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The Transformers Summit Talks Innovation

The denim industry is on a quest to make the production process faster, safer, cleaner and smarter, and the jeans themselves more comfortable and stylish than ever. An evolution on that scale only comes one way: through innovation.

That’s the thinking behind the next editions of the Transformers denim summits, which will take place in Amsterdam on October 23 and New York on June 4, 2019. The conference, which was launched by Andrew Olah, a denim industry veteran, will welcome speakers from a slate of companies that includes Lenzing Fibers, VF Group and Indigo Mill Designs.

Olah selected innovation this time because he’s keenly interested in change and more specifically, how those companies that survive adapt to new circumstances, create new workflows and influence those around them—all while sticking to their ideals.

While Olah would characterize the rate of change in the denim market as sluggish to say the least, he admits he’s seen an evolution since launching the Kingpins trade show over a decade ago. For instance, sustainability, while still in its infancy in many ways, has evolved. “There was no talk about sustainability 15 years ago. There were green rooms and segments at shows, which was a marketing ploy, but no companies changing the way they were doing business,” he said.

Environmental Evolution

These days, he sees a much higher level of awareness and willingness to make ethical choices. “It used to be that a good factory was cheap and fast, and cheap and fast means they’re probably not making [the product], he said. “Today, people want to be working with factories that are the actual factories that are making the goods and are sustainable and deal with their workers in a proper manner and a company that the brand would be proud for their public to know they’re buying from.”

While she agrees that denim has a way to go to keep up with environmental needs and consumer demands, Tricia Carey, Lenzing Fibers’ director of global business development for apparel, has noted marked improvement when it comes to things like fiber innovation, new technologies and sustainability efforts over the last five years.

“For denim, I find the recent developments around more sustainable indigo dyeing like foam dyeing very interesting,” she said, adding apparel at large is working on some intriguing new innovations as well. “Overall, I think the technology for body scanning is amazing and will be key to the apparel industry in the future.”

And Carey is proud to be a part this dynamic market. Lenzing specializes in environmentally responsible fibers but Carey is especially excited by its latest innovation Tencel x Refibra, which is created through a closed loop process that combines fabric waste with wood pulp. “This is a true innovation for man-made cellulosic fibers. The ability to produce a strong, quality fiber with recycled waste, which is equivalent to virgin fiber is true innovation,” she said.

Tencel x Refibra also demonstrates another characteristic Carey says is important when evaluating new processes or technologies—how well it’s adopted in the industry. In just 18 months on the market, Lenzing has secured global partners like DL 1961, Inditex, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia.

A Coordinated Effort

Bringing new ideas to market in an environment where cost is king is challenging, however. That’s why Ralph Tharpe, founder of Indigo Mill Designs, said too often the industry shies away from what could otherwise be disruptive technologies. Instead of sidelining innovation that could require costly R&D, he suggests the industry find ways to collaborate to bring them to market.

An example of how that could work is IndigoZero, a process that’s designed to greatly reduce the amount of water used in the dyeing process. While Indigo Mills was at the forefront of developing the technology, the project, which has cost more than a million dollars, is the result of funds from the Walmart Foundation Innovation Fund, the Wrangler® and Lee® brands of VF Corporation and Texas Tech University matching grant funds from the state of Texas as well as support from Gaston Systems Inc., which pioneered the initial concept.

Though the price tags for projects like this are hefty, Tharpe says the rewards can outweigh the risks, if done properly. “A true innovation creates value where it did not exist before,” he said.

And that’s exactly what Roian Atwood, director of sustainability for VF Group, sees as the future of IndigoZero, which purports to eliminate about 99 percent of the water and chemicals needed for conventional dyeing methods. “Just standing beside the old and new technology is enough to realize how dramatic the new technology is,” he said. “Compared to a 100-yard-long dye range with eight to 12 water baths, the new technology is downright tiny. It uses foam to dye the yarn instead of multiple 1,500-gallon boxes of water.”

Atwood expects the new technology to “revolutionize” the industry and exemplify what true innovation is. “Innovation that changes the way an industry operates changes more than just the impact. It changes the paradigm, and that’s rare,” he said.

But even given his enthusiasm for the huge potential for foam dyeing, he’s careful to note that smaller scale improvements are important as well—if they are part of a comprehensive plan for continual improvement. “This is how the bulk of sustainability work is achieved, and incremental improvement on scale can be really meaningful,” he said.

VF has been turning over every rock to find ways to make the denim-making process better—literally. The company has teamed up with U.S. farmers to develop best practices in soil management. “It’s our view that the supply chain begins with the land and the family farmers who produce our cotton, and science tells us that soil has tremendous potential to improve environmental and economic outcomes,” he said.

That dual benefit is what it takes to get the industry on board with change in Atwood’s opinion. “Innovation needs to save money and resources over the long run to truly be sustainable and commercially viable,” he said. “Cost will always be a key concern for stakeholders, but one of the challenges is an over-fixation on cost without recognizing that there is value to be unlocked through innovation and sustainable product developments.”

Atwood wants the industry to get behind innovation that’s designed to address real world problems like sub-surface drip irrigation as well as variable-rate herbicide application—both of which could “significantly transform” the supply chain from his perspective.

Drip irrigation also makes Tharpe’s list of intriguing innovations along with waterless mercerization using liquid ammonia and automating laser abrasion at higher speeds.

But whatever the industry comes up with next, he said the key will be for teams to work together to come up with the best solutions. “Fabric production and garment production and wash all need to get in the same silo,” Tharpe said, adding it would help root out redundancies. “The solution is a free and open exchange of ideas.”

That call for better communication and collaboration is exactly what Transformers was established to facilitate. “Collaborating with industry colleagues on sustainable innovations is not a common occurrence,” Atwood said. “To have the Transformers forum to cross-pollinate ideas, learn from one another, and advance our collective thinking on shared industry problems is inspiring and a valuable use of our time.”

Carey, too, is excited to network with industry colleagues at the upcoming summits. Her goals are to educate, inspire and learn. “We can’t sit behind our computers sending emails—that’s not going to drive change,” Carey said. “We are in a people business and Transformers gives the platform for people to connect ideas.”

To learn more, visit kingpinstransformers.com.

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