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End-of-Life: Where Does Clothing go at its Last Stage?

By: Anna Dang and Tiffany Quach

The fashion industry is constantly changing and as you know it, is expanding virtually with new textile printing technologies. This is highly beneficial to businesses and consumers; by converting into digital fabric printing, you are able to achieve optimized precision, variability data, quicker turnaround times and waste reduction–which ties into a major trend today, sustainability. 

The largest challenge with textile fabric printing, whether conventional or digital, is finding the right ink that will last through wear and tear. Textiles with weave or knit construction may result in a wicking or ink penetration problem, leading to a reduction in colour intensity and print sharpness. When printing textiles using conventional printing processes, the thickeners are added to the ink to help improve the colour performance, but the same method cannot be applied to digital printing due to the constraints of the printhead. In digital textile printing, fabrics must be pretreated and post-treated to improve colour performance. Pretreatment components differ depending on the fabric substrate and the ink used for printing. Most standard fabrics like cotton, silk, nylon, and polyester require a thickener and other chemical compounds. 

Acid-dye inkjet ink works best with materials like nylon, lycra and silk because the ink is resistant to fading from water and chlorine, ideal for swimwear. Reactive inkjet ink chemically reacts with natural fibres making it best for cotton and wool textiles. With innovations in ink technology, pigmented inks have become the ultimate ink formulation. Pigment inks can be generally used on any textile, thus eliminating the need to switch inks between different textiles. One of the greatest benefits of pigment inks is the print production process requires almost no water because the fabric is printed and heat-set to dry. Although there are many benefits to using pigment inks in digital textile printing, currently it is only used in roughly 50% of the market. As mentioned earlier, most textiles are pretreated with a primer to help bind the ink. But for ink manufacturers the goal is to find a binder that works for all types of fabrics. Ink manufacturers must also meet the demands of consumers who no longer desire heavily inked logos, who no longer want to feel the ink. 

In an interview we conducted with Fraiser Chesterman, Director of FM Future Ltd and Co-Creator of EventLaunchPad, we learned that COVID-19 has impacted consumer decisions, ultimately causing them to reconsider where and who they purchase from. As a result, localization and reshoring (explained in the interview) is brought into light and has become a major part in the print industry because of immediate demands. With this in mind, the sustainability aspect from this trend is much more prominent as less transportation methods are used to ship the products (such as airplanes, trucks, etc.), and we can also see less of fast fashion brands because of their delayed services.

This ties into consumer decisions on the ethicality of a brand, Chesterman also mentions in his interview that his company conducted a research report and found that 22-year-old German male or female individuals are more likely to pay 50% more for a product if it has an ethical providence. These ethical brands recycle clothing fabric, source eco-friendly materials such as Tencel, and/or reduce their carbon footprint by manufacturing their products near their retail location. Since fashion is a “consumer-driven industry”, as stated by Chesterman, we can see that sustainability plays a major role in influencing retail businesses to become more environmentally friendly. Brands such as H&M, despite being a fast-fashion company, started becoming more sustainable by offering a recycling program where consumers can drop-off unwanted clothes and also started using materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester in some of their products.

Now, when considering the end-use of digitally printed garments, a crucial question would be, where do they go when consumers no longer want it? Rather than tossing it out and ultimately generating more garbage, we can reduce the waste amount and recycle the product. This can be repurposing the fabric and using it for upcycled clothing, donating it to local businesses that sell second-hand clothing, or even giving it to friends and family members who can give life to the clothes once again. Just like our traditionally manufactured clothes, inkjet printed textiles can be recycled the same way.

Digital inkjet fabric print technologies have come a long way, not only being comparable to conventional printing processes but at times have surpassed their runtimes. Digital printing opens so many opportunities in the fashion industries, from affecting the industry’s biggest players to designers trying to get their start. 

References

Ding, Y., Shamey, R., Chapman, L. P., & Freeman, H. S. (2018). Pretreatment effects on pigment‐based textile inkjet printing – colour gamut and crockfastness properties. BIOColours Conference 2018 Special, 135(`), 77-86. doi:10.1111/cote.12377 

Kao Collins Inc. (May 11, 2020). Inkjet Printing on Textiles for ‘Fast Fashion’. Https://www.kaocollins.com/inktank/inkjet-printing-on-textiles/

Lozanova, S. (June 8th, 2016). Textile Recycling Initiative Seeks to Save Fashion. Earth911. Https://earth911.com/business-policy/textile-recycling-save-fashion-ico/

McKeegan, D. (2020, July 15). The evolution of Digital Textile Printing alongside sustainable ink technology [Web log post]. https://www.fespa.com/en/news-media/features/the-evolution-of-digital-textile-printing-alongsid

Robertson, L. (Sept. 30th, 2020). How Ethical is H&M? Good On You. https://goodonyou.eco/howethicalishm/#:~:text=H%26M%20has%20set%20a%20science,or%20sustainable%20materials%20by%202030.

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