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Print environmentalist analyst Laurel Brunner says there are serious ecological reasons that will drive the move into digital textile printing.

Manufacturers of digital printing presses have been eyeing up the textile market for a while. Both direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, and the printing of textiles for other purposes, have been attracting attention. This makes sense given the range of technologies available and the dynamism in the digital printing business: everyone is looking for that next killer application. Textile printing may well be it.

There is indeed a massive opportunity in textiles, not least because of the environmental dimension. Reducing environmental impact should be as much a driving force in the positioning of digital printing of textiles as supply chain disruption, because the traditional linear model of textile production is incredibly resource intensive.

It requires huge amounts of water, for instance apparently taking nearly 2000 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans. And according to the journal Nature the textile industry is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. To put that in perspective, in 2017 the airline industry’s worldwide flights accounted for 859 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The total emissions from the airline and maritime industries combined is still less than the fashion industry.

And the world is waking up to the environmental impact of fashion, this year’s London Fashion Week, just held, had protesters from action group Extinction Rebellion blocking roads leading to the event, heaping opprobrium on the industry for what they perceive as its environmental wrongs.

No water

Anything that can be done to cut the environmental impact of textile production has to be a plus. Digital textile printing takes no water.

In the wake of the fast fashion phenomenon, there are other indicators that the traditional clothing business model is vulnerable to disruption. Fast fashion encourages people to wear and keep their clothes for less time.

Global clothing consumption has doubled in the past decade and a half, while the figures on how often our clothes are worn reveal a decrease of more than a third - and that trend is increasing, as the fast fashion stores and online shopping enable cheaper clothing. We are consuming fashion at a rate never before seen on our planet. Some 100 billion garments are manufactured every year, and the fashion industry continually tempts us to buy more with new ranges in the shops.

There are also signs of an increase in the frequency with which interiors are refreshed with new décor, both in domestic environments, and commercial, as for instance hotels, bars and clubs refresh more often. The combination of an outdated linear supply chain, environmental pressure, and changing consumer expectations suggest a sector ripe for serious disruption – and digital textile printing may provide that disruption. We may be looking at the advent of superfast fashion produced on demand.

The only snag, and it’s a serious one, is how to deal with the waste, because existing textile waste and recycling management are decidedly sub-par.

Circular economy

A new textile economy is beyond the graphics industry on its own, but printers and their technology providers can contribute to a model that follows the principles of the circular economy. We need new ideas for textile and clothing recycling, and alternative supply chains that support it effectively.

Here it makes sense for equipment manufacturers to partner with print service providers and brands more effectively, especially in the physical and online retailing spaces. At the very least digital press manufacturers serving the textile sector should acknowledge the environmental concerns. They should provide positioning statements outlining their intentions and initiatives to support textile recycling and reuse.

A new approach to apparel and textile recycling will drive superfast on demand fashion because it solves the two big problems facing buyers. We want new clothes to be on-demand because we never, ever have anything to wear, and we want them to be affordable. For digital press manufacturers such as Kodak, Ricoh, EFI and HP, the opportunity is to digitally print textiles and clothes, selling more ink, more often in the process.

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