Episode 24: How Fiber52 is Upending the Textile Industry with Sustainable Dyeing


Adam Honig: Now, I’m listening to your accent, Graham, and I’m definitely thinking Southern California. Do I have that right? 

Graham Stewart: California. I wish. No, it’s Southern Australia. I lived in Australia for 10 years, but I’m originally from Northern England with a terrible accent. People tell me I haven’t got rid of it yet. I thought I had, but it’s mixed up because I lived in Italy, Australia for 10 years, China for five years, Hong Kong for two years, and now America for 10 years. So, that adds up to about 25 years. 

Adam Honig: Hello and welcome to Make It, Move It, Sell It. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, and selling products—and of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we’re not talking about that today. Instead, today we’re going to be talking with Graham Stewart, the founder of Fibre52. Welcome to the podcast, Graham. 

Graham Stewart: Hey. Thanks, Adam. Good to be here, and thanks for inviting me on the show.

Adam Honig: Yeah, it’s our pleasure. You know, we’re going to be talking a little bit about textile manufacturing today, and I’m particularly excited about this because textiles played such a big role in the industrial revolution and the economy of countries like Bangladesh and so on. And you’ve been working in textiles and dying textiles your whole career, my understanding, Graham, is that right? 

Graham Stewart: That’s correct, Adam. Yeah. I started at an early age—we were the largest commission dyers in Europe. We dyed just about everything you could think of, and I studied my degrees in coloration. I’ve been in it all my life. 

Adam Honig: So cotton, when you grow cotton, it doesn’t just come in like orange, like the shirt I’m wearing. It actually has to be turned into that color at some point.

Graham Stewart: You know, people are working on that, but I think it’s going to be a while. So we’re stuck with other ways of coloring cotton. To your point, there’s a lot of water used in growing cotton, which gets a lot of publicity, but there’s a lot of water used in coloration and processing cotton. Um, and that’s part of what we are about is conserving the environment, but also a big part of that is making sure we use less water in processing. 

Adam Honig: Yeah, so tell us about Fiber52 and kind of what you guys are up to. 

Graham Stewart: Fiber52 began because I was doing a lot of my own dying, and I noticed that there was a lot of damage being done to the cellulose in dying because they used traditional dying, which is still 95% of what goes on in the world. We’re going to change that, all being well, by using what? Heavy alkaline caustic soda. In fact, we take that out. We use bio products to do the job. You know, some people say, well, you know, you can’t get the cotton clean. We do. Cotton’s bleached before it’s dyed, and that’s to get the trash, as it’s nicely called in the trade, out of the cotton, which is vegetable matter, lignans, and other celluloses which color the cotton. We get that out, but we get it out by using lower temperatures, much less water, and much less time. In our literature, we say we use up to 50% less time, 50% up to, I have to use those words advisedly, 50% reduction in water, 50% reduction in energy, and up to 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. So, it’s a big deal.

Adam Honig: Now let’s talk about this for a second. So, if I’m a textile manufacturer and I’m going to be producing a range of shirts or something like that, I get the raw material, I get the cotton, and I have to apply all of these caustic chemicals to it in order to prepare it to be dyed. That’s a big problem, right? Because that produces a lot of waste you have to use all this water, and, by the way, I don’t know what these caustic materials are. I’m sure you can tell me what they are, but they got to be bad for you, right? 

Graham Stewart: They are. If you get them on you, and I’ve done that many a time, they’re just bad for the cotton because what they’re doing is degrading the cells. So your shirt isn’t as strong as it should be or as durable as it should be. What’s happening is the nice side effect of doing it this way in a more gentle, more natural manner, is that your cotton is much, much stronger and much more durable in every way. So that, that was quite a big breakthrough in developing Fibre52. 

Adam Honig: Gotcha, gotcha, and so, you can essentially have the benefit of having the cotton clean from all the junk as you called it, not using the caustic chemicals, and it actually comes out better? 

Graham Stewart: Yeah, and the tough bit was to harness all these buyer products. The big, big breakthrough for me was after a couple of years, I had managed to find a very cheap bio product. And by the way, this process doesn’t cost more than normal, in fact, it costs less because of all the water, all the energy, and so on that we save. That’s a big saving, but the breakthrough was one bio product catalyzes the whole process. It’s a shorter time at lower temperatures, and the big water saving, is instead of what normally happens in bleaching or getting rid of the trash and all that kind of stuff, getting the cotton white is that you have to drop the bath, right? So you get rid of the water, then you refill it with soap, to get the cotton clean again, ready for dyeing. So it’s prepared for dyeing, and that might happen twice, but if you think of a thousand kilograms of fabric or fiber, and you drop a bath, that’s 10,000 liters of water down the drain just for a few t-shirts. I mean, that’s a thousand kilos, so yes! Presently it’s very wasteful and that’s where we make a big impact. With Fibre52, we don’t drop the bath, we go straight from prepare for dye, into dye, saving time again, but also saving energy because you have to reheat the bath. A big savings in water usage. 

Adam Honig: One of the things that I find so fascinating about doing this podcast is getting a chance to talk with people who do all of these things that it’s almost like, you never knew existed. So many people wouldn’t have even thought about this process before, how did you get involved with this, Graham?

Graham Stewart: Again, dye houses, even if I’ve tried in my career to get away from dyeing, I don’t do it. I’m not good at that. It’s been trial and error, a lot of error. And basically, I’m not a scientist. I know enough because I do have a degree in coloration, but basically, I could see all the damage being done. In processing, specifically in cotton, it tends to go on for a long time. And then you’ve got other mixtures. We all mostly wear poly-cottons as well because cotton is often mixed with polyester sometimes for price and sometimes because cotton is being degraded. So it gets mixed with polyester to make it durable. With Fibre52, you don’t need to do that. I’m hoping in the future we can say, why do you need polyester? Because cotton is a natural fiber; it’s the second largest fiber in the world in usage. Polyester still be number one, but we’re not using petrochemicals. It’s wonderful. We’re just trying to make the processing better.

Adam Honig: Yeah, because the sustainability of all the petrochemical products is really challenging, right? All the polyester that’s out there, does it ever break down? 

Graham Stewart: It does, but we are long gone by the time it does. To be fair, there are a lot of initiatives, few here in the US, where they’re making polyester compostable. But it’s not easy; it’s not just compostable. You’ve got to have various conditions and so on. The problem with polyester as well is the microfiber issue; it’s going into the seas, choking the fish, making all sorts of problems, and even in our water supplies. Someone might say, “Yeah, but cotton’s the same.” We’re finding that it’s not; yes, cotton does fibrillate and there are small particles, but it’s natural. And again, it does compost, so don’t worry too much about that.

Adam Honig: I want to pull up the conversation back for a second. So, you’ve got this really new approach, which has a lot of benefits to textile manufacturers, but I imagine that textile manufacturers, they’ve been doing things the old way for a long time. So, what is it like talking with them about this new approach and getting them to think differently about these things?

Graham Stewart: That’s a big question, Adam. Welcome to my life. I’m in a DI house every week and usually the person says this can’t work. Upfront, you know, they don’t have enough alkali, the temperatures are too low, they’re not getting all the natural products out of the cotton, and therefore they can’t dye it. So, I’m paying for the trial. I ask them to watch and record. A lot of DI houses have very good controls where you can record the whole process. Just up the road here from where I am in North Carolina, I’m working with a fabulous yarn dyeing house which is called Package dyeing, which is like dyeing a brick. Those guys have been very open. They in fact, donated the cotton to me and let me work in their machines. We go from their normal process and, just this last week I’ve done a very light blue, because most people say, it’s going to be brown. You’re not going to get the light colors. So, I did a very light blue, repeated it a few times and then we compare side by side. So, when I dye Fibre52, I dye the conventional method right next to it. Fibre52 is taking about four hours and 15 minutes, four hours and 30 minutes depending on what happens. The traditional process is taking nine hours.

Adam Honig: Oh, wow! So, in my world, we would call it a proof of concept. Do they pay you for that or are you doing that on your own dime? 

Graham Stewart: I do it on my dime or the company’s dime. It’s very important and we even have staffing of other parts of the world now. We have a full-time person in Bangladesh, for instance, who covers India and Pakistan as well, where there’s a big textile, particularly cotton textile industry and processing industry. And of course, in those regions there’s a lot of cotton growing, too. What we try to do is get people to embrace this and, yes, there’s got to be a lot of trials. So usually, if we go to a company to get this process accepted, it’s usually a two to four-month process before it is. Because you’ve got to get over the skepticism to begin with, from management to the shop floor. But the guys on the shop floor, I’ve got to tell you, they go, “Wow, this is great, because we’re not using heavy alkaline. I don’t have to worry about that. And also, it’s much simpler than normal dying. You don’t have to do anything special. You’re carrying the same bucket across the floor; it’s just got a bio product in it instead of a heavy chemical.”

Adam Honig: So, you’ve got this new approach for cleaning up cotton to make the dying easier. But do people worry about the long-term effect of using your method? What’s going to happen to that shirt in six months or a year? Is that part of the skepticism at all? 

Graham Stewart: Not at all. Never had that one bit. In fact, this week I did a webinar for a wide textile audience. A lady rang me about 10 minutes afterwards, managing director of a company that makes cloths for cheese, food, and cotton for beauty products.

Adam Honig: I know you do a lot of that. This is why you’re very familiar with this. 

Graham Stewart: That’s right. As you can see, this could be a cleaner process for food, you know, a natural process. Everything’s reacted with no residues. It’s just natural, so it was quite interesting for me. We’re getting a lot of interest from the non-woven industry, which is anything from carpets to automotive and plane interiors, and also in personal hygiene. That’s a big interest for many producers.

Adam Honig: Yeah. Well, I know there’s a lot of consumer sentiment around sustainability, but also just about all the potential poisons. You mentioned the microfiber issue before, I know there’s been a lot of talk about that and, we’ve had guests on the podcast, fabric makers and rug makers and people like that. And you don’t think about it, but you bring this kind of stuff in your house and what kind of pollutants are you bringing in? So, I could see that being important for people. So, cotton is used in food production or food wrapping, I guess? 

Graham Stewart: Yes, food, fruit, food preservation and so, again, it was very interesting for me to have someone from the food industry say, “Can we get together? We’re really keen to take this further.” Of course, there’ll be a lot of testing. It was a nice surprise.

Adam Honig: So, we were talking earlier about how you go to market with this and you’re licensing the technology to manufacturers. Tell us about some of the challenges with that and the IP issues you have worldwide. 

Graham Stewart: We spend a lot of time and money on lawyers to make sure this technology can be transferred around the world quickly and be interpreted quickly. We have to keep an eye on usage, so we may even buy products and send them to distributors to know where they’re going. We look for partners carefully to ensure we can trust them. We’re looking at the value chain from the beginning, looking at blockchain, DNA, and all sorts of things to cheaply monitor the whole supply chain, giving visibility which is important. This ensures Fibre52 is Fibre52 and hasn’t been tampered with using chemicals.

Adam Honig: There’s that old joke that, if you came up with Fibre52, someone can come up with Fibre53. Hey, speaking about Fibre52, you never told me why the company’s called Fibre52

Graham Stewart: Oh boy, that is a good one. One thing is that it was very hard to call anything cotton. All the trademarks have been taken. Fibre52 on the other hand, is the number of chromosomes in the most common cotton in the world and it adds up to 52. So basically, it’s cotton.

Adam Honig: So, it’s like the genetic marker of cotton is Fibre52. It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, where they invent Ice Nine, which comes to global ruin. I’m not saying Fibre52 will do that, but it’s interesting. So, it’s the genetic markers that make up the cotton is how you got the name. It’s really hard to name a company. I’ve named a couple of companies and my experience is no matter what name you choose; people don’t like it. When you named the company, was it hard to get everybody to agree on it?

Graham Stewart: Oh, absolutely. And we, and we had an agency involved. Even though they came up with tremendous names, they were caught out by the fact that they’d already been legally taken or people complained about them. None of us agreed on the name, to be honest. But we do like Fibre52. Generally, people are interested, then some glaze over when you tell them. But, it’s certainly an aim that invites questions. Put it that way.

Adam Honig: Yeah, well, we named our company Spiro from the Latin word Spra, which means to breathe. We wanted to breathe new life into the terrible field of CRM. Most people think we’re Greek American, though. Whenever we go to a trade show, we’re surprised by the number of people whose first name is Spiro. It’s always a good time. Our mailman is Spiro too.

Graham Stewart: It’s a nice name for sure.

Adam Honig: Thank you. So, tell me a little bit about what you see coming up on the horizon for fibre52? 

Graham Stewart: Well, we’ve gone through the emerging stage and we’re now into the commercialization stage. We’re doing trials all around the world and some of them are quite large. We’re dealing with mills who process as much as 2 million pounds of cotton a week, and they’re interested in our services because if they can save 30% of their time, it’ll result in a lot of dollars. So, we’re getting a lot of interest from the biggest brands and manufacturers in the world.

Adam Honig: So, for you, do you go to places like Levi’s and talk at that level with people, or do you have to speak to all of their subcontractors and so on? Or do you just talk to everybody?

Graham Stewart: We started off talking to the subcontractors, but then we realized we had to talk to the brands. So, we do talk to many of the big ones around the world. The brands are all under a lot of pressure to be more ecological and the ESG pressure is huge. We moved quickly in Italy because I have a lot of friends there and I know the processes and brands. With my friends, we managed to move quickly because there’s legislation coming down to track really fast. And many manufacturers and brands want to make sure they’re in a good place before it hits. So, wherever the legislation is, those are the countries that are adopting the quickest.

Adam Honig: And the legislation is around, sustainability or what kind of legislation?

Graham Stewart: Yeah, around sustainability and, there have been organizations like Greenpeace and the United Nations in particular, which have a 2030 strategy that is excellent. They are looking to be much more sustainable by 2030. So, these sustainable practices just have to happen. Fibre52 is in a very good position for that. In fact, for many companies, we can write a sustainability statement because by using Fibre52, you are doing good for the planet and the people.

Adam Honig: I’m interested in your perspective on this. What I’m hearing is that sustainability and ESG are big things in Europe and the US. Do you see the same in Asia or is that more of a Western kind of thing? 

Graham Stewart: No, it’s the same. In Asia, you look out east and there are countries that are very involved, as well as big processing areas. They’re dealing with brands that have a big interest in ESG and sustainability, and so they must come up to standard. Adam Honig: Yeah, that makes sense. Even though a lot of the manufacturing is done in Bangladesh, the buyer of those products has certain rules about how everything has to work there. Graham Stewart: Absolutely. Those rules are very onerous. The big brands all have rules to meet their standards and that has to be done.

Adam Honig: So one last question here, Graham. If we’re talking with manufacturing executives who are thinking about launching new products, what is your advice, having gone through this for a while now? What do you think is the most important thing people should be thinking about? 

Graham Stewart: Well, I think you have to know your market very well. Legislation coming down the track can affect the consumer, so you have to be in tune with their wishes and the pressures they face. Plus, there’s the education aspect. That’s been the biggest driver for me, trying to get brands and manufacturers to let the consumer know what they’re buying. I think that is reflected in other industries and other manufacturing as well. 

Adam Honig: Yeah, no, I think you’re totally right. It’s such an important point. As entrepreneurs, people become very excited about their idea, but it needs to come from understanding how it will be bought, what legislation is changing, and what consumer sentiment is driving the demand. If you can have a great idea that connects with those two things, you’ve really got something. 

Graham Stewart: Yeah, and that is my belief. I hope that answers your question.

Adam Honig: Yeah. No, no, that’s perfect. Well, hey, Graham, I really appreciate you joining us on the podcast. It’s been a great episode. It’s been super fascinating to learn about dyeing and cotton and all the manufacturing around that. Who knew it was gonna be so interesting? I really appreciate you coming on the show. 

Graham Stewart: And thanks for inviting me and thanks for all the great questions. 

Adam Honig: Yeah, no worries. So, for our listeners, as a reminder, you can find every episode of the Make It, Move It, Sell It Podcast at Spiro.ai/podcast. Try saying that three times fast. What do you think, Graham, if people like the show, should they give us a good rating or a thumbs up or whatever they do on the internet these days? 

Graham Stewart: All of those things, Adam. Also, if anyone wants to get in touch with us, take a look at our website.

Adam Honig: Just tell everybody what your website is, just to be super clear, Graham. Graham Stewart: It’s really easy, it’s fibre52.com. Even I can remember it. We are getting more and more information out there because, again, we see that as being a very important part of Fibre52, not just for consumers, but for manufacturers as well who might want to get into a more ecological process. 

Adam Honig: Excellent. Well, thank you for sharing that and thanks to everyone for tuning in. We look forward to speaking to you on the next episode.