Q&A with Simon Weston, CEO of CleanDye

Simon Weston is the CEO of CleanDye, a textile factory in Vietnam that exclusively uses DyeCoo’s waterless dyeing technology. Simon has worked in textile manufacturing for decades: he served as the Managing Director at TAL Manufacturing and the Senior Vice President and Marketing Director at Fountain Set. He chaired the Sustainability Committee at Fountain Set, and has served on the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium and Cotton Advisory Council for Fair Trade.

Q: You’ve seen a lot of trends in sustainable textile manufacturing over the years. What are some key lessons you’ve learned from these trends, and how does that influence your understanding of the industry today?

When manufacturers first started using organic cotton 20 years ago, there was such a small amount of organic cotton that companies were using 97:3 blends: 3% organic cotton, 97% virgin cotton. Trends like organic cotton only succeeded because of the support of certain larger brands. And one of them, really surprisingly, was Walmart.

There’s a transition phase in cotton growing between normal cotton and organic cotton, where the yield for a field is reduced by 30-40%: so you’re producing less, but you can’t sell it as organic cotton yet. And companies like Walmart came in and said, okay, we’ll buy transition cotton, but we’ll pay the organic prices for it, which allowed a lot of the farmers, especially poor farmers in India and other Asian countries, to transition to organic cotton. Over the next 10 years, blends went from 97:3 to 95:5 to 90:10, up to the point where I was supplying Nike with 100% organic fabric. 

So the successful trends like organic cotton have very much been based around a collaboration between brands and suppliers. 

Q: After spending so much time working with organic cotton, are you surprised to be working with recycled polyester now?

I always believed that natural fibers were better than synthetics, and I never thought that, from a sustainability point of view, I would move into synthetic fibers. But when I learned about CleanDye, I realized that, if you use recycled polyester, you can actually massively reduce the carbon footprint.

We have to be cognizant of the fact that we use more polyester than we do cotton. I’d imagine all of your sportswear is polyester. All of my sportswear is polyester. Polyester is out there, it’s unavoidable. And it doesn’t go away easily.

So finding a way to manage the manufacture of polyester, to use recycled polyester, is a very sensible, practical way of addressing one of the big problems in textile waste. Plastic lasts forever, which is both its downside and its upside, because you can almost infinitely recycle the product.

With waterless dyeing, there is also obviously a massive reduction in water, and a sizable reduction in chemicals. And at CleanDye, our carbon footprint is 58% less than regular water dyeing factories. 

Q: Given that waterless dyeing significantly reduces both water and carbon pollution, what is stopping other textile manufacturers from using this technology?

One barrier to entry, as with any technology, is changing your machinery. If you’re a fabric manufacturer, you may have 50 or 100 water dye machines, and you’re going to have to sell those and change to CO2 machines. There’s a cost difference, because this is a new technology. But the cost will decrease with time: the first few Tesla cars cost a lot more than they do now.

The other barrier to entry is that CO2 dyeing is a different process to learn. CO2 dyeing is different from water dyeing in the way that cooking is different from baking.

Water dyeing is like cooking. You have a dye master with a lifetime of experience who can look at a piece of fabric and say, oh, add a bit more of this, add a bit more of that, and give it 20 more minutes. It’s not a very exact process. With CO2 dyeing, if you put in the exact same amount of materials and dyes, close the door, and press the button, it will come out exactly the same every time.

This difference is a strength of CO2 dyeing: the repeatability of CO2 dyeing is greater than water dyeing. The process is also quicker: the fabric goes in dry and, after two to three hours, comes out dry. At the same time, the color range of CO2 dyeing is exactly the same as water dyeing. And after you’re done, you can still re-dye and fix a shade, as you would with water dyeing.

But because manufacturers still think of CO2 dyeing like they think of water dyeing, and haven’t learned to be precise (as you would with baking), they have not successfully adopted C02 machines.

Q: How does CleanDye use this technology most efficiently?

We are the only business that exclusively uses CO2 dyeing machines. Traditional manufacturers have bought one or two machines, put them alongside their water dyeing machines, and struggled because they’re treating the CO2 machines like water dyeing machines.

When you use CO2 machines, you need to be highly exacting: you measure and control every part of the process. You approach manufacturing as a science, and you prioritize consistency above all else. And it turns out that this is just good manufacturing anyway.

Q: What needs to happen for waterless dyeing to become more widespread?

First, brands need to not just incentivize, but to force their buyers to buy products from sustainable sources.

Second, we as consumers need to buy from sustainable sources. We need to ask our brands, where are you making your products? And what’s the sustainability record of that country?

When we go shopping, we tend to put one ethical product in our basket, which usually costs more, and once we’ve made that purchase, we then allow ourselves to fill the rest of the basket with terrible rubbish. We use that one ethical product to pay for our guilt. We need to shift away from this mentality, consume less overall, and consume consistently sustainable products.

Another problem is that consumers do not always know what products are sustainable, and what the sustainable labels even mean. This does require better legislation, as well as more trust and transparency between the government and consumers. But, at the moment, we all seem to be waiting for legislation to save us. But legislation only ever captures a very small portion of the world anyway.

So while we do need legislation, most of all we need brave brands that are going to force fabric manufacturers to invest in low carbon solutions, and we also need consumers to hold those brands accountable.