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How Textile Manufacturers Are Making Denim More Sustainable

The incredible amounts of water and toxic dyes used in manufacturing jeans saw a panel discussion take place in Amsterdam last month. The event welcomed an array of industry professionals, who met to chat over the viable and sustainable future of one of the world’s most purchased pieces of cloth – denim.

The second edition of the Amsterdam Denim Days was held in April, under which the Kingpins Show and the inaugural ‘The Transformers – Denim, Jeans and Water’ panel discussion took place in the Dutch capital.

Kingpins organizers – in collaboration with House of Denim – held the new conference with members of the Kingpins 2029 team – a denim community of ‘transformers’ committed to creating, implementing and sharing the changes that need to happen in the jeans industry. They hope to make denim more environmentally viable, socially responsible and financially sound by 2029.

“Our concept is that jeans industry must undergo a sea change if we want to be around in 2029,” said Andrew Olah, founder of Kingpins and The Transformers. “The Transformers are those along the supply chain that recognize that we must evolve and invent new and better ways to do everything from making dye stuffs to making fibers, weaving fabrics to laundering and finishing and everything in between.”

Marriette Hoitink, co-founder of House of Denim, explained the importance of these change agents as innovators in the denim industry.

“A pair of jeans requires huge amounts of water in all stages of the manufacturing process. Transformers are those who offer us new technologies and alternative practices to significantly reduce the jean industry’s water usage,” said Hoitink. “We must actively pursue, explore and develop these techniques.”

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As part of the two-part panel discussion on the topic of water usage in the production process of denim, a selection of the ‘transformers’ presented their concepts for change in their areas of expertise.

The three topics – fibers, fabrics and finishing – were discussed by the leading mills, retailers and manufacturers who spoke: Archroma; Dystar; Crailar; Jeanologia; Bayer; E3; Invista; Kar Mayer; Lenzing; Candiani Denim; ITV Denim; Saitex and Royo.

Garmon Chemicals, the first company in the garment industry to have obtained GreenScreen certification talked of its ability to pass assessments of hazardous chemical representation in products and processes, developed by U.S. NGO Clean Production Action (CPA). The firm uses an alternative bleaching agent for indigo, as well as a range of eight eco-pigments exclusive to Garmon.

“[Sustainability] didn’t come without internal friction,” said Alberto de Conti from Garmon, during his talk. “It’s like giving somebody the keys to your company. But in the end we took a calculated risk and are very happy. We encourage other companies to do the same. Sustainability is the single biggest issue to affect business in the next five to 10 years.”

Dystar presented their indigo liquid dye, based on a formula that allows for a 60 to 70% reduction of sodium hydrosulfite, which ends up in the wastewater polluting the environment.

The cost of implementing the sustainability measures – and how brands and consumers may be forced to pay more for jeans as a result of the changes – was a hot topic, too.

According to Miguel Sanchez, global head of special dyes at Archroma, it takes 11,000 liters of water to produce one pair of jeans and in 2014, 3.5bn denim pieces were produced.

“Consumers need to know that what they are wearing is special and cannot cost as much as a Big Mac,” said Sanchez, who’s team has invested into formulating a dye method that saves up to 92% of water. “And it’s important that brands communicate that.”

Research by Boston Consulting concluded that customers were willing to pay between 7 and 9% more for a sustainable garment – something many brands aren’t aware of.

Educating brands about consumer eco-interests and the education of consumers on the impact of manufacturing on the environment as a whole, were big talking points at the panel. Attendees all agreed that brands who adopt environmentally-sound product are making an investment, even if consumers aren’t yet asking for it.

“[Sustainability] makes brands more attractive, not to mention the costs of saving energy,” Sanchez told the audience. “In the end, there will be a separation between good and bad brands.”

Eco-denim collections have already surfaced from in recent years from big name retailers such as H&M, Patagonia, Esprit, and Levi’s and sustainable enthusiast, Eileen Fisher.

By Benjamin Fitzgerald

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