For decades now, the international apparel and textile industry has faced a problem that may seem too big to solve: how to reduce or eliminate water pollution that's a direct result of the production process — especially the resource-intensive dyeing process.
The statistics are as familiar as they are disheartening: according to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people don't have access to potable water, which is the biggest single cause of illness and disease. The cotton industry produces 30 million tons of the fiber each year, and roughly 13 gallons of water are needed to dye just one pound of cotton. Indeed, of all fibers, cotton requires the most water for the dyeing process. And half of all garments produced annually are made from cotton.
Despite all of the technological advances in manufacturing apparel, the cotton dyeing process hasn't changed significantly since the Industrial Revolution. Most alarming, however: pollution from textile dyeing dumps 72 toxic chemicals into waterways — 30 of which cannot be removed once they've entered the water. The continuing saga in Indian textile production city Tirupur, where manufacturing facilities have come to a standstill after the Noyyal River has become clogged with pollution, is perhaps the most glaring example of the severity of the industry problem.
"We live in a hydrosphere where all water resources are connected," says Alexandra Cousteau, water conservationist and granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, speaking in New York on August 7. The textile dyeing industry is responsible for 20 percent of worldwide industrial water pollution, the World Bank reports. Cousteau developed her love of oceans when she was 11 years old and exploring their vast expanses with her famous explorer grandfather, the "steward king" of aquatic environments. "When you lose those places, you lose more than a creek or a stream — you lose the opportunity to pass them on to the next generation," she explains.
A different way of doing things
A new startup is hoping to disrupt the status quo and clean up the textile industry's black eye. Backed by 15 years and millions of dollars of research in a North Carolina laboratory, ColorZen pretreats cotton fibers to create a natural affinity between the fiber and dye, thereby eliminating the chemical additives currently required to force the dye to adhere. "We change the fiber on a molecular level, the part that's responsible for attracting or repelling the dye," says ColorZen co-founder Michael Hariri. The process uses 90 percent less water and 75 percent less energy than the standard cotton dyeing procedures, he adds, while achieving the same rich hues and colorfastness. ColorZen launched informally at the Continuum Show this year, following with a formal press event on August 7.
Manufacturers interested in the ColorZen solution avoid additional capital expenditures; the company maintains a dyeing facility and global headquarters in China where apparel producers send their raw cotton fiber for pretreatment and dyeing. The additional time required to ship the fiber to and from the ColorZen facility is balanced out by the reduced dyeing time; the company's dye process takes just one-third of the time of the traditional process, says Hariri. Technical director Tony Leonard claims that with ColorZen's process, 97 percent of the dye chemicals bond to the fabric, creating a significantly cleaner dyebath at the end of the process.
Because ColorZen doesn't rely on freshwater resources for its process, future dyeing facilities can be located virtually anywhere — even in arid regions — and could end up strategically placed near the next link in the global supply chain, says Hariri. As of now, the process works only with cotton and select other natural fibers; the company is looking into expanding the use case for cotton-synthetic blends.
ColorZen initially aims to partner with high-end brands that have the high margins capable of absorbing the modest but additional cost of its alternative dye process. Hariri insists consumers will largely avoid paying a premium for ColorZen products — which will feature specially branded hang tags in stores — explaining that additional costs are mostly recovered during production. "We're going after certain kinds of brands first, those that have already embraced sustainability," he says.
"All brands today want to be sustainable," Hariri adds. "Consumers are demanding it."
Jessica Binns is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer specializing in business, technology and social media.