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In Denim, Investing in Sustainable Technology Is the New Normal

Eco-friendly denim is more ubiquitous than ever, but bringing it to market hasn’t been easy. Nor cheap, for that matter.

While planet-pandering technologies—think Jeanologia’s water-sipping denim-finishing systems, Tonello’s bleach-less OBleach or Archroma’s botanically derived EarthColors—are increasingly available, they also require upfront costs from the mills that employ them.

“Sustainability is really linked to research and innovation,” said Francesca Polato, marketing manager at Berto in Italy. “If the company doesn’t invest, there is no innovation and, as a consequence, there is no sustainability.”

Indeed, going green requires a fair amount of green, though precise numbers can vary significantly from mill to mill depending their age, size, level of sophistication and buy-in from the C-suite.

Certainly, organic cotton fibers, nontoxic dyes and other sustainable components are all more expensive than their conventional counterparts, according to Steve Maggard, president of North Carolina’s Cone Denim. Even machinery upgrades that allow for water, energy and chemical efficiencies require “constant investment.” Mills may rack up additional costs to have their processes and products audited and certified by third parties to verify claims.

“In a perfect world, it would be cost neutral to operate sustainably,” Maggard said. “But that is not the case currently.”

In December, the mill began installing Jeanologia’s ozone-finishing G2 Dynamic equipment in its Mexico and China facilities, with the goal of using no harmful chemicals and markedly less water to create fabrics that are more laser friendly. It has also been collecting pre-consumer scraps from its cutting floor and returning them into its supply chain, expanding Oeko-Tex certification at facilities worldwide and experimenting with lower-impact fibers and less-polluting forms of indigo, the chemical that makes the vast majority of blue jeans blue.

Maggard declined to specify how much Cone Denim spends on sustainable improvements, but he described the company as “committed” to maintaining its leadership in the denim market through continual investment in emerging technologies.

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In fact, it’s Cone Denim’s R&D incubator, known as Cone 3D, that drives much of the mill’s proprietary eco-friendly lineup, which includes S Gene with Repreve, a dual-core denim made with post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, and Ciclo Stretch, which reduces microfiber pollution from synthetic textiles.

Cone Denim seeks, explores and fuels new opportunities, Maggard said—and it has the firm backing of Elevate Textiles, its parent company, to thank.

“We stay up to date by continuously working with machinery makers, vendors and raw material suppliers to stay aware of their new projects,” he said. “And we strive to identify ways we can partner with them to bring new ideas and initiatives to the marketplace.”

For Besim Ozek, strategy and business development director at Bossa in Turkey, balancing the books with sustainability is a delicate act. The mill invests an average of 10 percent of its profits into improving its green bonafides through a mix of more eco-friendly fibers, such as Tencel, and dyeing techniques like Saveblue, which uses 85 percent less water than conventional methods.

“We are financing all these costs in order to be [the] market leader of the industry,” Ozek said.

Since 2018, Bossa has become a “zero waste” operation, one that has recovered and reutilized more than 2 million kilograms of post-production waste to date. The company is currently transitioning all of its virgin cotton to 90 percent Better Cotton—which Ozek notes is comparable in price to conventional cotton but carries less social and environmental baggage—and 10 percent organic cotton.

Economic sustainability, he said, is just as important as environmental sustainability, which means any additional production costs are carried over to the customer. It doesn’t try to hide this, however. “We are totally transparent about the calculation,” Ozek said.

The way Anatt Finkler, creative director of Global Denim in Mexico, sees it, there are three main areas of investment for eco-friendly denim production right now: dyeing, recycling fibers and finishing.

She agrees sustainability is one of the biggest expenditures for mills because it requires “a lot of R&D, new technologies, innovations and education.” Mills don’t necessarily want to jack up prices, she said, but the unfortunate calculus remains that the “more sustainable innovation a fabric includes, the higher the price point is going to be.”

Global Denim pioneered its Ecolojean process—which Finkler says results in zero water discharge, fewer dyes, lower energy consumption and a smaller carbon footprint—as a way to counteract the ill effects of indigo dyeing.

To lighten its reliance on virgin resources, Global Denim boasts a recycled-cotton program, dubbed Ecoloop, for transforming pre- and post-consumer denim into new yarn. (It has just opened a new wing of the mill with the “best state-of-the-art technology and machinery,” Finkler said.) The mill has also been tapping into lasers and ozone, which it expects to use more broadly in the future.

All in all, Global Denim’s investments in sustainability are “in the order of seven figures,” Finkler said. It’s only by doing this that a mill can grow, drive change and provide customers with the “best and most relevant product.”

Because there is always room for improvement, there is no way any business can be “100 percent sustainable,” she said. Mills must therefore stay nimble, both in terms of their strategies and plans for financing.

Finkler wishes customers understood that things that are “made better, cleaner and more sustainably” cost more because they require more effort and investment. The market, however, isn’t quite there yet. As such, Global Denim works to keep the prices of its sustainable products comparable with conventional ones, to “help drive the industry into a better path.”

But if mills’ ledgers are in the red because of sustainability efforts, they may not be for long.

Because sustainability measures often improve efficiency, many, if not most, initial investments are eventually recouped through cost savings. Certainly, implementing investments “properly” can only help mills, said MaryKate Kelley, marketing manager for Italian denim purveyor Candiani. They just have to be patient.

“This efficiency would generate a competitive balance by increasing savings in terms of energy, water and chemicals,” she said. “However, this would happen way down the road.”

The 80-year-old, family-owned mill has thrown its support behind sustainable elastomers, dyes and polymers, despite the additional expense, because it has a clear vision. As a result, it has developed innovations such as biodegradable stretch denim, literally out of whole cloth.

“Our long-term objective revolves around the creation of regenerative denim and a positive carbon footprint through the final product and the actual industrial process,” Kelley said. “It’s going to take years, maybe a decade, but if I look at the past two years, the steps we’ve made in this direction are quite impressive and it leads me to believe we are closer to the target than we may think.”

Ultimately, she said, everything “comes down to volume.” Customers may theoretically be willing to pony up to as much as 15 percent to 20 percent more on products that are more sustainable, but Candiani has found that only one in 10 will actually do so.

“Right now, most of the sustainable applications aren’t scalable and don’t generate enough volumes in order to lower the impact of the innovation costs,” Kelley said.

Her thesis bears out in the context of the textile industry as a whole. When Clean by Design, a mill-improvement program headed by the National Resources Defense Council and now run under the auspices of the Apparel Impact Institute, rallied 33 Chinese mills to tackle “low-hanging fruit” pollution-reducing, water-conserving and energy-saving measures, they recovered their collective $17.3 million investment within 14 months. The top mill, returns-wise, made back $3.5 million dollars in the first year.

Participants continued to save, too, since they managed to cut water use by an average of 9 percent, energy by an average of 6 percent and electricity by an average of 4 percent. The 2014 cohort, Clean by Design estimated at the time, will go on to save $14.7 million annually.

Maggard from Cone Denim, for one, takes the long view.

“We believe that taking a leadership position in the market on sustainability will result in long term benefits for us as a company,” he said. “People want to buy from ethical companies they trust.”

This article is from Blueprint, a state-of-the-industry report, sponsored by Informa. In the report, Rivet presents the only comprehensive outlook for this year’s denim market, including an in-depth examination of why it’s poised for a retail revival. Download the report here to read more.