Clothes To Dye For

Vincent Stanley
Holiday 2011

Patagonia’s predecessor, Chouinard Equipment, was a small company that made the world’s best climbing gear: chrome-molybdenum steel pitons shaped in a coke oven, aircraft-quality-aluminum chocks, hammers with hickory handles soaked in linseed oil. Our courtyard buzzed with the sound of high-speed drills; the sheds we worked in smelled of machine oil. When we made our first major foray into the clothing business, importing rugby shirts of our own design from Hong Kong, we assumed we were getting into a cleaner, softer business. But that turned out not to be true.

You can see on Google satellite images the pollution of the Pearl River where it flows indigo into the South China Sea. Indigo is the color of denim and of the discharge from textile fabrics from the world’s major jeans factories upstream in Xingtang.

The textile industry, the Industrial Revolution’s first beneficiary, is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth, second only to agriculture, and the world’s largest polluter of increasingly scarce fresh water. The World Bank estimates that nearly 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. They’ve also identified 72 toxic chemicals in our water that have textile dyes as their source; these dyes, when not controlled in the workplace, can compromise the health of employees. The textile industry is also a water hog, for coal- or wood-powered steam to fuel the mill, and for water-intensive dyeing and finishing processes.

Wastewater that goes – often illegally – untreated or partially treated returns to a river, where it heats the water, increases its pH and saturates it with dyes, finishes and fixatives, which in turn leave a residue of salts and metals that leach into farm land or settle into the viscera of fish. Within the past year both China and India have closed textile mills on a vast scale for violation of pollution laws. In Chennai (Madras) the government required the local power company to discontinue service to 700 mills until they complied with pollution laws.

It takes a mill about 500 gallons (1,893 liters) of water to produce enough fabric to cover a couch. To grow the cotton, then weave and dye the fabric for a single Patagonia pima cotton shirt uses over 600 gallons – the equivalent of a day’s drinking water for 630 people. And fifteen years from now, between a third and half the world’s population will live in an area plagued by drought.

Facts can take a while to sink in. The freshwater crisis has been apparent for more than a decade. Yet, we still struggle to ensure that all the wastewater from dyeing fabrics for Patagonia products is properly treated and thoroughly cleaned when it leaves the dyehouse. Most of our fabrics are manufactured in Asia, but our model dyehouse is closer to home, in the industrial heart of the Los Angeles Basin, a little over 100 miles from Ventura. California has strict laws governing both water and air quality – and it’s an expensive place to do business. If a dyehouse can operate profitably here and to a high environmental standard, others in regions with more plentiful local water and cheaper labor should be able to follow suit.

Swisstex California was started in 1996 by two industry veterans who wanted to create a cutting-edge dyeing and finishing facility. They specialize in both open and tubular knits (Swisstex dyes our T-shirts). Their business model has two cornerstones: efficiency and flexibility. They can handle orders from small to large and turn them around rapidly.

Swisstex took over an 80,000-square-foot facility that had the necessary permits and worked to use the space as efficiently, and as continuously as possible. To make dyes consistently replicable, they use a single vendor for each of the three principal types of machines they use. The lab is robotized and the dye machines automated as much as possible to reduce downtime and the potential for error. The idea is to produce high quality the first time (about 10% of fabric has to be scrapped industrywide because of poor dyeing, and 10 to 20 percent has to be re-dyed to meet specifications).

Swisstex’s keenness for efficiency extends to energy and water usage. The facility uses natural gas as its energy source and utilizes ultra-low-NOx gas burners; it consumes half as much energy as an average dyehouse in the U.S. and 80 percent less than the average Asian dyehouse (measured as resources consumed per pound of fabric dyed). A thermal oxidizing system cleans hot exhaust air leaving the dryers; skylights minimize the need for electric lighting.

Computerized controls keep water usage to a minimum: just enough is used to run the pumps. Swisstex expends half as much water as an average dyehouse in the U.S and again, 80 percent less than the average Asian dyehouse. A state-of-the-art wastewater heat recovery system enables them to use wastewater energy to preheat incoming cold water, and water is recycled as many times as possible.

Swisstex undertakes some extra steps: it uses no sulfur dyes, though they are still legal in the United States, as well as low-impact finishes to avoid use of harsh or toxic chemicals. It does not use resins or formaldehydes to control shrinkage. The result: an 80% reduction in chemicals. Swisstex now uses bluesign® technologies AG to screen its sources for dyestuffs and chemicals. And Swisstex releases no polluted water into the Los Angeles Basin. We’re proud to have them as a part of our supply chain.

About the Author

Vincent Stanley is co-editor of The Footprint Chronicles®, Patagonia’s mini-site that allows customers to track the impact of specific Patagonia products from design through delivery.