Color It Green: Nike to Adopt Waterless Textile Dyeing

“Just dye it.”

That might be a fitting twist on Nike’s iconic slogan after today’s announcement that it is adopting a waterless dyeing technology that uses recycled carbon dioxide to color synthetic textiles.

The process, which the company has been exploring for eight years, could eliminate the use of countless billions of gallons of polluted discharges into waterways near manufacturing plants in Asia, where much of the world’s textile dyeing occurs. On average, an estimated 100-150 liters (about 26-40 gallons) of water is needed to process one kg (2.2 pounds) of textile materials. Industry analysts estimate that more than 39 million tons of polyester will be dyed annually by 2015.

The waterless dyeing process, developed by Netherlands-based DyeCoo Textile Systems — the name “DyeCoo” comes from conflating “dyeing” with “CO2” — will begin to show up on Nike products later this year. It utilizes a supercritical fluid carbon dioxide, or SCF, technology, so called because it involves heating carbon dioxide to above 31º C (88° F) and pressurizing it. At that stage, it becomes supercritical, a state of matter that can be seen as an expanded liquid or a heavily compressed gas. DyeCoo’s process was launched last fall after 11 years in R&D.

Water is used as a solvent in many textile pretreatment and finishing processes, such as washing, scouring, bleaching, and dyeing. Water scarcity and increased environmental awareness are global concerns. Textile coloring and treatment accounts for between 17 percent and 20 percent of global industrial pollution, according to The World Bank, including 72 toxic chemicals in water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which are cannot be removed using conventional treatment techniques.

SCF CO2 technology already is utilized at scale in other industries such as the decaffeination of coffee and the extraction of natural flavors and fragrances. DyeCoo is believed to be the first company to successfully apply the SCF CO2 process to the commercial dyeing of polyester fabric, and research is underway to apply the technology to cellulosic and synthetic fabrics.

Making the switch “wasn’t that difficult,” Eric Sprunk, Nike’s VP of Merchandising and Product, told me recently. “The biggest resistance was an investment in the way things are done today. But I don't think it's going to be difficult going forward to dye textiles using zero water. That's an easy sell for anyone in the apparel industry.”

Moreover, he said, the cost wasn’t prohibitive. While Sprunk wouldn’t disclose the price differential for the waterless technology, he said, “We're not going to be at a cost-disadvantage almost from the get-go.”

Sprunk added: “This is a game-changer for us.”