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Ikea, Nike, and the green textile revolution

Ikea’s latest investment in waterless dyeing specialist DyeCoo paves the way for an historic green breakthrough in the textile industry

Ever since the development of the first mills, the textile industry has reliant on water to dye its fabrics – a lot of water.

One of the more eye-catching statistics suggests the water required to dye the shirts of just one football squad would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. More seriously, the textile sector has one of the largest water footprints of any global industry, is notorious for putting pressure on water-scarce regions such as India and Pakistan, and by some estimates is thought to be responsible for a fifth of industrial water pollution.

All of this makes the development of a technology that promises to dye textiles using no water a potentially historic breakthrough – and it is a breakthrough that Netherlands-based DyeCoo Textile Systems claims to have achieved.

The company, which yesterday announced that IKEA has joined Nike as its latest high-profile corporate investor, has developed an innovative approach that uses high-pressure liquidised CO2 rather than water to apply dyes to fabrics.

Speaking to BusinessGreen, DyeCoo chief executive Reinier Mommaal set out the myriad environmental benefits of this new approach.

"We use supercritical CO2 that has been changed into its liquid phase, and use that as the transport mechanism to get the dye onto the fabric so there is no water required," he explains. "That is the biggest benefit, but we've also undertaken complete lifecycle analysis and while we use a little more electricity, we use a lot less energy as we don't have to use gas to produce steam like the conventional process."

While it typically takes 100 to 150l of water to dye one kilogram of material, the DyeCoo process can recycle 90 to 95 per cent of the CO2 for re-use, further reducing the environmental impact of the technology.

And there is another crucial environmental benefit at a time when textile firms are being systematically targeted by green groups for allowing dyes and other chemicals to pollute waterways.

"From a chemical perspective, we use 50 per cent less chemicals," explains Mommaal. "With a water-based process, some of the dye remains in the water and it then has to be cleaned. But that is not the case with CO2. We have a small amount of dye still left over after our process, but all we have to do is turn the CO2 back into a gas and then we can collect the leftover dye."

DyeCoo now has two working machines up and running to demonstrate the waterless dyeing approach, and with IKEA joining Nike as an investor it is now planning the second phase of the five-year-old company's development.

"Phase two is all about scaling up," says Mommaal. "In Nike and IKEA we've got two great strategic investors and together they are helping us scale up this technology."

However, Mommaal is under no illusions about the size of the challenge, particularly given the extent to which water-based dyeing is entrenched within the textile industry. "Many mills have been using these processes for more than 100 years," he acknowledges. "It is a disruptive technology and it will be quite a task [taking it to scale]."

But Christian Ehrenborg, managing director of IKEA GreenTech, the investment arm of the retail giant which this week confirmed it had provided an undisclosed level of backing for the company, is certainly convinced.

"It's a fantastic new technology and it works," he tells BusinessGreen. "It is very environmentally friendly and there are no problems with pollution. We are really excited about the solution."

Ehrenborg refuses to be drawn on the scale of the investment, describing it only as "significant", but he does reveal that the partnership includes an agreement to work together on a second generation of the technology.

Currently, the DyeCoo system is designed to apply dyes to polyester fabrics, but much of IKEA's textile interests are focused on cotton and as such the two companies will work together to accelerate the development of a version of the technique that can be applied to cotton and then other natural fibres.

"We will use the system as much as we can on polyester, [but] the next stage of development is focused on cotton," Ehrenborg says, predicting a waterless cotton-dyeing system could be available within two to three years.

He also predicts a number of additional benefits for IKEA's supply chain if the technology proves as successful as hoped. "The quality of the dyeing is really good and it is also a really modern flexible system," he explains. "That means you could put it anywhere in the world. You are not reliant on water supplies so you could put it closer to the market and get further savings that way."

For DyeCoo, the involvement of both IKEA and Nike gives the company investment, blue chip customers and perhaps most importantly a clear route into the global textiles market. "We want to sell the equipment to textile factories and we are picking our customers really carefully," reveals Mommaal. "We want to work with the high-end suppliers who work with the big global brands."

Given the scale of the environmental savings on offer in a market where growing numbers of retailers are desperate to reduce their water footprint, those high-end suppliers would be advised to take the call.


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