Ralph Lauren to Cut Down on Water Waste With New Dyeing Process

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Ralph Lauren Corp. seeks to drastically reduce water waste by changing the way it dyes clothes.

The retailer plans to start the new method that will reach 80% of its solid cotton products by 2025 — a major undertaking for a company that sells millions of polo shirts, T-shirts and blue jeans each year. The first phase, which cuts water use by 40%, involves a textile treatment developed by Dow Inc. The process lets the material absorb color more easily with the company’s existing equipment, lessening water and energy use. 

The next phases will include new machinery and color-blending technology. It’s part of a project called Color on Demand, which is a joint effort between Ralph Lauren, Dow and Huntsman Corp., another chemical maker. Two companies that make equipment for the textile industry, Corob and Jeanologia, are also participating. Products made with the new system will hit shelves later this year.

“Eventually this will be applicable across our entire range,” Ralph Lauren Chief Executive Officer Patrice Louvet said in an interview. 

Fashion retailers are pumping investment into efforts to lessen the industry’s environmental impact. Apparel manufacturing currently produces as much as 10% of global carbon emissions  and 20% of the world’s wastewater, according to the United Nations. Hennes & Mauritz AB has put money into a polymer recycling startup and Lululemon Athletica Inc. invested in a vegan leather company. Chanel, meanwhile, invested in an environmentally friendly silk company and Hermes began selling handbags made from lab-grown mushroom leather.

Ralph Lauren executives declined to disclose how much the company is spending on the project. It’s part of a broader range of sustainability initiatives: In August, Ralph Lauren announced the purchase of a minority stake in Natural Fiber Welding Inc., which specializes in reusing cotton waste. The retailer said it would help scale Natural Fiber Welding’s patented process in order to use more recycled cotton. And earlier this month, it started a subscription rental business for its clothes, which could let the company generate revenue while manufacturing less apparel. 

The apparel brand has struggled lately as it continues to be hindered by economic fallout from the pandemic. Last quarter, it reported slower-than-expected comparable sales amid lower tourist spending and virus resurgences in the U.S. and Europe. Global same-store sales, adjusted for currency swings, fell 21%. The company said revenue would be down in the mid-to-high single digits in the current quarter. So appealing to environmentally-conscious younger consumers is a priority for the company. 

The fashion label began seeking ways to improve its water-intensive garment dyeing process about five years ago, according to Halide Alagoz, Ralph Lauren’s chief product and sustainability officer. They chose to focus on cotton because it makes up more than 80% of all products the company sells, Alagoz said. Long-term, after full implementation, the system won’t raise production costs. Pilot programs are already underway at suppliers in the U.S., Guatemala and Vietnam.

There’s another benefit too: The new system could also reduce the time it takes Ralph Lauren to manufacture and ship clothes. Currently, the company makes its color decisions six months in advance, after which products are dyed before being shipped to the market. The new process may allow Ralph Lauren to hold a core inventory of white polo shirts, cable knit sweaters and denim, which could be dyed as little as a month prior to rollout in stores.

“We are looking into how this will help us take better and smarter bets on colors and inventory,” said Alagoz.

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