Innovative plans for reducing water usage at our family-owned factory
Gen Woo is a sustainable fashion brand committed to making better choices. The garments are manufactured in family-run factories investing in innovative methods and new machinery to reduce their environmental impact and water usage.
Whilst the manufacturing process doesn't typically require extensive water usage, other processes such as dyeing and garment washing are major water consumers.
We sat down with Gilles Woo, husband and business partner of Gen Woo and director of Consumer Knitex, one of Bangladesh's most successful knitwear manufacturers, to discuss the forward-thinking ways the factory has reduced its water consumption.
Tell us a bit about your family-run business in Bangladesh.
The acquisition of our first factory in Bangladesh was back in 2011. Today, Consumer Knitex are proud to employ a workforce of 6800 and run a vertical integration, encompassing operations from the spinning mill to the finished garment.
Can you explain why and how you use water in a garment factory?
The garment manufacturing process itself doesn't typically involve extensive water usage. The major consumers of water are in the dyeing and garment washing processes.
One of the key reasons why water is crucial in the dyeing process is to allow for dye absorption. The fibres need to be wetted thoroughly to ensure even dye distribution and penetration.
Water is also essential for dye dispersion. Proper dispersion is vital to prevent uneven dyeing and ensure consistent colour results. It also supports dye dissolution - many dyes are in powdered or granulated form, so water is used to dissolve these dyes and create a solution that can be evenly applied to the fabric.
We also use water for temperature control, as water is used to create the appropriate temperature for dyeing. Different dyes require specific temperature ranges for optimal colour development and fixation.
All dyeing processes involve chemical reactions that require water as a medium.
And after dyeing, the fabric must be thoroughly rinsed and washed to remove excess dye and any unbound dye particles.
The colour quality of the final colour achieved through dyeing is influenced by factors like the water's pH and mineral content. Proper water quality management helps maintain consistent and accurate colour results.
Steam is often used in conjunction with water for certain dye fixation processes. Steam helps set the dye molecules in the fibres, ensuring colour fastness and durability.
And lastly, water is essential for cleaning and maintenance. Water is used for cleaning dyeing equipment, dye vessels, and other apparatuses. Thorough cleaning ensures that there is no contamination between different dye lots.
Why did you choose to invest in water circularity?
Our investment in water circularity is driven by a range of factors, including environmental, economic, and social considerations.
One of the key drivers behind our decision is regulatory compliance. In many regions, including Bangladesh where we operate, strict regulations govern water quality and wastewater discharge. To maintain operations, dye houses must be equipped with effluent processing plants. Regulatory bodies conduct surprise visits to sample treated water for analysis. Failing these tests jeopardises our environmental licence, leading to potential operational shutdowns.
Another reason is market demand and reputation. Today's consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their purchases. Our investment in water circularity not only enhances our reputation but also makes us more appealing to socially responsible brands that align with sustainable practices.
A fourth reason for adopting water circularity is supply chain collaboration. The emphasis on sustainability within supply chains is growing. Collaborating with brands like Zara on initiatives such as Join Life has driven us to adopt innovative technologies that curtail water and energy consumption significantly.
And finally, a really important reason is to make cost savings. Embracing water circularity translates into tangible cost savings. Reduced water, chemical, dye, and energy consumption, along with lower wastewater treatment expenses, contribute to significant long-term operational cost reductions. Recycling water diminishes the need for large freshwater purchases and treatments.
Our investment in water circularity isn't merely a strategic choice – it's a response to a changing landscape, a commitment to sustainability, and a drive to operate responsibly in an evolving market.
What innovative methods are you using to reduce water usage at the factory?
The amount of water we use depends on a lot of factors, including the fabric type, machine specifications, dye quality, and chemicals used in the dyeing process.
To reduce our water consumption, we've focused on reducing our liquor ratio. The liquor ratio is a parameter in dyeing, representing the ratio of water (liquor) to the weight of the fabric being processed.
In the past five years, we've made substantial progress in this area. Our average liquor ratio has decreased from 1:8 (8 litres of water per 1 kg of fabric) to an average of 1:5. Achieving this reduction required us to modernise our dyeing machine inventory. We phased out older machines and introduced more efficient alternatives that consume less water.
We also reviewed our list of chemicals and dyes, opting for options that are both efficient and environmentally conscious.
We invested in cold pad batch machines (CPB). These machines offer a significantly lower liquor ratio, potentially as low as 1:0.5. In CPB dyeing, the dye is applied to the fabric at reduced temperatures, and the dyeing process unfolds over time without external heat requirements.
We are pleased with the progress we have made so far in terms of water efficiency, and are committed to raising the manufacturing standards at dye houses.
What does the term ‘water circularity’ mean, and how does it apply to you?
Water circularity refers to a self-contained system designed to recycle water within a process, thereby reducing the reliance on new water sources.
In the context of our dyehouses, the concept of water circularity involves the implementation of methods and technologies aimed at minimising water consumption, mitigating pollution, and optimising water utilisation throughout the dyeing process.
Water circularity is relevant to us, because it allows us to utilise water-efficient dyeing techniques, establish closed-loop systems to recirculate water effectively, and deploy advanced water treatment technologies. It also helps us to optimise the dyeing process. Adopting Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) practices means stopping the use of water all together. We can also rigorously monitor effluent quality.
What is the biggest challenge you face?
The biggest challenges we face in textile manufacturing revolve around sustainable practices across the complete production cycle.
The challenges include resource usage, environmental repercussions, waste creation, chemical application, labour circumstances, intricacies of supply chain operations, integration of innovative technologies and evolving regulatory standards.
A comprehensive approach is paramount to effectively tackle these hurdles. It will entail a combination of technological advancements, collective industry efforts, informed consumer awareness initiatives, policy reforms, and an unwavering dedication to embedding sustainable practices throughout the entirety of the textile manufacturing ecosystem.
Are there any accreditations or certifications that acknowledge this investment?
Absolutely, our production facilities are Join Life accredited. Additionally, we are proud members of The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and possess Oeko Tex certification.
Upgrading machinery requires significant investments. How do you plan for this in the current climate?
As a general practice, prior to making any investment, we undertake a financial analysis that involves scrutinising financial metrics like net present value, internal rate of return, and payback period. Only when these assessments align with the requisite criteria do we deem the investment to be worthwhile.
In the present uncertain climate, compounded by a recession in our primary market, the EU, we are exercising a cautious approach to capital machinery investments.
A circular economy aims to reduce waste by keeping materials in use for as long as possible. Are there any other areas you are looking at besides water that could reach circularity?
We are exploring the potential of recycling the fibre waste produced during the yarn spinning process and converting fabric offcuts back into fibre.
There are multiple factors that compound the complexity of this endeavour, such as logistics, lack cost-effectiveness, technology (currently nascent and constrained), fabrics need segregating by composition and colour, and blending cannot be recycled at present.
The impact remains marginal. True circularity necessitates the return of used end products to us for reconversion into fibre. The biggest challenge in this is the involvement and collaboration of stakeholders along the supply chain.
How important are the fashion industry’s environmental issues to you?
Concerns such as water pollution, waste generation, chemical usage, carbon footprint, deforestation, microplastics, and overconsumption hold immense significance for our company.
These issues carry profound implications for the planet, demanding immediate and earnest attention.
Historically, we have taken measures to address these concerns both independently and in collaboration with key brands. Nonetheless, to achieve more influential and substantial results, the resolution of these environmental issues necessitates a unified effort from all stakeholders within the fashion industry. This includes brands, manufacturers, consumers, and policymakers.
A commitment to continuous improvement
The recipient of several accreditations, Gilles Woo's Bangladesh factory offers transparency, accountability and a commitment to continuous improvement. Working towards a circular economic model, the family-run factory continues to monitor its carbon footprint and make improvements. For further reading on Gen Woo's stance on environmental issues, visit our journal and sustainability content. To be part of our story, sign up for our newsletter now to access exclusive deals and more.
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