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A More Sustainable Way to Print on Fabric

First plastic, then glass and wood, and now, HP technology is making it possible to print on fabric, sustainably.
print on fabric

First plastic, then glass and wood, and now, technology is making it possible to print on fabric, sustainably.

Editor's Note: This story is included for our editorial series featuring companies on CR Magazine's 20th annual 100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking, which recognizes outstanding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosure and performance among the Russell 1,000 Index. You can follow the series here

By Sarah Murry

First plastic, then glass and wood, and now — fabric.

At FESPA this week in Germany, HP touted its new lineup of large-format printers, marking the company’s first foray into the fast-growing $3.6 billion textile market for printing everything from festive event banners and team jerseys to chic, one-of-a-kind wallpaper and throw pillows.  

The HP Stitch S Series portfolio of wide-format printers reinvents a 15-year-old process for printing on fabric that improves color accuracy, shrinks lead times and lower costs for print service providers. But perhaps most significantly, it helps tackle a problem that plagues the textile industry: sustainability. Digital production can help cut water usage (and pollution) and reduce the amount of unused clothing and fabric that ends up in landfills.

“All of the brands have on their agenda the topic of sustainability in textiles,” says Joan Pérez Pericot, global general manager, Large Format Graphics at HP Barcelona. “Digital printing has a massive impact on the footprint to the environment.”

HP took a critical eye to the dye sublimation process for printing on polyester and polyester blends. A technique that uses heat to transfer ink to a surface, the process has revolutionized production, especially for designs that require multiple colors, repeating patterns or photographic images. But going digital isn’t without challenges. For one, post-processing requires the intensive use of water, and lots of it.

The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Textile dyeing is the second biggest cause of water pollution globally, after agriculture.

“Water is huge for this industry,” says Ester Sala, global textiles business director at HP Barcelona. “The delta in consumption is potentially half to 70 percent reduction in the amount of water used from a more analog printing process.”

The changing pace of fast fashion

In addition to reducing the use of our planet’s most precious resource, HP Stitch (and digital printing in general), can cut down on the amount of textiles in landfills.

For fashion designers, that means taking the guesswork out of managing forecasts and trends when working a season or two ahead. Clothing collections can take 8 to 14 months from when they are designed to when they hit the store. Less than half of what’s produced ends up sold to consumers at full retail price, about 30 percent is sold for less, and the remaining 20 percent generally ends up burned as waste, buried in landfills or shipped as scrap to developing countries. The well-documented environmental issues associated with the explosive growth of fast fashion, for example, can be in part attributed to retailers that have two “seasons” each month.

With digital fabric manufacturing, only what’s ordered is manufactured, cutting down on waste as seasons and trends shift. “With a digital system, you can produce on demand,” Sala explains. “That’s a competitive advantage of digital online players. They only produce what consumers order. Otherwise, designers have to guess what the market wants.”

Fast fashion is also stoking the trend of “nearby manufacturing,” where the production of clothing that was once printed, sewn and finished in lower-cost Asian countries is moving closer to consumers to keep up with aggressive sales cycles. HP Stitch revamps the entire production workflow with features that slash maintenance downtime and shrink lead times from around 12 weeks to a few days. “It may be a bit more costly to manufacture in the U.S. or Mexico, but you save time and the cost of transport,” Sala says.

The era of personalization

HP Stitch is poised to ride another massive trend: personalization. Consumers have benefited from the proliferation of online-based businesses that offer a slew of customized products, all of them which are printed on demand.

Sites such as Spoonflower, where you can design and print your own fabric, wallpaper or gift wrap; and Shutterfly, which sells everything from hardcover, bound albums, canvas wall art and fleece blankets with your photos; are just a few examples of how “digitally native” print companies are tapping into the power of personalized items.

“In our eyes, personalization encompasses far more than just customized or stylized products,” explains Charles Ohiaeri, chief fulfillment officer at Zazzle. “It’s about how we can intelligently curate and contour the whole experience for those in our community – makers, designers and consumers alike. HP’s digital printing solutions allow us to serve our customers in ways we would not have considered previously.”

HP’s Sala says that most personalized goods are fairly conventional household or apparel items, but that could change and cross category boundaries, such custom printed car interiors or even coffins.

“We believe in a future that makes textile printing accessible, sustainable, smart and limitless,” she says.

See how interior designers are bringing nature indoors with custom-printed textiles.

Previously published on the HP Garage Blog and 3BL Media news.

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