Being less bad is no longer good enough for HKRITA CEO - Just Style
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Being less bad is no longer good enough for HKRITA CEO

By Leonie Barrie 13 Apr 2021 (Last Updated May 14th, 2021 14:55)

With light finally starting to appear at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), is in a philosophical mood. The industry must move away from doing less bad things and refocus on doing more good things, he tells just-style, with solutions lying further upstream and downstream than ever before.

By his own admission, Edwin Keh’s thoughts “operate a stream of consciousness,” darting and diving from T-shirts that absorb carbon dioxide, to growing hydroponic cotton in 40-foot containers, the potential for CXO events – and everything in-between.

This unfettered flow of ideas is perhaps not surprising given that his team at HKRITA currently has more than 200 research projects under its belt – around 40-50 of which are ready to commercialise.

Perhaps the most high profile so far is the ground-breaking Green Machine textile-to-textile recycling technology, currently being scaled up with H&M Group’s Monki fast-fashion brand.

Developed as part of a long-term US$12m ‘Planet First’ collaboration with the non-profit H&M Foundation, the system uses a closed hydrothermal loop of just water, heat and biodegradable green chemicals to fully separate cotton and polyester blended fabrics – and for the first time the polyester is recovered in fibre form that can be reused without any loss of quality.

US specialty apparel retailer Gap Inc is also in on the act, backing a two-year HKRITA project to find ways to remove spandex from fabrics and de-colour denim ahead of recycling. In both cases the technologies that are developed will then be open for licensing within the industry.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Whereas in the past it was good enough not to be part of the problem, now there’s a great desire to be part of the solution”

Highlighting the sheer scope of HKRITA’s work are seven innovations that have just won top awards at the annual Inventions Geneva Evaluation Days event in Switzerland, beating off competition from more than 600 inventors in 20 countries. The top ‘Gold with Congratulations from Jury’ accolade went to a novel perfluorochemical (PFC) free durable water repellent (DWR) finish that uses recycled cellulose from the Green Machine.

There was also recognition for projects to treat dyehouse wastewater with specialised aniline-degrading bacteria; ‘electro-chromatic’ yarns that change colour when a current is applied, opening up opportunities for next-generation smart displays on fashion textiles; a cotton T-shirt that can absorb about one-third of a tree’s worth of carbon dioxide every day; and a recycling system to separate mixed yarns using the triboelectric properties of the different materials.

Research focus

While sustainability has not surprisingly been a key focus of HKRITA’s research for the past five years, Keh is acutely aware that the goalposts are moving.

“The pandemic has been a wake-up call that you don’t want to wait around for the next crisis to come along, you really need to get moving now, because who knows what’s around the corner,” he explains.

“And the more we understand about sustainability and the challenges, the more we realise how huge and daunting the task is. Whereas in the past it was good enough not to be part of the problem, now there’s a great desire to be part of the solution.

“The distinction for us is doing less bad things and doing more good things. You can’t incrementally reduce your way to carbon neutrality or achieving SDG goals. All our efforts in the past have been about doing less bad things, like recycling. But we have to turn this conversation around and start thinking about doing more good things.

“All our efforts in the past have been about doing less bad things, like recycling. But we have to turn this conversation around and start thinking about doing more good things”

“So the whole research focus has shifted from correcting mistakes [the industry has made], to looking at new products or new ways of thinking about our business, what are the new raw materials that will actually help us. How can we get our industry to carbon neutral and move towards carbon negative?

“We’ve been talking about the new 3Rs – regenerate, repurpose and reimagine. And what we realised as we started going down that road is that now we have to go further upstream and downstream from where we’ve been operating.

“We’re moving all the way to the extremes, from farmer facing to consumer facing.”

Cotton farming

A case in point is yet another project, this time with Shahi, the largest vertically integrated apparel manufacturer and exporter in India. The cellulose powder generated from the Green Machine is super-absorbent, soaking up 20 to 40 times its weight in water, and has been found to provide the optimum conditions to grow cotton without irrigation.

“The thing that got us very excited was that the super-absorbent material is very good at finding water in the ambient environment. It hangs on to moisture around the roots, helping the plant grow about 20% faster, the cotton yield is 20-25% higher, and the cotton fibres are longer. At the end of the growing cycle it completely biodegrades, so there’s no trace of it in the soil.”

From an initial couple of rows, the experiment is expanding to 20 hectares of land.

“We can now experiment and see if we can grow cotton on marginal land where there is not enough water and maybe poor soil conditions. There’s also the possibility for two cotton crops a year instead of one – you’re doubling the output because you’re growing the stuff faster.”

One idea follows another. “Coincidental to this, we were looking at how to grow cotton, especially extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, more efficiently. ELS cotton is so picky in terms of the amount of sunshine it needs, the soil conditions, the relative humidity. We now have a pretty good moisture management and soil management material, so what if we can manage everything else? We’re thinking about growing hydroponic cotton in 40-foot containers.”

New materials

Cotton farming in India is one of HKRITA’s first agricultural experiments, but the powder-form cotton extracted from the Green Machine is also being used by Japanese fibre producer Daiwabo Rayon as the basis for a new cellulosic material.

“Our success is not because we’re smarter, but because we sit in Hong Kong. We have great visibility upstream and downstream, and we’re able to pull supply chain partnerships together”

Another innovation has been a T-shirt incorporating 5% chitosan, a natural biopolymer extracted from crustacean shells, whose anti-odour properties reduce the need for washing, thereby helping to lower the T-shirt’s overall carbon footprint. Included in the first line of apparel from San Francisco-based footwear brand Allbirds, Keh explains: “Chitosan is recovered in a powder form; our innovation is that we’ve figured out how to spin it into a yarn, and it’s functional for the life of the T-shirt. It feels, looks and behaves like a cotton T-shirt.”

But it’s the carbon dioxide absorbing T-shirt he’s most excited about.

“We looked at how existing technologies used in chimneys for coal mines managed to take an unstable form of CO2 gas and turn it into a more stable solid form. We modified those chemical processes and managed to impregnate them into cotton.

“So now we’re getting to carbon negative – and we’re excited about it because this engages the consumer. Here’s something you can do every day in your wardrobe choices. The T-shirt does get saturated with CO2 after a while and you have to figure out how to release it. The easiest mechanism is to heat it up to about 50? and it becomes a gas again.

“We’re developing uniforms for a real estate company, and once every two weeks or so we take the uniforms to the top of a shopping mall where they have a greenhouse, and we exhaust these into the greenhouse, the plants use the CO2 as nutrients and they make more oxygen out of it. So that’s quite an elegant cycle…but it’s also an industrial solution.

“We’re looking for a chemical release solution, and the idea is if we can add some chemistry to the detergents that we use we can keep the CO2 in the water and it doesn’t get released again. This would be the domestic solution. So we’re playing around with it.”

Meaning and purpose

This point around engaging the consumer is something Keh feels will be crucial going forward in the post-pandemic world.

“It is quite clear there are going to be winners and losers, because demand in consumption is going to be weaker, certainly in the short term. Everybody understands they have to create reasons to buy and they have to give consumers the motivation to purchase – and one of the big motivations is meaning and purpose.

“In the past there was a lot of competition about price. Now the competition is about value…what does this do for me, apart from keeping me dry and warm; it has to have some feel-good factor to it, some reassurance, some functionality. Sustainability is also a huge feel-good factor. And because of the pandemic, consumers don’t want to be passive about these things; they want to be active.

“The whole sustainability challenge is going to be one of the big distinctions between winners and losers, and the opportunity is for brands to demonstrate that. But the whole weakness in demand also runs through not only which brands am I going to buy, but also, who am I going to manufacture with. So the same sentiments are also going on on the manufacturing side: what are your green credentials, what is it about you that reassures me and gives me confidence that I won’t have brand reputation exposure as I manufacture with you.

“So that’s what we’re stepping into at the high level, and more and more awareness of the opportunity for lifestyle changes, for consumer behaviour changes.”

Tip of the iceberg

“There’s a lot more we could be doing,” Keh asserts. “Our success is not because we’re smarter, but because we sit in Hong Kong. We have great visibility upstream and downstream, and we’re able to pull supply chain partnerships together, so that the factory and the farmers are working with the brand owners. There are more opportunities for conversations around the table to solve problems in the early stages.

“So we really want to make sure that we maximise and take advantage of that opportunity because of physically and geographically where we are.”

One of the ways HKRITA is trying to push this forward is by engineering conversations between brands, “because we think there’s a big opportunity for the brands to work with each other, because it’s too big for one brand to take on.”

In the pipeline is a joint lab for sustainability, “a research platform for anybody to come along and participate, contribute and be a user of the output.”

Based in Hong Kong, it will bring together innovators, researchers, suppliers and brands to test new ideas and scale faster. “If you’re part of the lab you’ll have access to all of the technologies we’re developing and we’ll help you use it and commercialise it. You can send people along for internships and residencies. Why? Because we think it’s a multi-disciplinary platform: material science, supply chain, business…so we want to help people build these multi-disciplined solutions.”

Also being mulled are CXO events – closed door, intimate gatherings where industry leaders can thrash out concrete financial, business and strategic commitments, “and we can then provide the scientific and academic support they need.

“This is another idea that we want to push out this year. We want to help people collaborate and to solve problems.”

And from there, perhaps, “some real point of sale tools so we can talk to consumers about these things…and for brands to talk about themselves. Because I think that’s the motivation for brands…how do I make my brand more attractive.”

As for the clothing industry’s prevalence for sustainability talk versus action, Keh notes: “In the past the strategy was to sit in the crowded middle of the pack: you want some adventurous brand in the front pioneering this, but you don’t want to be identified with the villains at the back. You want to be in the middle, so you make vague, very long promises to be sustainable in 30 years.

“I don’t think that washes any more because this middle is disappearing. You’re either a winner or loser; one of the good guys or the bad guys. And to be one of the good guys you really have to have some concrete actions, and be seen to be doing stuff. So that has been helpful for us.”

Encouragingly, Keh believes the industry has finally reached a turning point. “2020 was the first year that I’m really hopeful, because I see more movement and appetite for taking risks. We were busier than ever last year and we have our work piled up this year. So it’s a matter of how fast we can tackle this and if we can keep the momentum going.”