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Making Jeans has Been a Dirty Business—But Saitex is Coming Clean

Saitex is doing its part both to reverse the denim industry’s longstanding reputation as among apparel’s least sustainable products—and change the face of fashion manufacturing as a whole.

Across five facilities in its Bien Hoa headquarters an hour outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the conscious producer of quality denim products for G-Star Raw, Everlane, Eileen Fisher, Outerknown, Madewell and other top-name brands takes a thoughtful approach to virtually every piece of its process. J. Crew is the latest high-profile brand to source fair-trade denim from the leader in sustainable manufacturing that has sought to find smarter, earth-friendly options to improve everything from drying garments to cooling its building to adopting only Bluesign-certified chemicals.

Business has been so good that Saitex not only is expanding its Vietnam operation but also has plans to open a facility in Los Angeles this year, a positive sign for the sustainable fashion movement.

Investing in sustainability doesn’t come cheap but that’s not the point, according to CEO Sanjeev Bahl.

The company is purchasing seven new laser finishing machines—50 percent more expansive than its current equipment—because their output is 30 percent higher than the incumbent machines. The new lasers operate at 400 dpi, a tenfold improvement over the older machines, and can accommodate four pairs of jeans at once rather than the single-garment standard. They create a more natural appearance on the denim fabric, too, laundry manager Mohamed Amine Batnini, said.

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Industrial washers have been modified to reduce water consumption by roughly 94 percent, he said, and water is recycled on site where indigo dye is removed, leaving behind a liquid that’s yellowish in color but safe for human consumption. In fact, Saitex uses some of that repurposed water to brew coffee, the Tunisian native shared, some of which goes into special denim designs.

Denim’s greatest environmental harm typically comes from the amount of water consumed and polluted by dyes, but Saitex wanted to ensure it also pursued a path to clean energy. Rather than using traditional diesel to generate power, Saitex substitutes wood pellets made from recycled shipping pallets from places like China and South Africa, or swaps in pistachio shells considered purposeless waste by the nut industry. One ton of the steam this fuel generates costs Saitex about $45, while air-polluting diesel would be far cheaper at $27.

Saitex employs more than 4,200 people, and workers inside its facilities clock a typical 9-to-5ish shift with two half-hour breaks. Lunch consists of organic food sourced from onsite hydroponic farming systems and is free for everyone.

Sanjeev Bahl, CEO, has become one of conscious manufacturing’s greatest champions, though he believes too many apparel companies today have “their own take” on what it means to be sustainable.

Bahl points to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals as a guide that focuses not just on environmental impacts but on poverty, equality and ending world hunger. “Companies and consumers need to follow this roadmap,” he said.