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As engineers and technologists, finding novel solutions to long-standing challenges is a great source of pride and satisfaction. That’s especially true when improvements in sustainability are also part of the equation. Sharing the lessons we learn along the way helps all of us, even if the problem is not a common one. Recently, our manufacturing, sustainability, and innovation teams at Kontoor Brands came together with a few of our industry partners to collaborate insolving a manufacturing challenge that is more than a hundred years old: the conventional denim dyeing process.
Historically, turning denim fabric into those familiar shades of indigo has required significant amounts of water, chemicals, and energy. Progress over the past century has been incremental, never truly disruptive.But just a few years ago, we learned of a new technology being developed at a research institute—a process that would producedenim dyed with traditional indigo but applied with foam rather than water. It was an eye opener, and we wanted to be a part of it; we joined with other industry partners to take the next step: a pilot that would help bring the idea out of the lab and into the field.
Textile manufacturing is admittedly one of our oldest industries—but sustainability drivers give all of us new opportunities to make significant improvements. Imagine being able to shift from a process where the dyeing machines are 200 feet long and contain about a dozen 1,500-gallon drums of water to one where the machines are 70 feet long, rely on closed nitrogen chambers to infuse indigo dye with foam, and only requires small amounts of water to clean the machine. In fact, compared to conventional dyeing, foam dyeing uses 100 percent less water. When there is no water, there is also no wastewater, and very little drying is required. We saw a decrease in energy consumption and waste of more than 60 percent compared to conventional dyeing. Playing on the name of denim’s traditional color, as well as the vast potential for environmental gains, we decided to call the process Indigood™.
"Textile manufacturing is admittedly one of our oldest industries—but sustainability drivers give all of us new opportunities to make significant improvements"
After the success of the pilot, we launched commercial production witha manufacturing partner in 2019.And we have continued to expand and add scale, making Indigood™ product available across both our Wrangler® and Lee® brands and working with other global partners. We’ve found that the efficiency of the foam dyeing process may allow us to become more agile. And our manufacturing partners have worked closely with us not only to produce finished goods, but also to improve and refine the process along the way.
This is perhaps the most vital lesson, and one that makes me particularly optimistic moving forward: progress of this nature would not have happened without committed partners at every stage. Inventing disruptive technologies is challenging enough—and harder still when you don’t look beyond your own four walls. But it is possible to increase the pace of innovation by openly collaborating and sharing. To that end, while we were pleased to be an industry leader in the adoption of the indigo foam dyeing process, it is even more gratifying to know that many others are now joining us—which means the benefits will grow.
Increased focus on sustainability offers untold opportunities for engineers and technologists to collaborate and produce innovative new solutions in virtually every sector of the industry. We have just one planet. Ultimately, the whole world must benefit from what we do.