Ralph Lauren Polo shirts are on show in a retailer window in New York.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Photographs
If the colours that attire retailers select for his or her newest traces typically aren’t to your liking, or by the point they hit the shop cabinets appear behind the newest traits on the sidewalks or on social media, an answer could also be coming before you imagined.
By subsequent yr, Ralph Lauren flagship shops could have the textile coloring know-how to let buyers have the clean slate of cotton polo shirt dyed in-store.
Chemical substances large Dow, a serious participant in textile dyes, has been working with Ralph Lauren on new processes for cotton dyeing that scale back use of chemical compounds, water and power depth.
“Ralph Lauren clearly is an enormous person of cotton and to dye textiles, it takes a variety of chemical compounds and a variety of water and also you generate a variety of waste and primarily you do this since you’re making an attempt to make use of warmth and stress to place that dye into the material,” Dow CEO Jim Fitterling mentioned final Thursday on the CNBC ESG Affect summit.
Trillions of liters of water, for instance, are used for cloth dyeing, which is the same as 20% of the world’s wastewater.
That is without doubt one of the causes Dow developed what it calls ECOFAST Pure, introduced earlier this yr, which to dye cotton wants as much as 90% much less chemical compounds, 50% much less power and 50% much less water.
However the sustainability challenge may even have main implications for what is known as experiential retail — the trouble by retailers to provide shoppers new causes to come back into shops as e-commerce’s footprint, already giant, solely grows because of the pandemic.
Ralph Lauren’s Color on Demand challenge makes use of the Dow know-how to paint cotton at any level in manufacturing, and lead to shorter lead instances for making coloration choices. Halide Alagöz, chief product and sustainability officer at Ralph Lauren, mentioned in an announcement in regards to the effort earlier this yr that the retailer will be capable to “meet customized shopper calls for sooner than ever earlier than.”
And whereas he did not say it, which means probably coloring a shirt within the retailer.
“Ralph Lauren will be capable to do one thing like put Colour on Demand in certainly one of their flagship shops in New York subsequent yr in an effort to go in and get your Ralph Lauren polo dyed within the retailer,” Fitterling mentioned on the CNBC ESG Affect occasion. “That may have by no means been potential with out this know-how.”
A Ralph Lauren spokeswoman mentioned, “We look ahead to sharing extra about this sooner or later.”
The post-pandemic period of experiential retail
Arising with new methods to extra deeply contain the buyer within the attire manufacturing expertise just isn’t new for Ralph Lauren. It has allowed buyers to customise colours for its iconic horse brand sewn into shirts for attire ordered on-line. Different retailers, resembling North Face, have been letting shoppers decide and select the parts of jackets and have their preferences manufactured into the entire.
Customization and sooner trend that embeds the person shopper within the procuring narrative goes to play out in some ways within the retail sector. Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh has mentioned the traditional sizes will be a thing of the past in fashion as 3-D body scanners and camera technology, combined with much faster manufacturing, will allow retailers to make clothes a unique fit for each person. Nike and Amazon both have made body-scanning technology acquisitions in recent years.
Pre-pandemic every conversation in retail was about selling experiences over things, and while the lockdowns may have put much that had been in the works on pause as digital became the only way to do business, those strategies will now come back into focus.
“E-commerce has gained points of penetration and mindshare and will not give it back,” said Simeon Siegel, retail analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “But strong stores that made it through the pandemic are even stronger and are not likely to go away.”
That means an increasing blend of e-commerce and experiential stores, especially for high-profile locations. “The store will become more experiential each and every day,” Siegel said. “The trick is how to capitalize on it to sell more things.”
Allowing a consumer to choose a color and have a piece of apparel dyed in a store could help to create the type of emotional attachment tied to a purchase that is key to retail’s future.
Making the consumer “the creator,” according to Siegel, “has always been a powerful thing. Bringing the consumer into the story has always been a winning proposition.”
“People want to get back out after the pandemic,” said Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer and director of research at Tigress Financial Partners. “Lots of ideas got shelved because of the pandemic but will come back. A good portion of retail still takes place in a store” he said.
Customization and rapid production of apparel that allows consumers to choose color is an interesting development because the process of fabric preparation has historically been toxic and only able to be done by workers wearing protection in plant settings.
“The chemicals to dye stuff, the whole handling of how companies get rid of stuff … you don’t take excess dye and dump it in a sink,” he said, though he added that removal of chemicals from many products, such as cleaning products, is becoming much more common.
Dow declined to elaborate on its CEO’s comments.
Ralph Lauren said in its official announcement that the goal is the world’s first “scalable zero wastewater cotton dyeing system,” and the first phase which will be in use with traditional dyeing equipment will use up to 85% less chemicals. By 2025, it aims to use the Color on Demand platform in more than 80% of solid cotton products.
The companies also announced earlier this month that they are open-sourcing the dyeing process for the textile industry.
Breakthroughs in color technology
Multiple breakthroughs in fabric coloring are underway. Digital textile printing is already changing the way consumers control color and pattern.
“The sky is the limit to what consumers can order and receive,” said Ken Butts, global key account manager at Datacolor, which works with retailers on the implementation of digital color solutions for their supply chains. That has been mostly limited to online companies doing it for DIY crafters, and for patterns rather than solid colors on fabrics including upholstery or curtains, though it is moving into apparel, too. “We’re seeing companies investing in their own digital printers or print samples and the next step is printing directly for consumers,” he said.
Digital printing is able to respond to consumer interest and demand quickly, but it will not replace traditional dyeing any time soon because, among other factors, there are many fabrics which it still cannot handle.
“It doesn’t mean that won’t be overcome some day,” Butts said, “but your typical polo shirt, it is manufactured first to look like a shirt and then dyed in the form of a shirt. You can’t print it, you can’t twist it around in there [the printer].”
The traditional approach to dyeing a piece of clothing like a polo shirt requires an intensive process with hundreds of gallons of pigment and a significant amount of large-scale machinery which would never be feasible for a store setting, but even in industrial textile facilities, there are smaller machines used to test color samples.
“Anywhere in the world you find a factory dyeing fabrics on large-scale equipment, thousands of pounds at a time, they will have a similar piece in the lab on a small scale and that’s where the manufacturer is testing their ability to make a specific color,” Butts said. “The first step for a supplier when a retailer asks for a new color is to test it on smaller equipment.”
The smaller equipment still requires chemicals and water and the end of the process will include waste disposal issues, but as technology improves it is not unreasonable to foresee a future in which retailers can dye fabric in-store, especially larger, flagship-style stores where space is not constrained.
Customers may be able to come into a store and pick a color from a palette, or maybe even bring in a color with them, and software will be able to translate that into the dyes required. But timing will be an issue for an in-store revolution in color-dyeing. Chemical dyeing, even at its most efficient, can still take as long as an hour to produce the final garment. But for both consumer and retailer that might still be better than the current process.
“Now designers are choosing a palette that will appear in a store six to nine months from now, summer 2022, and trying to predict consumer trends,” Butts said. If retailers get the trend wrong, that may result in a rush process of new manufacturing and transport which has high costs and by the time they get the new units they may still miss trend. “With this, you can respond to current hot trends,” he said.
A consumer could come into a store with a color in mind, maybe they saw someone else wearing it, and within a day or two the apparel can be produced and the retailer didn’t need to order 10,000 shirts in advance. “Dying fabrics to customer preferences is really exciting,” Butts said.
Datacolor focuses on translating colors into numerical codes that can be communicated between designers and textile manufacturers in the supply chain, cutting down on the need to ship physical samples back and forth during the design process, and aiding quality control efforts related to making sure the color is correct when it comes time to manufacture thousands of pieces. That is a more efficient approach to apparel production than a designer in one location sending color palettes to dye mills around the world, which then have to send back fabric samples for visual review — “back and forth until the designed finds something they like,” Butts said.
But whether it is digital innovation or dyeing innovation, the retail industry has a sustainability issue that will remain challenging to address. Faster communication in the design and manufacturing process, and faster fashion is enticing for shoppers, but a consumer turning over a wardrobe more frequently is not necessarily being more sustainable even if the underlying processes used to produce the piece require less resources and energy. And giving consumers more reason to come into stores — and potentially spend a longer time while waiting for a custom item to be finished, leading to possibly even more purchases — means more consumption.
“You can eliminate all the big pigments in the machines but at the end of all of that you are still left with a garment or fabric,” Butts said. “That question still has to be addressed. I like seeing improvements in the coloration process, but we still need to address sustainability from an end-to-end view.”
“Let’s face it,” Siegel said. “In retail, the most sustainable option is to not sell the item in the first place.”
Manufacturing that is less harmful and less energy intensive with a lower carbon footprint is a good thing for retailers and brands, but it does not address consumer waste and landfills, which is why retail models are evolving in multiple ways, including the focus on resale and reuse businesses, such as Rent the Runway, which went public last week, and repurposing of items to extend the life cycle.
The Ralph Lauren-Dow partnership may be novel in how its sustainability in manufacturing story can lead to a new narrative in experiential retail for the consumer, but no brand has the answer to the bigger question.
“The retailers are in the business of selling more units, but also in the business of improving their sustainability. The question is how to marry those two,” Siegel said. “They need to balance a high-wire act of being better without alienating consumers, convincing consumers the best thing is to walk away. And that story is yet to be written.”