Triple Bottom Line

Revolutionizing Cotton

March 01, 2023 Taylor Martin / Graham Stewart
Triple Bottom Line
Revolutionizing Cotton
Show Notes Transcript

Graham Stewart is an accomplished leader in the textile industry. He's worked in this space for nearly 40 years, with companies all over the world. Today, Graham is sharing what will be the biggest change in cotton in our lifetime. This technology will improve the triple bottom line of every company that implements it. Graham is the Executive Vice President of Fibre52, and has a wealth of knowledge to share. Remember, you heard it here first, be prepared to be amazed!  https://www.fibre52.com

 Triple Bottom Line | Episode 54 | Graham Stewart|

[Upbeat theme music plays] 
Female Voice Over 
[00:02] Welcome to the Triple Bottom Line, where we reveal how today’s business leaders are reaching a new level of success with a people-planet-profit approach, and here is your host, Taylor Martin!

Taylor Martin 
[00:17] Hello, and welcome, everyone. So happy to have Graham Stewart on the show today. Graham is bringing a huge change to the cotton industry. Seriously, his technology is going to be positively affecting so many aspects of the cotton market. I’m just super excited to have him on the show. Graham is an executive vice president of Fibre52. Graham has been in the textile industry for nearly 40 years and has a wealth of knowledge in this space, and I can’t wait to explore. Graham, before we get into the technology, how big is the global cotton market these days? 

Graham Stewart
[00:54] It’s rumored to be about $200 billion. It’s huge. It’s only second behind polyester. 

Taylor Martin
[01:03] Wow! Now that we got a frame of reference of how big of a market we’re talking about here, let’s get into the specifics. Tell our listeners about your technology.  

Graham Stewart
[01:13] Yeah, thanks. Thanks for asking, Taylor. The technology began probably two and a half, three years ago when I noticed that, like you said, cotton hasn’t changed that much. It’s been processed in the same manner for the last four, five, six decades, and there’s a lot of damage being done. I realized that the cotton was weaker than I expected when I was working in various dye houses, and so I started testing it just to bear that out and found that the cotton had been weakened by the long processes, the heavy alkalis, the heavy products that he used in bleaching and dying cotton. I started out then when I saw it was going to be a better way than this. By the way, I’ve been dyer all my life, so that’s my interest. 

Taylor Martin
[02:08] When you’re talking about – you’re talking about the degradation of the quality of the cotton through it’s current process. Is that what you’re saying?  

Graham Stewart
[02:14] That’s correct, exactly. 

Taylor Martin 
[02:17] What is your process like to alleviate from this degradation? 

Graham Stewart
[02:21] Yeah, instead of using the heavy chemicals, we use bioproducts. The bioproducts are most gentler, and the big breakthrough for me was also finding a bioproduct that catalyzed – a cheap bioproduct, by the way, that catalyzed the whole process. It just made it twice as quick. It also helps that we don’t waste water and that we can go from what is really a big two-stage process in that you’ve got the whitening, the bleach, what the cotton industry calls trash, to get that trash, which is vegetable matter, out of the cotton, which could be seen in the cotton unless you do get it out. That first process is to do that, and that’s where most of the damage is being done. The heavy alkali that’s used, it starts to degrade the cotton. There’s also bleach in there as well, high temperatures, and so what I’m doing is using less bleach, none of the heavy alkali, much shorter times, and lower temperatures. Hence, the cotton just doesn’t get damaged, so it’s retaining its natural self. 

Taylor Martin
[03:28] Just saying that alone, not getting to your technology but what your technology is going to avoid, you’re talking about less water, harvesting of alkali, not using that. That’s harsh chemical and then less energy because you don’t need as much heat. That alone right there is a huge environmental savings. 

Graham Stewart
[03:49] It is, yeah. Then, of course, we add the – well, the water phase is quite important. At the end of that bleaching process, usually you drop the batts and fill up again and heat up again. With this process, you don’t have to do that. You can just go straight into dying. You don’t have to drop the temperature. Put the dye stuff in and away you go. You save a lot more time, a lot more energy, and you’re saving 10,000 liters of water per 1,000 kilograms of fiber or fabric. 

Taylor Martin
[04:20] All right, let’s talk about the people aspect of that because what you just described is a situation where the people that are working in the warehouse are going to be in a much safer environment. Is that correct?

Graham Stewart
[04:33] It is, yeah. I’ve been there and did it myself many a time in that acids and alkalis are not good for us, especially the strong alkalis and strong acids, and so this avoids all that. This process avoids all that, I should say. 

Taylor Martin
[04:50] Man, I could see it from a business owner’s point of view. I mean, I’m saving electricity. I’m saving not having to buy chemicals I don’t need. I’m saving time. I’m making a safer environment for my workers. I mean, this is a win, win, win, win every way I look at it. What’s the downside? 

Graham Stewart
[05:09] Early adoption. It’s been the same thing for the last decade, after decade, after decade. How do we adopt it? When dye houses and processes do adopt this process, they realize all we’re doing is replacing the heavy stuff that they’re already using. The mechanics of it and the guys in the dye house, they don’t do anything different. They still just carry in a liquid, but it’s a soft liquid. It’s a nice liquid, or they carry in salt, but it’s a nice salt. It’s just those replacements that give this whole bioprocess the advance to jump over what has been used. That comes with, in some cases, people who have been working in those environments for 30 years. It’s pretty hard for them to give up what they’ve been doing for 30 years, so we have to do what I call a technical transfer. We usually only do it once or twice and then we’re good, and so it is really easily adaptable. 

Taylor Martin
[06:11] I just want to underscore it. The end quality of a product is also increasing with all these savings, correct? 

Graham Stewart
[06:18] It is, yeah. We get a more robust product in that there’s a lot of talk about recycling. We may come on to that, but when the end product is stronger, there’s a chance to recycle better, for instance. Also, your clothes wear longer. That’s a big deal because there’s a lot of focus on that right now in that brands are looking at their products, and as you know, it’s a disposable market that’s becoming less disposable. That’s where we can help. 

Taylor Martin
[06:50] Great. The end users are going to be able to own their clothing longer. It’s going to wear longer, or they donate it to wherever. The cycle of that clothing is just going to last longer. 

Graham Stewart
[06:59] Absolutely. Yeah. 

Taylor Martin
[07:01] That’s great. Let’s get into the technology. Can you explain to us, to our laymen here? How is this technology working? 

Graham Stewart
[07:08] Yeah. I can’t get too far into the weeds because our lawyers wouldn’t be too happy with me, and we usually engage in NDAs. I can give you a reasonably detailed view. We’ve mentioned that we’re doing the bleaching process with these softer chemicals, but as I said, my eureka moment pretty much was when I found a cheap product which is a bioproduct, a natural bioproduct, which catalyzes the whole process. That’s where we really saved the time. We really saved the energy, and in the end, we saved the carbon footprint on the water. 

What we do is we’ve actually done – and I’ll just stick with that first process. We’re very heavily involved in life cycle analysis. Life cycle analysis really gives you an objective measurement against what’s going on now and your – and this new process. We can’t just say all this and this is going to happen without really being scrutinized, and so we have life cycle analyses going on in Europe, in Asia, and in America. Then we can get all the certifications for these processes. That’s where we are right now. 

[08:32] Then we go through into the dying process. The end user has the option of – at that point, we can have a performance process, so for instance, if [inaudible] brand, what we do is we offer that natural process. It is natural. We’re not really adding anything. What happens is the end product is hydrophobic, so it repels water. What we didn’t know, it’s absorbent as well. What’s happening is you’ve got this great comfort factor where the fabric, for instance, doesn’t stick to your skin. Your body temperature remains under control. You don’t get this crash that you get with synthetic fabrics, which I think we’ve all been through. When you go on a long bike ride, you jump off, and then you’re suddenly very, very cold, or everything’s stuck to you. 

Whatever you do, any aerobic exercise, particularly if you’re in a humid condition, then we don’t get any of that, but some people don’t want that either because they’re really interested in the ecological process. They’re interested in sustainability of this. For instance, some fashion houses have said to us, well, yeah, the performance side of it sounds great. We don’t really need that. You have the option not to go through and have that natural performance and have what we call an absorbent cotton. That goes over into, for instance, household goods or household textiles, should I say, where, for instance, the towels, you need that high absorbency, and so we don’t have that hydrophobic effect. We want the product to be absorbent, and that goes for a lot of things. It’s not just towels. It could be tea cloths, the things that you use in your kitchen and so on which need absorbency, so there are options with this process. 

Taylor Martin
[10:35] Speaking to the fashion industry because that—that’s such a hot topic when it comes to sustainability. Sustainable fashion is just – they’re just trying to find every way to make it more sustainable. Are you saying that the fashion industry is not interested in this technology? 

Graham Stewart
[10:47] No. They’re interested in the technology because it gives them a sustainable process. Do they want the performance side of it? No. You’re not going out running in your best dress or probably not in your best jeans either, and so that’s the option that you get. Where is this process in that you can get the sustainable features, but you don’t have to have the performance features, which the small guys would like to have? Depends which market you’re in. If you’re in fashion, if you’re in daily wear, it’s pretty much different to the guys who are performance guys. In the past, performance has been applied to textiles by fluorocarbons, for instance, and they’re now being banned, as you probably know. There is a great film. I think it was called Dark Waters, which was about fluorocarbons and how – I think they’re called forever chemicals. 

Taylor Martin
[11:45] Exactly. 

Graham Stewart
[11:46] Yeah. What this process does, it does a lot of that naturally. It doesn’t glue up the water system, doesn’t give you the forever chemical, but it gives you the performance that you need naturally. 

Taylor Martin
[11:58] I got to tell you, when I hear solutions like this, it just reminds me way long ago, 20 years ago, how everybody was just up in arms about everything. If it was sustainable, it was going to be more expensive, blah, blah, blah, blah, but technology and I would also say our thinking about sustainability has changed so much that you’re talking about a product that – or a technology that’s going to change a product to make the product actually better by the end. It’s going to save water. It’s going to save electricity. It’s going to be safer for the environment, safer for the people that are building and creating the product and the manufacturing. It’s just like everywhere you turn it’s a positive. It’s a yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, all across the board. 

Now, let’s talk about cost. Is this going to add cost to the actual production? They’re saving all these other things. Those are cost savings. Is there anything that’s making this more expensive, or how does that work?  

Graham Stewart
[12:54] No, there isn’t, once you do the overall cost, and that’s, again, where the barriers come in. The processes are not used to costing everything out. They’re getting there because of the environmental pressures in that, yes, you do need to know how much your water’s costing. In some countries where we’re dealing right now, that water is delivered to a dye house in a tankard. It’s not coming out of the ground. That’s a lot money. It’s a lot of money. 

Also, the other thing is in power and electricity, as you say, and gas. We’ve got to look at the gas situation, which is a huge thing right now in Europe. One processor I’ve been talking to this morning, they were featured in a prominent newspaper that they’re costs because of the gas crisis have increased tenfold. They’ve employed this process, and they’re already getting back to normal. It is about costing out what you do gain from this process and how many man hours you’re getting from this process, how much more production you’re getting from this process. Of course, what’s the cost of water? What is the cost overall? All that has to be taken into consideration. Even if there’s a slight difference, depending on the country as to what these bioproducts cost, which generally there isn’t, they’re not more costly than the things that are being used right now. Add all that together and you should be saving money. 

Taylor Martin
[14:27] Can you use this technology on other types of natural fibers like hemp and bamboo or things like that? 

Graham Stewart
[14:34] Yeah, good question. We haven’t quite got there yet, but we’ve got a lot of requests. Looking at the theory of all this, you’ve got the same factors in play in that, yeah, like hemp for instances, cellulosic fiber, needs to be clean, needs to have most of the same old products on it. Yet, this is a new, natural fiber that’s really coming into prominence. There are many others that are coming through as natural fibers start to gain that market share again, particularly in the cellulosic side, which I like to call [inaudible]. There are lot of fibers which are called bast fibers. Like bamboo, they’ve got a casing on the outside which you have to take away, and then you’ve usually got something on the fiber. What we’re interested in is using this process to remove naturally what’s on the outside of the fibers, so you can actually process and die it properly. That’s creating quite a lot of interest for people. Right now, we’ve got our hands full with cotton, so we said, please, just watch this space for a while. We’ll certainly get there. 

Taylor Martin
[15:50] Yeah, $200 billion market, you’re going after that. That’s okay. That’s going to keep your hands full for a while.  

Graham Stewart
[15:55] Yeah, I think it will. 

Taylor Martin
[15:57] How far out is this technology to be widespread? Where are you guys at in that? 

Graham Stewart
[16:02] We’re in commercialization in the US, widely in Europe, and in Central Asia. We haven’t rolled this out in the Far East as yet, but all those other geographic layers we have, which are powerhouses in textiles. The commercialization is happening as we speak, so this is a pressure time for us because we’ve got conversations going on from morning ‘til night. Like this morning, my life’s changed. My day started at 4:30 this morning because I’m in another time zone, and it may end at 8 o’clock tonight because I’m in another time zone. I can’t do that all week, but it’s not your 9 to 5 business anymore. It’s certainly a global business, and what we’re doing is – to help that, we’re recruiting people in these markets that are on the ground in the right time zones that know this process inside out and many people who are scientists or process scientists that know this side of the business really well. 

Taylor Martin
[17:06] What’s the timeframe from beginning of engagement to a company being successfully trained and operational in the new technology? 

Graham Stewart
[17:17] Okay, this is where our lawyers have been very insistent that we’re careful. 

Taylor Martin
[17:23] Okay. Give me a broad, broad range then or something just so I can understand the frame of reference. 

Graham Stewart
[17:28] Yeah. A broad range would be that you have to go through trials. People want to satisfy themselves that this process is going to work for them when they’re eventually leaving the processes that they’ve been using for decades. They need to know that this is going to work. That, to me, is somewhere between two and three months and that’s it. 

Taylor Martin
[17:51] Oh, wow! That’s not bad.  

Graham Stewart
[17:53] It’s not bad. It’s proven out. You’ve got to do it a few times without me there or without our technicians there just to prove that you can do it yourself and there are no problems. That’s what takes the time so just lining that up, but that’s exactly where we are right now. 

Taylor Martin
[18:13] I can only imagine that, in the textile industry, which is just so large, how are the corporations – like their ESG data, I could see them being hungry to get this type of technology under their belt because it’s going to make their ESG bottom line look better. 

Graham Stewart
[18:30] Yeah, it’s a great point. They come in and they grade the ESG pressure. We see that, and that’s driving it for us. There’s no doubt about it. We’re engaged daily in those conversations, and so that’s why we’re working hard on making sure we have the data to show these guys where the savings are right throughout the supply chain from start to finish and to make sure that they do capitalize on that ESG situation. There’s a lot of pressure coming out. Not just that. There’s governmental pressure right now in that – and I think this is a big change in the industry. If there’s no governmental pressure, well, why do we change? Right now, that’s happening, particularly in Europe, where we see that change is coming faster in the EU. There’s some pretty strong legislation coming through right now. 

Taylor Martin 
[19:31] With more and more eyeballs looking at your company and your technology, I can only imagine that consumer pressure to manufacturers is going to be escalating because they know the solution is there but they’re not using it yet. 

Graham Stewart
[19:44] Correct. Also, it’s one of our jobs to work with brands and retailers to get that information to individuals in that if there’s a swing ticket on a garment, for instance. You can at least learn about it. You can see where it came from. What we’re trying to do is to promote that to make sure that consumers are more educated or at least have that information available to them. As you know, you might go into a store and buy a T-shirt. There’s not much information on a shirt. Where does it come from? What’s it dyed with? What’s it processed with? You might get a content [inaudible], but that’s about it. 

I think there’s a long way to go there. That’s an education, but consumers are demanding that. Consumers are saying, yeah, we do want to know more, and so that’s happening right now, which is good for all of us. 

Taylor Martin
[20:40] Yeah, I do like it when I go shopping and see a QR code on the back of the price label. I can scan it, and it takes me to a website where I can see the history of the product, or the company, or the materials, or everything, the whole journey that this garment has taken to get in my hands. I think something like that can be extremely useful. For what you guys are doing, I would also love it if you can create a little bit of a – you can create a logo and put it inside the QR code. If you guys had some sort of universal international mark or logo or something you could create that could go inside a QR code like that and each company can have their own personalized QR code but they can stick that logo in it, I think that would be a great way to train people to, when they see it, they know, ah, this has that technology in it. Let’s scan it. Then they see the logo, and they know what they’re going to be getting once they click on that QR code. 

Graham Stewart
[21:40] That’s right, Taylor, and we’re working on that. For instance, we see ourselves as an ingredient brand. When you’re using our process, we’re supplying those labels, either a woven label or a label that’s printed into the garment, so you can scan. You can get that information. More than that, what we’re doing is working very hard on traceability. One, we’re being pretty selfish because we don’t want people to say it’s Fibre52 and it isn’t. We know that’s going to be an issue. We know that now. Number two, we want consumers to know where the product came from, and so we’re going right back to the cotton itself and right to the finished product at the other end so the whole supply chain. 

There are ways of doing that, and you can put traces. You can put markers, DNA markers in there and so on where it’s not expensive but at least it – we know that our product’s not being counterfeited. We know it’s the right product, and so we can trace it very carefully. That’s also a big part of this process. 

Taylor Martin
[22:52] This technology is just so fascinating to me because it’s just changing it in so many different ways, as we mentioned. You’ve been in the industry for this long. You must be charged with an ox of energy because you just know that you’re doing some of your best work.  

Graham Stewart
[23:09] Absolutely, yeah, it’s something to get out of bed for in the morning pretty early as this. It’s, again, less sleep than I used to. You know what? I feel charged. It’s just great. The optimism and also the welcome we’re getting from the industry now and the boost we’re getting from the industry is incredible. We’re being welcomed throughout the industry, and getting the word out there is really something that I love to do. 

Also, with our partners, they’re getting charged too. It’s something new. It’s something interesting. It’s different. It’s a change in the industry, and as you said, at the start of this, we haven’t seen that much change in cotton over the years. You’re a consumer as well, not seeing that much. I think this, the whole process, will make a big difference to the way things are made, particularly in cotton and to the cellulose. 

[24:11] I mean, to your point, if I can go back a step, you were saying about the natural fibers. There’s a lot of very sustainable fibers out there which are made from the celluloses. You’ve probably seen them out there. We call them [inaudible] acetates or cellulose acetates, and I’m working very, very hard on those as well. They get blended with cotton. Those fibers we’re also taking care of as well. 

Taylor Martin
[24:40] it’s such a wholistic view of this technology the way it can process the fibers. How long do you think it’s going to take until we can start to see some of these products on the racks in the stores? 

Graham Stewart
[24:52] I think we’re probably – before you really start to see this, you’re probably 12 months to 2 years out. I say that because we’ve got seasonality in fashion, for instance, where the stars have to plan ahead, and therefore, there’s that timeline before it even goes on the shelf. We see that now. There are others that can do it quicker, but you’re looking at a one to two year time period, which is typical in retail and branding. 

Taylor Martin
[25:19] Right. Is there anything that’s holding Fibre52 back? Are you guys moving as fast as you possible can just because of the nature of the business, or is there help you guys could utilize?  

Graham Stewart
[25:31] We’re trying to engage other industry players. That’s where we’d like help, industry bodies, and we are making progress there. Those industry bodies come along with us. Let’s get into partnership. Let’s catalyze this whole thing. Let’s work together. As I say, that’s really happening. 

Otherwise, we’ve got no barriers. I mean, we don’t have financial barriers. I’m very fortunate in that. In early stage businesses, it is often a huge problem. We all know there’s the stats behind that. We don’t have that issue, and we don’t have a people issue. We’re finding people, which we thought might be an issue. We’re finding people around the world who really want to work with us, and that’s important, guys who have got the same views as we have in sustainability and the ecological side of processing. 

Taylor Martin
[26:27] How long has it been since you guys had your first viable solution, like when all the stars aligned and you knew you had it? 

Graham Stewart
[26:34] It was just under two years ago. I remember it well, and I had been looking for that breakthrough. I knew I was getting close, but it was a trial-and-error situation so been a few errors. Then what we had to do is repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. You’ve got to make sure that your whole process is robust, and that’s really when I knew we had something. That’s when we started to patent the whole thing. 

Taylor Martin
[27:00] Sounds like a typical business. You got a no, no, no, no, no and you got 100 nos. Then, all of a sudden, that one yes made it all worth its while. 

Graham Stewart
[27:09] Absolutely, yeah, that’s exactly what happened. 

Taylor Martin
[27:13] That’s fantastic. What do you see being some of the biggest changes in the cotton market? I should say just fiber market in general once this technology is in place, once it’s set? 

Graham Stewart
[27:24] Yeah, I mean, look, our technology right now is based on cellulose or cotton. It’s not for wool or cashmere right now. I’m not saying in the future, but what I see is that the impact will be seen. As we was talking about, it’ll be seen quite soon, and I think that going down the line we’ll just see – what our whole philosophy is that we keep – if we make, break a profit soon, we’re not going to keep that. We’re going to put it back into more science, more money function, better money function. We don’t see that we’re going to get rich out of this anytime soon. We’ve got a decade long view, and we want to reinvest, reinvest, reinvest. That’s where we’re going, if that answers your question. 

Taylor Martin
[28:13] It does. You know what? That’s the best-case scenario. You’re moving as fast as you possible can to grow. It’s going to keep any competitors that might pop up along the way – it’s going to keep you at the top. I would say, any big brands out there listening to this, here is a company that you might want to invest in. At the very least, get your manufacturing companies to start using their technology and then start to be able to use this savings, this sustainability, this people-plant-profit approach and put it into your marketing. 

Graham Stewart
[28:45] Yes, fantastic. I guess, at the end of this, we can give out the Fibre52.com details. There you’ve got it. It’s just Fibre52.com. There’s a lot of information on there both for brands and consumers. We’re ready to engage, so thank you. Thanks for the plug there. 

Taylor Martin
[29:05] Yeah. Do you guys have any social media channels, or you guys just all nose to the grindstone, working, working, working? 

Graham Stewart
[29:12] Let me tell you, Taylor. To be honest, we had to stop. It was like drinking from a hose. We just went out on one media platform, didn’t do a big splash, and within two weeks, we had inquiry from all over the world, which we had to – we needed to handle. That’s where we got into a situation where we – okay, let’s get some people around this. Let’s handle this properly, and so we pulled back on the social media for a while. That’s going to happen again, but we want to get over this first big wave before we start going out there again. We do have plans because wat we did wasn’t really that planned. It was just a simple message on one platform, and wow, away we went. That was really the launch of Fibre52, and that was fairly recent. That only happened three months ago. 

Taylor Martin
[30:08] Then I think there’s listeners out that are the first time they’re hearing Fibre52. You heard it here first on the Triple Bottom Line [laughs].

Graham Stewart
[30:17] [Laughs] Great job, Taylor.

Taylor Martin
[30:19] Graham, thank you for being on the show, and thank you and your team for all the hard work that I know you guys are putting into this new technology. I am extremely excited to follow you guys online and to see these – this technology in my future products, my future clothing and things on the shelves and towels and all that stuff.  

Graham Stewart
[30:38] Great, Taylor. Thanks for all the good questions first. It’s been a pleasure, and thanks for inviting me on the pod. Yeah, we’ll keep in touch. 

Taylor Martin
[30:46] Thanks a lot. Over and out, everybody. 

[Upbeat theme music plays]
Female Voice Over 
[30:49] Thanks for tuning into the Triple Bottom Line. Your host, Taylor Martin, is Founder and Chief Creative of Design Positive, a strategic branding and accessibility agency. Interested in being interviewed on our podcast? Then visit designpositive.co and fill out our contact form. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we would appreciate a review on Apple podcasts or whatever provider you’re logging in from. This podcast is prepared by Design Positive and is not associated with any other entity. We look forward to having you back for another installment of the Triple Bottom Line.

[Upbeat theme music fades out]