Skip to main content

Denim Experts Debate First Steps Toward Sustainability

Denim’s use of water and potassium permanganate were topics of conversation during a panel on the industry’s sustainable victories and challenges last week at Sourcing at Magic in Las Vegas. 

Moderated by Cindy Lin, CEO and co-founder of the social impact technology company Hey Social Good, Patricia Medina, executive director of Mexico-based garment manufacturer Aztex Network, and Santiago Rodriguez, Calk Denim U.S. sales manager, discussed the first steps designers can take to clean up their production. 

Understanding why the industry needs sustainable alternatives and how these can work in tandem with conventional machinery is the backbone to making educated choices , Lin said. 

That means starting with basic steps to avoid being overwhelmed by big investments, Rodriguez said. “Being solid and consistent is that path,” he continued, adding that companies must integrate sustainability into their DNA.

Or, the first step can be as bold as eliminating potassium permanganate from production altogether, Medina said. 

The chemical, which is already banned in the E.U. and must meet “very strict standards” in the U.S., can pollute drinking water sources if it contaminates groundwater and soil, Lin said. Medina added that prolonged exposure to potassium permanganate can have carcinogenic effects on workers. 

Related Story

“Just substitute potassium permanganate…with another chemical that oxidizes,” she said. 

For Aztex, the substitute is Officina-39’s suite of sustainable products that can be used with nebulized system machines. Aztex uses the Italian chemical company’s Oz-One Powder, which achieves bleached and worn looks without potassium permanganate and chlorine. Medina added that Officina-39 trained Aztex’s team in the technology, overhauling the traditional ways it made denim for the better. 

“We changed to be a service company, not only to sew and wash products, but to service our customers in every way from product development to logistics. And during that process, we realized we had to rethink every single process,” she said. 

Oz-One Powder is part of Officina+39’s Aqualess Mission collection of water-saving alternatives that can replace conventional desizing, stone washing and bleaching treatments. While each solution can be used on its own, companies can save more by ombining the products. Officina 39 estimates a 75 percent water savings when used together.

Rodriguez said denim production is one of the most water-hogging processes in the textile industry. “All along the production process are laundries and washhouses, and there is not only water that is waste, but also water laced with toxic chemicals and some of them, they are discharged to the landfill or the rivers,” he added. 

Despite this, the cost that comes with being sustainable remains a hurdle for most companies. “People are just not willing to transition from the conventional fabric that’s working for them to a more sustainable alternative,” Rodriguez said. Calik’s goal is to “democratize” the use of sustainable fabrics by not adding extra costs, he added. 

Whether it’s a knowledge gap or the industry’s price sensitivity to change, Medina said companies often overlook the long-term benefits. “I have found that using better fabric makes more efficient products, less waste, less everything,” she said.