Color It Green: Nike to Adopt Waterless Textile Dyeing

Two Steps Forward

Color It Green: Nike to Adopt Waterless Textile Dyeing

“Just dye it.”

That might be a fitting twist on Nike’s iconic slogan after today’s announcement that it is adopting a waterless dyeing technology that uses recycled carbon dioxide to color synthetic textiles.

The process, which the company has been exploring for eight years, could eliminate the use of countless billions of gallons of polluted discharges into waterways near manufacturing plants in Asia, where much of the world’s textile dyeing occurs. On average, an estimated 100-150 liters (about 26-40 gallons) of water is needed to process one kg (2.2 pounds) of textile materials. Industry analysts estimate that more than 39 million tons of polyester will be dyed annually by 2015.

The waterless dyeing process, developed by Netherlands-based DyeCoo Textile Systems — the name “DyeCoo” comes from conflating “dyeing” with “CO2” — will begin to show up on Nike products later this year. It utilizes a supercritical fluid carbon dioxide, or SCF, technology, so called because it involves heating carbon dioxide to above 31º C (88° F) and pressurizing it. At that stage, it becomes supercritical, a state of matter that can be seen as an expanded liquid or a heavily compressed gas. DyeCoo’s process was launched last fall after 11 years in R&D.

Water is used as a solvent in many textile pretreatment and finishing processes, such as washing, scouring, bleaching, and dyeing. Water scarcity and increased environmental awareness are global concerns. Textile coloring and treatment accounts for between 17 percent and 20 percent of global industrial pollution, according to The World Bank, including 72 toxic chemicals in water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which are cannot be removed using conventional treatment techniques.

SCF CO2 technology already is utilized at scale in other industries such as the decaffeination of coffee and the extraction of natural flavors and fragrances. DyeCoo is believed to be the first company to successfully apply the SCF CO2 process to the commercial dyeing of polyester fabric, and research is underway to apply the technology to cellulosic and synthetic fabrics.

Making the switch “wasn’t that difficult,” Eric Sprunk, Nike’s VP of Merchandising and Product, told me recently. “The biggest resistance was an investment in the way things are done today. But I don't think it's going to be difficult going forward to dye textiles using zero water. That's an easy sell for anyone in the apparel industry.”

Moreover, he said, the cost wasn’t prohibitive. While Sprunk wouldn’t disclose the price differential for the waterless technology, he said, “We're not going to be at a cost-disadvantage almost from the get-go.”

Sprunk added: “This is a game-changer for us.”

DyeCoo hadn’t been an existing Nike supplier, a terrific case study of an innovative young company potentially disrupting global markets. “When we met up with them, they had the IP [intellectual property] and the appetite and motivation to do this on a large scale,” said Sprunk. He noted that DyeCoo, which manufactures the dyeing equipment, will sell its technology not just to companies in the Nike supply chain, but also to Nike’s competitors. “Our intention and belief is that dye houses and textile manufacturers for other brands will have access to this.”

According to DyeCoo, the environmental benefits of its technology include the elimination of water consumption and discharges, the elimination of wastewater as well as effluent from the drying process, reductions in energy use and air emissions, faster dyeing time, and the elimination of surfactants and other chemicals used in many dyes. It says that 95 percent of the CO2 used in the process is recycled.

In addition, the process requires less re-dyeing, another massive water consumer. According to Pawan Mehra, Managing Director at cKinetics, which helps early-stage companies in emerging economies adopt sustainable technologies, “We have seen 4-6 times the amount of energy and water being used by dye-houses when fabric is meant for US or EU markets, as compared to the energy and water spent for fabric going to other markets.” The reason, he says, is that US and EU buyers demand exact color-matching, requiring more frequent re-dyeing.

(Ever since Mehra first shared this factoid with me a couple years ago, I’ve wondered why some sustainably minded apparel company — a Patagonia, say — doesn’t end this practice and proudly advertise that “Our Shirts Don’t Match!” In addition to explaining why, it could point out that most of us buy only one shirt anyway — and why would we want it to look exactly like everyone else’s?)

I asked my friend, Summer Rayne Oakes — model, activist, and co-founder of Source4Style, which helps designers find sustainably source materials — about Nike announcement. She applauded the move, calling it “a manifestation of the general movement within the industry to reduce water, energy, and chemical consumption.” Oakes explained that a few other textile and apparel companies are already engaged with water-reduction techniques, including Huntsman Dyes, which recently came out with water- and energy-efficient reactive dyeing technologies for natural materials (Huntsman is a Source4Style sponsor); Levi Strauss & Co., which in 2010 launched a Water<less campaign; and Air-Dye, another waterless dyeing technology for polyester and other synthetic materials, which has done large-scale applications for brands like Jones Group, Argenti, Title Nine, MycraPac, Marks & Spencer, Asics, and Wacoal. Air Dye’s technology “allows for greater breadth of design options than Dyecoo’s because the application allows you to dye very different prints or colors on opposite sides of the fabric,” she noted.

Oakes, who recently produced two brief, fun videos on water-saving textile technologies — see here and here -- added, “I believe that water is going to be — and is starting to become — one of the major focus points for apparel brands. It's the new 'organic' — that is, it's going to be a major buzzword now."