ColorZen Pursues Clean Dyeing Dream

New process said to greatly reduce toxic output, water and energy consumption.

Tony Leonard and Michael Harari of ColorZen.

ColorZen LLC wants to put the global dyeing trade on a low-salt diet.

This story first appeared in the July 25, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And also reduce the amount of time, water and energy needed to bring color to fabrics and greatly cut back on the toxic output of the process.

Following 15 years of research and development, ColorZen will be introduced to the industry today as the Continuum show begins its two-day run in conjunction with Kingpins in New York. Essentially, the ColorZen process serves as a matchmaker between cotton fiber and dyes, manipulating cellulose at the molecular level, through nanotechnology, in a way that makes it more receptive to dye and eliminates much of the time-consuming and ecologically taxing procedure by which the fiber is bleached, rinsed, dyed and rinsed again before it can make its way up the supply chain.

According to Michael Harari, president of the New York-based venture with facilities in China, the substitution of ColorZen for conventional dyeing techniques reduces the time needed to dye a bale of cotton to 2.4 hours from 7.9 by eliminating the need for scouring, bleaching and rinsing prior to dyeing, and lowering the typical number of post-dye rinses to two from five. Independent tests by Hohenstein Institute America Inc., validated by Samuel Moore, managing director, pegged the overall energy savings at 75 percent and water usage at 90 percent. It’s been authorized to carry the Oeko-Tex mark, indicating the absence of harmful substances necessary for compliance with the Oeko-Tex Standard 100.

Perhaps more critically, according to the Hohenstein audit, ColorZen eliminates salt from the process as well as three-quarters of auxiliary chemicals that otherwise would be put into streams, rivers and local water systems.

“There is no natural affinity between cotton fiber and dye — you need auxiliary agents like salt and alkali compounds,” said Harari, who abandoned a career in real estate to head the venture pursued by his family, which has a long history in textiles and apparel. “If you don’t start with a lot of chemicals, you don’t have to remove them. We believe we’ve come up with a truly sustainable way to dye cotton.”

The need to do so is acute as emerging markets like China and India continue to endure harsh environmental penalties for their rapid industrial development. Tony Leonard, technical director of ColorZen, estimates that, using conventional methods, it takes 13 gallons of water to dye a pound of cotton, equivalent to two weeks’ worth of drinking water for a mother and child. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion of the world’s seven billion people lack access to clean water, making dirty water the single-largest cause of illness in the world. In China, estimates put the number of people without access to clean water at one in four.

The World Bank estimates that 20 percent of industrial fresh-water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing, a figure that tends to move higher in markets most dependent on apparel and textile production.

“Our approach to this has been ‘no more Band-Aids,’” said Leonard. “We’re really going to the root of the problem with this and it’s technology that’s applicable to all cellulosic fibers, with cotton of course being the most dominant. We’re saving water and energy but we’re also going beyond ‘zero toxic discharge’ with water to ‘no discharge.’ We’ve already seen an entire village in India — Tirupur — shut down because of the effects of dye houses on the local water supply.”

ColorZen bills itself as “The Power of Less.” Still, Harari feels that it’s got no commercial downside standing in its way. At Continuum and in its subsequent marketing, he hopes to attract the attention of retailers and brands who will direct their suppliers to the advantages of the ColorZen process to themselves and the communities in which they function.

“This saves the dyer time and money, reverses environmental impact and requires no additional investment,” he said. “If that’s not a win-win, I don’t know what is.”