of processing and dyeing knits using exclusively enzymes. DIB then deployed a large-scale testing of PrimaGreen at a Pacific Textiles factory in China in 2012. Confirming results of the latter trial, Nico van Schoot, Marketing Manager of DIB’s BioActives explains: “Not only does using PrimaGreen allow [the manufacturer] to reduce water, energy, pollutants and processing time, but the final result is a higher quality of fabric, in terms of softness and colour.”
Mary Ankeny, Director of Dyeing Research at Cotton Incorporated, agrees that bio-enzymes are part of the future of cotton processing and points to several collaborating companies whose innovations could change the market. For example, Huntsman’s new revolutionary Avitera dyes, which reduce water consumption and allow for low temperature dyeing, have already been adopted by the well-known brands Lacoste and Marks & Spencer.
Another innovative processing product may sound less impressive: foam. Clariant Business Textiles is using the spongy material it has pioneered and patented, Foam Eco Care, to apply dyes and chemistry to the fabrics instead of soaking the textiles in large pools of solutions. This new technique dramatically reduces water consumption but also has been found to increase fabric strength.
Central Textiles, a giant in yarn and denim manufacturing based in Hong Kong, is also determined to eliminate water inefficiencies, after a study in 2009 revealed it took more than 20 litres of water to dye and finish a single denim fabric. Using a vibrating membrane technology, the company is able to separate the indigo dye for denim from their waste water stream to reuse both the dye and the water.
Digital cotton printing can help reduce waste
When it comes to the last stages of processing cotton, computer technology has also produced its share of efficiencies. Digital cotton printing does exactly what the name suggests. Hardly a difficult concept to grasp, it uses digital files to print on garment. Yet this is still considered highly novel as most designs in garments are still printed with the help of a mechanical rotary screen. This traditional method means dyeing inputs need to be manually changed for every new pattern to be imprinted, wasting materials, chemicals, and mostly time.
With highly promising new technologies, is cotton manufacturing entering a new era? Maybe not just yet, as most of these cutting edge techniques are still at the trial stage. As Ankeny explains, “The textile industry is soaked in tradition; flamboyant new concepts don’t stick easily. Small incremental changes in machinery are more accepted, but only if costs can be justified!”
Ultimately, investment in the industry will be led by brand demand, ensuring that the upfront costs of innovation pay off. Messura from Cotton Incorporated highlights the work of Polo Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss, JC Penny and WalMart, with which Cotton Incorporated has already collaborated. He also notes the work of sustainable cotton initiatives such as the Better Cotton Initiative and Greenpeace’s Detox campaign, with names like Abercrombie & Fitch, adidas, Calvin Klein, Converse, H&M, Ikea and Nike.
“More and more retailers and textile brands have become involved deep into their supply chain over the past three years”, Messura observes. “Their involvement is necessary to find a long-term solution to pay for the costs of improvements.”
Emilie Beauchamp is a doctoral researcher in environmental sciences at Imperial College, London.
Photo Credit: John Lewis; dotshock/shutterstock