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Denim Experts Ask Governments to Put a Price on Water

Rivet’s 2021 winter issue has dropped! This in-depth issue examines the steps the global denim industry is taking to minimize its impact on the environment, from implementing zero waste production and design processes to establishing greenhouse gas emissions goals aligned with the Paris Agreement.

From a financial perspective, water has no associated cost—but some denim experts and environmental advocates think it should.

During a virtual Kingpins24 discussion last week, industry insiders outlined the financial impact of denim’s reliance on the limited resource. According to Taimur Malik, a consultant for regenerative business development at Pakistan-based denim manufacturer Stylers International, putting a price tag on water may be what’s needed to make real change.

“Water is considered this free resource that we can take make, dispose and pollute, and I think that’s a big problem,” he said. “Everyone has to come together within the industry to create a pricing for it so that we can then create a cost system that reduces its use.”

Currently, the environment and its inhabitants are paying a big price for water pollution and scarcity. A recent Water Witness International (WWI) report showed that fashion is dyeing Africa’s water blue and spiking its pH levels to those of household bleach. Though the denim industry has created a growing collection of water stewardship standards and water conservation efforts, there’s still a long way to go in reversing its most harmful effects, according to the U.K.-based organization focused on sustainable water resource management.

And according to Malik, the answer lies in more aggressive adoption of regenerative agriculture. Improvements to the soil in which cotton is grown can create an environment that requires less water and generates higher yields. It’s a concept that’s been a top focus for household brands like Wrangler, which in 2017 launched the Wrangler Science and Conservation Program, an alliance of industry experts, farmers and nonprofit partners that sponsors research, farmer workshops and promotes soil health farming practices. These practices, combined with its Indigood Foam Dye process, allows the brand to use 100 percent less water in the dyeing process than conventionally dyed denim in select collections.

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More initiatives like these can help lessen the industry’s reliance on water and simultaneously support farmers. But according to Malik, not all partners throughout the denim supply chain can afford to implement water-saving techniques. He pointed to small farmers in the global south that are unable to access more sustainable agricultural methods and technologies.

“We have essentially left farmers to their own devices,” he said. “The onus lies on both governments and the industry to come together and help the farmers. And if we can do this on a large scale by adopting techniques like adding the right kind of compost and biological inputs, we can drastically alter the trajectory of the world.”

On a supplier level, the investments are just as costly. But according to Andrea Venier, managing director at Italian chemicals company Officina+39, it’s more costly for suppliers to ignore the issue.

“Nobody really is counting how much it’s costing to treat the polluted water and how to face a water scarcity issue,” he said. “And while this is a big challenge, it’s also a big opportunity for a company to show just how much they’re saving in the long-run.”

Officina+39 has made strides in water conservation, and earlier this year introduced Aqualess Mission, its collection of technologies that help laundries achieve the look of perfectly worn-in jeans in a sustainable way that can generate a 75 percent water savings. The innovation is easy and inexpensive to implement, as it is suitable for conventional machines already in place at laundry facilities.

While it’s important for the industry to continue its focus on water-saving methods, it’s equally crucial to develop methods for recycling any water that is used. Venier noted that these types of innovations must be developed and implemented at scale to make the industry less reliant on the limited resource.

“We need to think about how to make a more circular model for water,” he said. “Circularity should not be only in the materials stage. We of course need to reduce our consumption but we must also learn how to re-use it.”