Will digital textile printing reduce environmental impact?

Will digital textile printing reduce environmental impact?

Arguments for using digital technology for textile printing are pretty much the same as for using it in any other print sector. 

Markets appreciate bespoke short run options, customisation and on demand production. Digital printing cuts waste and improves cost control through inventory minimisation.

Collapsing traditional supply chains to produce goods in weeks and even days instead of months, fits the fast fashion ethos. But one benefit trumps all others: sustainability.

After agriculture, textile production is the world’s biggest water polluter, mostly because of dyeing processes. The World Bank estimates that it’s responsible for over 20% of industrial water pollution. According to the British government, the UK’s textile industry produces 3.1 million tonnes of CO2, two million tonnes of waste and 70 million tonnes of waste water annually.

It gets worse. The treatment, dyeing and rinsing of textiles also impacts the air and soil. Over 2,000 chemicals including benzidine and toluidine, ammonia, various salts, chlorine and heavy metals are used in a miscellany of dyes, defoamers, bleaches, detergents and brighteners. 

Textile production leads to dozens of toxic chemicals getting dumped into the world’s waterways, including formaldehyde, chlorine, lead and mercury. Nitrogen and sulphur oxides are emitted from textile boilers, and although textile waste ideally should be recycled, too much of it still ends up in landfill.

Technology that mitigates some of the negatives in the textile equation should be welcomed, not least by big brands who want to improve their social and environmental performance.

Digital printing is that technology. It’s currently used in the merest smidge of textile print applications, however, it’s gaining ground, particularly where it helps reduce inventories and waste. Technologies such as the Kornit Vulcan, print in a process that is 100% water free and work on natural, synthetic and blended fibres.

Digital printing is advancing, making it easier to add special characteristics to textiles. Coatings can provide insulating properties to fabric by blocking infrared radiation.

Fabrics can be coated to soften them, to repel insects, fungi and microbes, or to make them fire retardant or protect the wearer from UV light. They can be treated to repel dirt and water or to be conductive to create antenni and they can even be printed with photovoltaic material for energy generation.

Getting the message to big players in the textile industry should be the goal of all manufacturers active in the digital textile printing space. We should learn from experiences in the commercial sector, where it has taken years for digital printing to be recognised as a valid technological contender. 

Understanding the benefits of digital printing within the fashion and textile communities is currently low, as it is throughout their supply chains. That must change.