In this episode, Graham Stewart, founder of Fiber52, shares a new and more sustainable way to bleach and dye cotton. Stewart talks about his background in the textile industry, the environmental issues in traditional textile production, and the benefits of Fiber52.
Stewart started his career as a dyer and studied part-time for his degree in textile coloration. He has worked in the textile industry worldwide, including in Italy, Australia, Hong Kong, and China. Stewart developed Fiber52 after realizing that the traditional textile production process had not changed much in the last 70-80 years.
The Problem with Traditional Textile Production
Water and effluent are significant environmental concerns in textile production. Heavy chemicals used in dyeing can contaminate water supplies and the ground. Additionally, energy is an important issue, as it is becoming more expensive. Traditional textile production processes are often not sustainable and can harm the environment.
The Solution: Fiber52
Fiber52 is a new way to bleach and dye cotton using a bioprocess instead of heavy chemicals. This process is much gentler on the environment and saves water, time, and energy. Fiber52’s patented process replaces a very heavy alkaline product that is often used in traditional textile production, creating a process that is more durable and for more natural performance attributes.
The Circular Economy in the Textile Industry
Recycling is increasingly important in the textile industry, and Fiber52 excels because the inital process doesn’t damage the fibers as much as existing techniques. The recycling process itself is building and becoming greener as we continue. Consumers should try to find out where their textile products come from, how they have been treated, and whether they are environmentally friendly.
The Future of Fiber52
Fiber52 aims to replace traditional textile processing worldwide with a more sustainable process. The process is being commercialized and implemented worldwide, and consumers will soon see Fiber52 products in stores. Stewart and his team are working with universities and certifying bodies worldwide to ensure that their product is sustainable and environmentally friendly
To find out more about Fiber52, visit thier:
[00:00:11] Adam: Welcome to People Hopping People, the podcast for our social entrepreneurs who want to build a social impact business and increase their sustainability footprint. I'm your host, Adam Morris, and I'm excited to introduce Graham Stewart, founder of Fiber 52, which is reinventing the cotton production process to tackle the environment hazard in the typical textile production. So to share his journey and speak about textiles in the environment. Graham, welcome on the podcast.
[00:00:39] Graham: Thanks Adam. Thanks for inviting me on the pod. I'm, excited to be with you.
[00:00:44] Adam: Can we start off, can you just tell us a little bit about what Fiber 52 is?
[00:00:48] Graham: Yeah, it's a new way to bleach and dye cotton. Cotton goes through, mainly goes through a bleaching process before it actually gets dyed. That's to get the impurities out of the cotton, which sometimes don't look good, let's put it that way, in, in a finished product. And. What happens and has happened for decades is that the industry uses very heavy products are ized to get, to get the impurities outta the cotton, which is mainly vegetable matter. But what I've done is worked on a bio process which is more gentle because once, once you do actually try and get. Those impurities out and you're bleaching as well, that really does degrade the cellulose of the cotton quite significantly in some cases.
This process is much, much gentler. We don't use the heavy chemicals, we just use byproduct and therefore, you know, it's better all around for the environment in that, you know, we also serve a lot of water, time, energy, and, and,
[00:01:49] Adam: Before we go into the specifics of that process, it sounds like you've had, you know, quite a substantial career working in textiles. I'd love to hear a little bit about your journey and, and how you got into realizing, yeah, we need to make something new.
[00:02:01] Graham: Sure. Thank you. Yeah, I began life as a dire myself. And we were the largest commission dires in, in Europe. So I started there when I was 15 years old and, and studied part-time for my degree. Which is in in coloration, textile coloration. And in my town we had the biggest of manufacturer in the world.
Actually just a few hundred yards from where I was born. So I was kind of born into this industry. But we had, yeah, 6,000 people making really advanced dye stuff. So the, the reactive dyes that are used on cotton now, were pretty much invented in that, in that factory. They've progressed through the years that, that was in 1956.
I really enjoyed dying. I, I still do. It's a, it's a great passion for me, so I've always been involved. Whatever I've done in textiles, which has not always been dying. I've always managed to get involved in, in dying, and I've never really spent a month without dying throughout my career.
But yeah, I, I've progressed from there into into fabrics. The company I worked with, we were the largest consumer of cashmere in the world. And we made knitwear, yas, knitwear fabrics. You name it, it was quite a large textile group expanded into the us so that's where I got back into cotton again.
In that we bought mills making cotton fabrics and cotton garments. And we had about 6,000 people here in the States. So I was spending a lot of time here in the states in those days. And, and very much involved in, in cotton processing again. So, you know, fast forward. Yeah, I've lived all over the world.
Been involved in textiles in Italy, Australia Hong Kong, China, and then back to the us. I've been 10 years here now. I was working on dying wool , would you believe? But in the time I was in the dye house in in North Carolina, I, I noticed they, they'd asked me to have a look at their recipes.
They're having problems with dying cotton. And I, I looked at the recipes, and this is near three years ago. I was quite surprised to see things hadn't changed much even since, you know, when I first. Working, which was, you know, nearly 50 years ago now. It hadn't changed a great deal. At that point I really didn't have a eureka moment.
It was just that I tried to dye the cotton in a better way, that was it. And this took quite a while, a lot of trial and error and a lot of error. Really managed to start and use Bioproducts repeatedly. So, what I was really making sure of that this, this process was absolutely an utterly foolproof, and that people didn't have to do anything different.
They didn't have to change their recipes, change the dye machines. Invest in new dye machine. The good thing about this process as it is called fiber 52, is that we can transfer it anywhere in the world in no time. So it virtually takes an email and you've got it, and you can use your existing machinery, your existing
But that's also a downside. The fact that you can transfer it so quickly means that we've had a lot of work with our friends, the lawyers, and they actually held us. Advisedly for quite a while until we could make sure our patents were far enough down the line that we had you know, good IP protection around the world.
[00:05:03] Adam: Now for, for people that are listening, what are some of the environmental issues that are common when dying Textiles?
[00:05:09] Graham: Well, one big issue is, is water. In, in some cases it's less of an issue because the newer dye machines are using less water. It's still an issue. And then sticking on water, it's the effluence. It's what do you put into the ground, or you know, what you release out of a, a machine that's got us hard, heavy chemicals.
what's going into, what's going into the waters supplies, what's, you know, what's going into the ground. So that we are using byproduct. Helps a great deal as you can imagine. But basically, the big deal is energy. And around the world, as you know, energy's in supply getting much more expensive.
And this process uses much less energy in that. The big breakthrough I had was a bio product is that one product catalyzes the others. So we're able to do the whole process much faster than normal. Lower temperatures than normal. And, and therefore we're saving a lot of energy and like heating the water and not going to a high temperature, just doing it lower temperatures and then much faster so we can save up to, and I use these words advisedly, up to 70% of of the energy that's normally used which is, which is a big deal when you think that cotton is the second largest fiber on earth after polyester.
And it's natural, by the way, which is, which helps. But yeah, so, if we can save all that energy and we can save water and we can save time in process, then you know, that's really where our work is now in commercializing that around the world.
[00:06:40] Adam: Have you commercialized something like this before?
[00:06:45] Graham: Yeah, I, I have I, you know, work in the wool industry. I had a few patents which actually some of the ideas I have to be honest, came from that in working with wool and trying to protect it, you know, again, it's a beautiful fiber. Very complicated. But it needs to be, it needs to be protected from the heavy chemicals that, it can come in contact with.
And so quite a bit of that work has really helped me with this to, to be honest.
[00:07:11] Adam: That's fascinating. What's it been like starting, a new venture like this and rolling it out? Have, have there been any barriers ?
[00:07:17] Graham: Yeah. It's exciting. I, I gotta tell you you know, it's really in the, in my stage of career, you know, it's really great to get outta bed in the morning and have something really objective to go to. And yeah, there, there have been barriers. You can imagine an industry that's pretty much the same thing for the last 70, 80 years.
Really. There is some barriers to change, but we are working through those. And you know, once processes actually see that this whole process does work and it's easy then, then yes, we get, we get the buy-in. But really where we've, we've pivoted to work with brands. As well because the brands all involved, you know, getting a lot of pressure these days, depending whether you are in the world, getting a lot of pressure with from , the environment and people who are involved in the environment and trying to do better for the environment that pressure is on.
And for instance, we're doing a lot of work in Europe right now and, there's a great deal of legislation. I don't have a day where I don't. Literally I was on the phone with, with my colleagues in Europe looking at certifications and looking at measuring, you know, measuring fiber 52.
And we're doing actually two LCAs right now. Life cycle analysis, one in Asia, one in Europe, and we already have one. Which show in real time? Just how much energy and how much water we're saving, what the carbon footprint is and so on. The one that we've done here in the US from the data that we've got here is showing up to 50% just about in everything, savings in water, the carbon footprint, the energy and time and so on.
We're working with processes in particularly in Europe because we can measure every time they do, they do die something. So for instance, we're doing yarn dying there, we're doing garment dying there, we're doing fabric dying. And every time we do that, we now monitor it.
and we save all the data. And that goes to a university in in Europe. They run that data against what is traditionally being done. So at least we have a, like, for like, you know, we, we can't just go out there and say, oh, we save it. All this managing us without actually comparing it to what we're serving against.
It's a, a big comparison against what's already out.
[00:09:29] Adam: Now, is there a lot of data already for companies when they're doing that? Is that something they naturally record
[00:09:34] Graham: No, does not very little. Surprising. Yeah. So, that's why every time we do DS in a, in a new mill, we also do it with a tradit traditional process as well. So we can show them like for like. You know how much energy they have saved. And so, but also how strong is the cotton versus what it was before.
And we're showing a big difference in strength. So, that durability is really interesting to a lot of brands, right?
[00:10:03] Adam: Got it. I've never really thought about that. But what does that durability mean?
[00:10:07] Graham: It just means that you cloth them less longer, which is again, a, a big deal. And, and probably we haven't got right into this, but we could probably recycle the cotton more than we could. Cause recycling really beats up, the material and often. In many cases the recycled products, the fibers are shortened to a point where they can normally be used in very simple things like insulation.
They can't be made back into apparel, which is, you know, a big goal for many companies right now for, for brands and manufacturers alike.
[00:10:42] Adam: I'm curious what people's response has been like to fiber 52.
[00:10:46] Graham: From a consumer point of view, we don't have much feedback yet. Most of our feedback is from industry, universities certifying bodies, which as I say, we're working with many certifying bodies right now and. The worst getting out, you know, so, it won't be long before consumers will see Fiber 52. and we want to put out a lot of information with that. Make sure that our hang tags make sure that people can go to a website and see, you know, the product that they're wearing and see that it is a sustainable product and see it is a stronger product and see it just perform better. One of the things there that we are working on is that in leaving Cotton, it's more natural state.
We get a big performance aspect to it. In the past what's happened is Fluorocarbons have been used, which I think they're called forever, forever chemicals in that they don't ever get out the system. You know, they'll be there in 20,000 years. And too many of those have been used and there's, there's actually a really good film about that, which is all about those flourocarbons contaminating water here in the US. And mainly they're getting banned. So they're very restricted in their use anyway, in, in, in apparel. But this process means that you can have all those performance attributes naturally so,
[00:12:05] Adam: Now, a moment ago you started to touch on the recycling process of, of these cottons like. In your view of like, how does the circular economy come into play in the textile industry?
[00:12:17] Graham: Well, it's been around a long time. When I was a kid in my town and nearby towns where I had a lot of recycling going on it's now just getting into the consumer view. And, and really everyone's seen how important it's to try and recycle products in. Yeah. You know, even though our process is mainly on new products, new products gonna be with us for a while, but there's no doubt that recycling is is beneficial and more and more product has been recycled.
And that's again, an objective factor 52 is that we, we. Want to work with recycled products, but also make sure that the product can be satisfactorily recycled.
[00:13:00] Adam: Got it. And it sounds like there's a, a lot of barriers to that because what you were mentioning was like the, the fibers just get shorter over time.
[00:13:07] Graham: Well, not all recycling processes are so gentle because again, in, in recycling over the years, heavy chemicals are used.
[00:13:14] Adam: Hmm.
[00:13:15] Graham: So it's not quite as green as you might think in some cases. In other cases there are many. Processes now where those heavy chemicals are not being used. And even you know, there are a number of companies who are recycling even synthetic fibers and putting them back into and fabrics.
But yeah, the, the recycling processes themselves are building. Just more and more and more of it, and it becomes better and better and greener and greener as we, as we continue.
[00:13:42] Adam: That what's your vision for Fiber 52?
[00:13:46] Graham: Our vision is for it to be used day in, day out worldwide to replace really what's going on right now. We see it happening. You know, the, the process has been adapted quite widely throughout the world now. That's why I'm saying the consumers are about to see Fiber 52 cause it, it actually is being used and commercialized.
So yeah. The future, which I don't know how long the, that will be. And if I had my crystal ball, I'd tell you that it's, it's gonna be a while. Slowly but surely I think we can replace the the traditional processing with this more environmental.
[00:14:16] Adam: Yeah, I mean that's fascinating that you said, from your experience when you started till today, the process isn't having changed that much, and so it seems like there's a lot of room for improvement.
[00:14:30] Graham: There is, yeah, there, there, there's no doubt about that. And that's you know, what's exciting and that, that's really why Fiber 52 came about. In the, there have been many, many attempts , to have a more sustainable process and, you know, incremental benefits.
Nothing really replacing the whole process, replacing, the bleaching, the whitening, and the cleaning of the right article. That hasn't happened until now, until Fiber52.
[00:15:00] Adam: Right. So what does that mean exactly?
[00:15:03] Graham: Basically we replace one particular very heavy product alkaline product, which in some countries is already being restricted, not banned yet, but it's been very much restricted due to its environmental issues.
And so we replaced that all. So that is a big deal and that's written into all our patents. But, you know, secondly, it's back to all the environmental issues, but handling the products and working with them the same as any processor would do any day's, just a different product.
[00:15:38] Adam: How can listeners support what you're doing?
[00:15:41] Graham: One, it starts, with the brands in the, they can adapt. And they can really educate consumers as to how they're helping in the environment, in using a more sustainable process. And they can also, with swing tags and.
And drawing people into websites on the internet, you know, we can start and give more information. And you can see it, brands are working hard on giving that information now. And, and really consumers are demanding it also.
[00:16:12] Adam: are there certain things that consumers should look for when they're looking to see, Hey, is this brand doing something better or worse.
[00:16:19] Graham: In buying any product from that respect, any textile product, certainly, whether it be a home furnishing or whether it be the, the apparel that you are wearing you know, you should try and find out where it's come from. You know, where the fibers have come from, how it's been treated.
You know, is it environmentally friendly or, or isn't it? Is it a natural fiber? Is it. One that's come from petrochemicals. You know, that's a very basic start to it. And that's what we're trying to promote to get more and more information from the consumers. Maybe where they can read a label, either a label that's sewn into a gum or sewn onto a product and others, which may be removable, but, you know, leads you to a website and, and so on.
So you can really see. Those products are coming from. It's not always easy, as you probably well know, but it is getting better. It's getting easier.
[00:17:07] Adam: And one last question, like how has this changed you personally, having developed this and put this out?
[00:17:12] Graham: Two years ago, I could never have even imagined this because I hadn't planned it. It just, you know, happened by trial and error. And so. Yeah, now my life has changed one recently because we are dealing all around the world so there aren't enough hours in the day, you know, so early and late calls and plenty in between.
It also means that it changes the way I work in that I also have to be out in America in the processing plants. Cause that's my background, but also training a lot of other people around the world. We also have academic staff ourselves. So. Two PhDs in our team who were also working in other parts of the world to educate people who are out in the field and also work with the mills, send them information and so on.
So yeah, that's, that's quite a different life to the one I I led where I was more involved in management, you know, and day to day management. And so I'm back to the coal face as it.
[00:18:08] Adam: Love it. getting in the weeds.
[00:18:10] Graham: That's right. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and that's what I ask everybody to do, is to keep me out the weeds as best they can because it's easy to get in there, I have to say.
[00:18:18] Adam: Now. I actually, one, one more question. I, I spent nine years living in London. Do you have a favorite team.
[00:18:24] Graham: Yeah, Huddersfield Town because I was born there, now I was born literally a few hundred yards from the from the stadium when we had a great team. Because of that, my allegiance, Huddersfield. But I love watching the London teams. I mean, you know, great to see Arsenal doing well again.
And one of my closest friends, one, a guy I grew up with, played for Tottenham. So, I, I always have a soft spot for Tottenham. But I, yeah, I'm football. Crazy. So, you know, Saturday morning I'm up at seven watching the games.
Yeah. So, that's one thing I miss about the uk.
I don't miss the weather. I, I do miss soccer.
[00:18:56] Adam: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. This has just been brilliant. We covered kind of your journey into this and, and your experience, like how you saw the need. And how you're able to develop a solution, which cuts down on the environmental waste typically produced by the textile industry.
So I'm very excited to see what comes next and how that unfolds.
[00:19:15] Graham: Well, thanks Adam. I, I hope we can keep in touch and you can see what happens and we look forward to the future and thanks, thanks for inviting me on the podcast
[00:19:23] Adam: And if you're listening uh, you can find out more on the show notes or if you visit fiber52.com. .
[00:19:28] Graham: Yeah, that's lot of information there and more coming.
[00:19:31] Adam: Okay. Well, thank you.
[00:19:33] Graham: Thank you too.