Most people have a particular issue or cause that resonates with them, inspiring their support or action. For us, it’s water, or more specifically water scarcity and pollution caused by the textile industry. We have dedicated our professional lives to devising new technologies that don’t require water in order to give everyone beautiful, practical, and affordable fabrics. Now, it looks as though we have a kindred spirit in the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a long-time champion for the environment.
Recently, we learned that the NRDC has an initiative that focuses entirely on the textile industry. They call it Clean by Design. The program aspires to change the textile supply chain through market-based strategies that both improve efficiency and reduce pollution.
After a fact-finding mission to more than a dozen Chinese textile dyeing and finishing mills, and an in-depth assessment at five of them, the NRDC found that as much as 200 tons of water is polluted with every ton of fabric produced.
“People don’t think of the fashion industry as polluting the environment like chemical or steel manufacturing, but in fact it is one of the biggest polluters in China,” Linda Greer, director of the Health Program at NRDC and Clean by Design creator, wrote on the group’s blog.
The pollution and prevention assessments resulted in a best practices program that not only saves water and energy, but also quickly pays for itself, making the factories more profitable in the long term.
The study found that simple changes make a big difference. For example, these easy measures can drastically cut a textile mill’s water and energy use:
- Maintaining steam traps
- Finding and fixing steam leaks
- Turning off hoses that are no longer in use
- Insulating pipes, valves, and flanges
- Reusing the water used for cooling
The NRDC also pinpointed what it believed to be the biggest opportunity for improvement, “right-first-time” dyeing. In most mills, 10 to 20 percent of fabric must be run two or three times to get the colors to a client’s specifications. Even then, five percent will never be right no matter how many times it’s run. When this happens, all the water, dye, fabric, and energy used for dyeing is wasted.
Of course, we can’t let an opportunity pass by, if these mills implemented AirDye® technology, there would be no water used during the dye process and an even greater reduction in energy use than the Clean by Design best practices can offer. Not to mention that every yard of fabric would be “right-first-time” dyed.
In all, the NRDC developed ten practical low-cost best-practice opportunities for textile mills that would quickly produce savings to more than offset the upfront costs. Taken together, these initiatives can reduce water use by 25 percent, and fuel use by 30 percent. In less than eight months, the investment can be recouped, enhancing productivity, and leading to annual savings.
To test the best practice theory, NRDC and a Wal-Mart supplier in China, Jiangsu Redbud Textile Company became the first case study. The results were immediate and impactful. “With only three best practices, Redbud achieved 23 percent reductions in water use and nearly 11 percent reductions in coal.” The mill made a one-time upfront investment of $72,000 to implement just three of the best practices. The result? The mill achieved annual savings of $840,000 and improved from the second-worst dye and finishing mill for environmental compliance, to second best.
The savings alone should be reason enough for mills to adopt these practices–even at companies not interested in curtailing their environmental impact.
If the NRDC could convince just 100 small- to medium-sized textile mills to adopt the recommended best practices, China could save enough water to provide 12.4 million people with drinking water for a year. The reduction in CO2 emissions would be the equivalent of taking 172,000 cars off the road. And if you think this is just China’s problem, consider this: 30 percent of California’s air pollution comes from across the Pacific.
We hope the NRDC succeeds in its quest to encourage textile mills to adopt these best practices. With the heft of the Clean by Design partner brands, Wal-Mart and H&M, perhaps this is just the right time for the industry to clean up its act.
Others in the textile industry can do their part by insisting their supply chain is adhering to environmental standards. Now everyone has a proven set of best practices they can use to measure mills.
Kudos to the NRDC and its partner brands for their hard work developing market-based solutions to improve efficiency and reduce pollution in the textile industry.