Digital print gives indie fashion labels more autonomy

By Helen Dugdale, Monday 08 July 2019

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A growing number of independent fashion brands are using digital print to produce their own sustainable clothing.

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It is impossible to have missed the chaos and negative impact that our love of cheap clothing is having on the environment. Fast fashion has been a buzz word for a number of years and the headlines are rife with stories of retailers offering ridiculous priced clothing like the Missguided £1 bikini. The Stacey Dooley BBC documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets brought the matter even more into the public domain, highlighting the lack of real concern from high street brands about their global environmental impact.

Under the crush of the negative press, there is a growing number of independent fashion brands that are turning to digital print in a bid to produce their own sustainable clothing and apparel, while keeping a handle on the way their manufacturing processes affect the planet.

Smithers Pira report, The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2023, predicts the global value of the digital textile market will rise to €4.9bn (£4.4bn) in 2023. The key growth driver for this is ease of customisation, reduced cost for short production runs and much faster turnarounds.

Ethical fashion is a market trend that is directly pushing for the wider use of digital printing. Primary savings come from the lower consumption of water – estimated at around 60% overall – which can be combined with savings in energy used across drying, fixing and post-print finishing processes.

Print manufacturers are recognising the rise in demand from the fashion industry for digital and are upping their game to work with the next generation of influential designers. “We actively work with universities around the UK to encourage them and teach them about the technology, and work on projects with them,” says Heather Kendle, market development manager at Epson Europe.

“On the whole, there is now a better understanding among designers about what digital print can offer. More students coming through are conscious they are joining an industry that produces a lot of items that end up in the landfill. They are just naturally more environmentally friendly and conscious to recycle, reuse and give extended life to items. I’m positive about what will come in the future – how quickly that will come I’m not sure.”

Equally, the team at Roland DG actively look to support designers to work more sustainably, as Ronee Gillett, dealer support for personalisation and dye sublimation, explains: “We have the technology and capability to make dreams come to life. We offer the support – through training and testing on fabrics for the textile and fashion industry.”

For Kornit EMEA marketing director Oliver Luedtke, it’s about helping designers think about the different inks and substances used in creating their clothing and how these fit with the end user: “Our inks are water-based and free of toxic substances. We hold all relevant certifications and pre-approvals such as Oeko-Tex and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). When you print on fabrics for fashion and home décor, it means the end product will be exposed to the skin and, particularly when you think of baby and infant wear, you cannot take any risks. Sustainability is embedded in all our products, and it is part of our corporate DNA.”

Doing it with digital
One ethical and sustainable clothing brand that is benefiting from digital is Lucy & Yak, which produces a wide range of organic clothing for both women and men, including boiler suits and organic T-shirts. Established in July 2017, the brand has been printing digitally for the past 18 months and has made a name with its eye-catching coloured hipster dungarees.

“The colours hold better with digital, they are vibrant, last a lot longer and we can do smaller orders, which means less waste – so overall, we are not overproducing,” explains label co-founder Lucy Greenwood. “Our prints are designed by artists, so the designs can be as intricate as you want. Digital print has allowed us the freedom of expression which has been great, even though it comes with a higher price tag. We work with a partner in India who is very invested in sustainability. It allows us to create down another avenue, which has been interesting and allows us to showcase other people’s art. It means we can work with creative, talented artists and produce exclusive limited edition products without wasting any resources.”

Dara Ford, a bespoke tailor and dressmaker, first used digital print in December 2018 and was delighted with the results after working with The Silk Bureau. “It has long been a dream of mine to offer my own custom-printed lining to use in my designs. With the help of a graphic designer, I created a print featuring quotes by women in history. While researching UK based printers, I came across The Silk Bureau which offers high-quality print services without large minimums – perfect for a small business like myself. Digital printing is very accurate and affordable. As my designs are made up of quotes, accuracy and readability were important factors to consider. The whole process is simple and it appealed to me because of that,” says the label founder.

Gillett from Roland DG believes the fact that digital print is a lot cleaner than traditional printing pulls designers to it: “If you look at it from the screen printing era which was messy and dusty, digital is a lot cleaner and greener. The inks are water-based, so there is no harmfulness in them at all. It’s all cartridge based and there’s hardly any wastage anymore. Digital print just works with the fashion industry.“

Empowering designers
Another reason that fashion houses incorporate digital print into their business is because of the autonomy and power it gives them over their designs and products. It becomes less about what others can do for them, and more about what they want to do with their own brand. “Digital print has opened up the fashion industry to the masses,” continues Gillett. “It allows you to do short runs or long runs or one-offs – nothing is too complicated. With old school screen printing, the machines took up a lot of room, you had to run them for a long time and they used a lot of power. But with most digital printers, they plug into a normal socket and they print quickly.” 

The Epson team think it’s the speed that fashion brands can design, print and sell that is drawing labels to digital. “It’s so versatile which helps breed creativity. Designers can review products and get instant feedback, and then adjust and amend without huge amounts of wastage. It gives designers the freedom to explore and try new things because they instantly see how it’s going to work out. They can work with a retailer and do something new because there is no limitation on the run length. So, they can do something unique for a particular group or offer a tweak on it that benefits both and the designer can be seen to offer a unique proposition. It’s a win-win for all really,” says Kendle.

Digital also tends to help bring production closer to where the brand is based – reducing carbon footfall is a big incentive. “Digital production is sustainable in itself: it avoids screens or plates, together with the chemicals that are required for creating them. It is very economical for short runs, so there is no incentive to increase runs or create        overproduction. Digital printing generally brings production back to the consumer, so you save on transport emissions and often produce in countries with higher ecological standards,” explains Luedtke. 

Good, but not good enough…
The recent decision by the UK government to reject the recommendations made by the Environmental Audit Committee to impose a 1p levy for each item of clothing produced was met with criticism from many large and indie fashion brands.

For Dara Ford, it was a no-brainer and a great option that would have been a step in the direction. “I am very aware of the impact the fashion industry has on our planet and try where possible to use sustainable or eco-friendly materials. I avoid synthetics as much as I can, choosing natural materials instead. The nature of a bespoke and made-to-measure design also has a lower impact. 

“I was very disappointed about the government’s decision – instead, it wants to rely on the sector making voluntary changes to the industry. Without government intervention and holding large fashion companies to account, the impact on our environment and the exploitation of people, mostly women, will not stop fast enough. We need to move away from fast fashion and embrace wardrobes full of clothes that we wear again and again
and again.”

Lucy Greenwood from Lucy & Yak feels strongly that things are definitely changing but there is still a lot more to be done: “We believe that every industry needs to do more, none of us are doing enough, but we are also human and all doing our best, so we understand that things take time. Even as a small company, we see how difficult it is to do things perfectly, so for larger businesses it’s a bigger ship to turn.”

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