It takes more than 900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of denim jeans using conventional practices. That’s equivalent to a faucet left running for 15 hours, flushing the toilet 128 times in a row, or five years’ worth of drinking water for one person. In other words, denim production is thirsty work.
At the same time, freshwater scarcity is one of the world’s biggest problems affecting more than 40 percent of the global population. The apparel industry’s dependency on this natural resource is creating an environmental crisis.
So, it’s little wonder that water-saving measures are a hot topic on the trade show circuit. Denim mills and chemical manufacturers are increasingly plugging new water-saving dyes, waterless or near-waterless processes or manufacturing facilities equipped with technology to reduce water consumption.
The declared results: a reduction in wastewater, energy, chemicals and effluent to such a degree that it could transform the denim industry.
But according to Levi Strauss & Co., as water-intensive as conventional manufacturing processes are, they are only responsible for about a tenth of the water consumed in the entire lifecycle of a pair of jeans; cotton cultivation and consumer care use the most amount of water.
That being said, it is the area that denim mills most directly control, and reducing that water intake on a large scale could considerably shrink the industry’s environmental footprint.
“Water scarcity is unfortunately already a very harsh reality in some parts of the world,” said Nuria Estape, head of marketing and promotion of textile specialties at Swiss chemical company Archroma.
“The most responsible brands and players in the textile industry fully acknowledge this reality and, under their leadership, impetus and initiatives, the entire industry is slowly but surely turning to more sustainable practices,” Estape added.
In recent years, big-name brands including Levi’s, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have taken steps to reduce their water consumption by integrating water-saving measures into their production.
After Levi’s discovered that a pair of 501 jeans used nearly 1,000 gallons of water in its full lifecycle, the company created Water<Less, a set of standards and tools that removed up to 96 percent of the resource from the denim finishing process. For instance, instead of using a lot of water and detergent to achieve a stonewashed look, Levi’s discovered how to get the same result using ozone gas.
Patagonia reduced its reliance on the resource by 84 percent after swapping out synthetic indigo dye for low-impact alternatives that adhere more easily to cotton. Similarly, Eileen Fisher worked with its Los Angeles jeans factory to develop two new washes, Utility Blue and Indigo, that both use 62 percent less water than the brand’s most intensive wash.
It’s not just brands: Mills and suppliers are becoming more environmentally efficient, too. Trusty Trading, a waistband and pocketing specialist headquartered in Hong Kong, partnered with Archroma to create its new Eco Pocketing range. Thanks to Archroma’s near-waterlesss Optisul C dyes, Trusty says it was able to reduce its water usage by 94 percent, while also increasing speed to market.
“At Archroma, we continuously challenge the status quo in the deep belief that we can make our industry sustainable,” Estape said. “This means we try and develop practical solutions that will help save resources.”
In fact, Archroma has offered two eco-friendly dyeing processes under its Advanced Denim concept, Denim-Ox and Pad/Sizing-Ox, since 2009. By using sulfur dyes instead of indigo, traditional dyeing ranges comprising 15 vats are replaced with systems that use no more than five vats.
On the machinery side of things, Jeanologia has been working with ozone finishing for more than 15 years and introduced its G2 washing machine in 2008, which uses oxygen and ozone gas instead of water and toxic processes to give jeans an aged look. The Spanish firm, which specializes in sustainable technology for garment finishing, claims that G2 cuts water consumption by up to 70 percent and chemical usage by up to 80 percent.
“Technology minimizes water consumption and chemicals, eliminates waste and reduces energy in all processes. As a consequence, we save the planet—our common home—and, at the same time, we reduce costs and create a better product for the consumer,” said Carmen Silla, Jeanologia’s marketing manager.
That’s also the goal of Mexico-based mill Global Denim, which recently launched a zero-discharge dyeing process called Ecolojean that uses less water and energy than conventional methods require to dye one pair of jeans.
“Instead of passing the denim or thread through water vats and dyeing vats, our Ecolojean process only puts them through dyeing vats and the dye bonds to the fabric without having to go in the water,” explained Anatt Finkler, Global Denim’s creative director. “When you dye conventionally, as much as 25 percent of the dye ends up in the water, but with Ecolojean, 100 percent of the dye that’s applied remains on the yarn.”
Another Mexican firm, Kaltex, will release Aqueduct in Autumn/Winter ’18, a collection of fabrics created using water-saving practices such as a dyeing system that eliminates rinsing in fabric production.
“We partner with the most innovative companies, the pioneers in sustainability such as Jeanologia and Tonello, to push the innovation forward,” said Jadel Lam, managing director of research and development at Kaltex. “We are constantly looking, researching and investing in new technologies that allow us to reduce water, energy and chemical usage.”
But it’s not savings that concern the industry at large—it’s cost. Specifically, how much it’s going to cost to implement waterless dyeing or other water-savings processes and how that will impact profit margins.
The average retailer, under pressure to meet consumer expectations for inexpensive clothing, isn’t willing to pay more for sustainable production methods if they can’t raise their own prices. Though as Silla pointed out, “Consumers do not want to pay more for something that is the manufacturer’s responsibility.”
That’s not to say, however, that the upfront investment outweighs any future cost savings: a report released in 2015 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revealed that 33 Chinese textile mills that cut their environmental impact in 2014 as part of the nonprofit’s Clean by Design program also saved a total of $14.7 million that year.
Still, cost remains the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of water-saving technologies, including wastewater treatment facilties that allow factories to recycle and reuse water. Investment in water treatment varies but typically falls somewhere in the region of $1 million and $5 million, depending on the scale, capacity and consumption of water per day or year.
According to Arpit Srivastava, marketing manager for India-based textile manufacturer Arvind, it’s worth it. “With water becoming a depleting resource, this is the future of the denim industry,” he said.
Another assumption that affects implementation is that product quality will diminish, though most textile experts will say there is no aesthetical difference between denim dyed or finished using eco-friendly methods and denim treated using large amounts of water and chemicals.
“Safe and sustainable does not require sacrificing aesthetics or quality,” said Alvyda Kupinas, head of design at Kaltex. “If anything we are building a better, stronger product with a longer lifecycle.”
Jeanologia’s G2 Dynamic technology, for example, achieves that worn-in look without water, chemicals or high temperatures, just ozone gas that’s injected into the tumbler that washes the jeans and doesn’t harm the fiber.
However, there are limits when it comes to the colors that can be produced.
“Water-saving technologies and practices do not necessarily affect the aesthetics of the fabric, but there are still limitations if we want to create diversity, especially for a wide spectrum of color in dyeing and sometimes developing different wash effects,” said Ebru Ozaydin, director of sales and marketing at Pakistani mill Artistic Milliners.
Amrin Sachathep, director of Atlantic Mills, echoed that sentiment. “We have to strike the right balance between color fastness and being able to age the pair of jeans,” he said. “The correct dyeing mechanism would be just to dye the surface enough so that it washes down quickly yet keeps the fabric as deep and dark as possible.”
Looks aside, seeing the bigger picture is the only way the denim industry will be able to change. World Wildlife Fund says that some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water and that by 2025, two-thirds of the global population may face water shortages.
“Going waterless is an overarching concept; you have to think of the entire supply chain, to save water at every single step,” Ozaydin said. “It starts with cotton harvesting and continues with dyeing, finishing and garment washing. Every step involves significant consumption of water.”
The wasteful dye-to-water ratio is as good a place as any to start, but for water-saving measures to be widely adopted, equipment prices must come down substantially, according to Archroma’s Estape. “Technologies and innovation eventually need to be created in a manner that it is made affordable to everyone,” she said.
Ozaydin agreed. “R&D teams must work hand in hand with decision-makers to identify strategies to significantly reduce water consumption with scalable and cost-efficient solutions,” she said. “We can’t continue consuming and polluting earth’s finite water resources—we have to save our planet.”
This article original appeared in Rivet Magazine.