Originally published at World Textile Information Network (WTiN) by Andrew Vaux on 24 August 2022. WTiN provides textile industry innovation at your fingertips, with unmatched insight and analysis into the innovations shaping the global textile value chain. Sustainable production of textiles is an increasingly important issue in the world of fashion.
There’s absolutely no doubt that sustainability is an increasingly important issue for many people, especially in the business world.
Climate change continues to affect our lives as well as the fate of all other species around the planet.
For business owners, leaders and administrators, sustainable business practices are becoming more essential. According to NASA, it’s more than 95% likely that human activity is causing the planet to get warmer. Due to its reliance on land, resources, fossil fuels and non-stop production and consumption, human industry plays a key role in the climate change picture.
But what exactly is sustainability?
Put quite simply, it’s developing products, goods and services to meet our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfil their own needs.
Sustainability as a concept recognises that the environment is an exhaustible resource.
Therefore, we must use the environment and its resources rationally and protect it for the good of the earth, our environment, humanity and all living things.
Whoever we are, wherever we live and whatever we do, we all have a moral obligation to each other, our future generations and other species to sustain the planet. Our present choices and actions have huge, long-term impacts on future generations. Practising sustainability ensures that we make ethical choices that bring a safe and liveable future to everyone.
In the long-term, our society benefits from improved water and air quality, reduced landfills and increased renewable energy sources. Sustainable actions help make a real difference in society.
A commitment to sustainability will reduce carbon footprint and the amount of toxins released into the environment, making it safer.
By focusing on sustainability, the entire world benefits and gets to live in clean, more healthy living conditions.
Encouraging the conservation of natural resources affects not only company standards and brand, but also employees and their families. Making sustainability a key business priority is essential as the societal impact can reach far and wide.
In 2015 the United Nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to create a better, fairer world by 2030 – ending poverty, urgently addressing climate change and ending inequality.
The global textile market – projected at $1000 billion in 2020 and expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.4% from 2021 to 2028 (Source: www.grandviewresearch.com) – is connected with five out of the 17 SDGs. These are Climate Action, Gender Equality, Responsible Consumption & Production, Clean Water & Sanitisation and Decent Work & Economic Growth.
As one of the most polluting industries in the world, the textile industry must explore ways of becoming sustainable to minimise resources and pollution, improve the safety of workers and ensure the right of consumers to make an informed choice. Its supply chain includes agriculture, manufacturing, processing, fabric care, use, recycling and disposal.
The industry applies many of the most hazardous engineering processes, so the sustainable development of all textile industries must consider the negative impacts on the environment and implement proper mitigation plans.
The future of a sustainable textile industry largely depends on its ability to reduce the use of resources, such as land, water and oil. It should also ensure the reuse and recycling of products to minimise waste.
In addition, there are other aspects of sustainability that the textile industry should focus on, including protecting the environment and human health, occupational safety, gender equality, and meeting the demand of consumers for eco-friendly textile products.
Achieving the SDGs without compromising the competitiveness of industries can be ensured through new product development, quality improvement, productivity improvement, cost control and adopting green and eco-friendly initiatives gradually.
To address sustainability in the textile industry, we need to consider the key processes involved.
Printing is a significant process in the production of textiles and apparel.
Analogue screen-printing remains the dominant process, but the technology’s output share is being eroded by digital inkjet solutions.
Digital textile printing is a process of printing on textiles and garments using inkjet technology to print colourants onto fabric. This allows for single pieces, mid to small-run cycle production and even long-runs as an alternative option to screen-printed fabric.
The first step in digital textile printing is to pre-treat the fabric in preparation for it to accept the ink and better absorb the colour. Then the textile is fed through the printer, which deposits the dye onto the textile with tiny droplets through inkjet print heads.
The final step is fixing the fabric, a process that ensures the permanency of the design. Depending on the type of textile and type of dye, fixing may involve steam, dry heat, or pressure. Sometimes it requires a combination of two or more of those.
Meanwhile, screen printing uses squeegees to push paste-like inks through the openings in a prepared mesh screen. The ink is only deposited in areas where the mesh openings haven’t been blocked by the hardening of a photosensitive emulsion layer.
Screen printing can use a wide range of inks and print on almost any substrate, including papers, films, textiles, plastics, metals, wood, wallpapers and manufactured garments, parts and objects.
So, when it comes to sustainability, which option is favourable – digital textile printing or screen printing?
Prior to the advent of digital printing technology, the textile industry consumed massive amounts of water and energy, contaminating the environment with dye stuff and numerous toxic chemicals.
Meanwhile, digital textile printing offers an efficient solution when compared to traditional analogue screen printing, which consumes in the region of 50-60 litres of water per metre. Digital textile printing also uses smaller quantities of colour, typically 10% of the volume used when compared to screen printing. Pigment inks, and their requirement for fixation only finishing (no washing), use less than 10 litres of water per metre.
Digitally printed cotton virtually eliminates the consumption of water – at least in the printing phase – and the discharge of noxious effluents. Using low volumes of liquid dispersions of pigment colours, therefore, offers a positive environmental impact.
Digital textile printing with pigments also removes the need for water and energy post processing, since colour fastness is achieved by heat fixation alone as opposed to lengthy steam fixation and washing off procedures.
WTiN approached some industry experts for their views on traditional screen printing compared with evolving digital textile printing technologies.
Based in the Netherlands, and represented in more than 100 countries worldwide, SPG Prints is a leading global manufacturer of consumables for printed textiles and labels. The product offering primarily consists of consumables used in the printing process (rotary screens, lacquers, inks and digital engraving). These are complemented by a full range of printing systems and after-sales spare parts, installation and maintenance services.
The company’s digital printing product manager, Jos Notermans, comments: “Nowadays we hear more and more that digital textile printing is opening up a new paradigm in textile printing. Faster, cheaper and more sustainable – this is how digital printing is described. But is digital textile printing indeed a sustainable dream coming true or are we looking way too much through a rose-coloured lens?
“Assessing the edge to which digital textile printing is more sustainable than analogue, we should look at the consumables that each process uses.”
“The major digital textile printing consumables are inks and print heads, with the rotary ones being screens and printing paste. Considering only the amount of the consumables used, digital wins with the least consumables required. Yet keeping in mind the process printing requirements, we should also not neglect the emissions from the evaporation of organic solvents contained in the inks.”
“At the same time, the digital textile inks – particularly disperse, sublimation and pigment types that involve only a heat-fixation step for post-treatment – contribute to a significant energy and water economy of around 50% and 70% accordingly.”
“Furthermore, the ink consumption and waste for digital printing is considerably less compared to conventional printing which also includes extra chemical waste from screen production.”
Jos concludes: “For some of the stages of the digital printing process, such as steaming or washing, substantial amounts of water and energy are still required. So, even if digital textile printing might look like a more eco alternative at first sight, there’s still a long way ahead for us to transform digital printing into a sustainable reality.”
Director, Abid Omar, says: “Compared to conventional technology (screen printing), digital textile printing is significantly more sustainable with reduced energy, chemical, dyestuff and water consumption in every step of the process.
“Digital textile printing also offers short production runs, enabling faster reaction to market demand, lowering stocking and inventory costs of over-production. And finally, print-on-demand, all of which together is less carbon intensive and more sustainable.”
He continues: “Digital textile is just one part of the process. We find that pre- and post-production technology should also be appropriately chosen. For example, pre-treatment methods and recipes can be fine-tuned to the digital process for better sharpness, colour depth and saturation while reducing chemical usage. Post-printing washing can be less intensive due to a reduction in the quantity of dyestuff and chemicals used.
“Regarding the comparison for digital direct-to-garment, roll-to-roll (direct) and roll-to-roll (sublimation), those are more about specific end-markets than about the technology in terms of comparison to conventional. However, the sustainability benefits would be the same regardless of the type of printing. For example, the savings in the ink resulting in less intensive washing and lower energy consumption.”
“For energy from renewable sources, while we may not be able to fully replace existing energy due to their variable nature, these sources will certainly reduce carbon footprints. We’re planning to install solar at our factory in Pakistan next year (2023). For full self-sufficiency, energy storage technology has a long way to go before being economically viable.”
UK-based RA Smart (CAD & Machinery) is a bespoke manufacturer and supplier of specialist short-run textile printing equipment and auxiliary equipment. It supplies commercial printers, design studios and educational establishments on a global scale.
Product manager, Alex Mighall, says: “It’s no secret that the textile industry is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the environment and climate change.
“The fashion industry, in particular, has a bad reputation with the rise of fast fashion fuelling the mass production of low-cost, short-life garments at the expense of our planet. However, the textile printing industry is changing rapidly and, as we digitalise garment production, perhaps there’s room for some redemption.
“One of the biggest factors currently contributing to the textile industry’s negative impact is water usage. Due to the processes involved, screen printing uses an average of around 50-60 litres of water per metre. Plus, you must consider where the high volume of wastewater actually ends up. Textile production alone is estimated to be responsible for around 20% of global clean water pollution. The figures aren’t good, but things could be set to improve.
“Currently, around 90% of printed textiles are produced using traditional methods – such rotary and flatbed screenprinting. That means that digital technology only accounts for roughly 10% of the market.”
Mighall continues: “But why is this significant? Because digital textile printing can significantly reduce the water usage compared with screen. Digital can use as little as two litres of water or less per metre, depending on the ink chemistry being used. Couple that with the growing trend for pigment printing and the numbers can fall even further.
“As more large and medium-scale businesses adopt digital textile printing solutions, then we should see a radical reduction in both the use of water and pollution caused by the industry.
“Additionally, energy consumption can also be considerably reduced with modern machinery focusing on minimal input requirements. If we combine this digital approach with a new outlook on textile waste management then there’s hope that the textile industry will become a more circular economy that can benefit us all.”
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