When it comes to sustainability in denim, Saitex founder Sanjeev Bahl sets the bar.
As the founder of the only Certified B Corp large-scale denim manufacturer, Sanjeev Bahl has cemented Saitex as a sustainability bar-raiser in the industry. For Bahl, however, the achievement—10 years in the making—marked just one more investment within the company’s deep commitment to the environment. Ranging from small (but impactful) moves, like decreasing energy consumption by relying on natural light, to frying such bigger fish, like water recycling, the Vietnam-based apparel manufacturer is taking a long view on green ROI.
“As soon as we started engaging in this dialogue [about sustainability], what erupted was a brand-new methodology to do business,” Bahl said at Sourcing Journal’s Sourcing Summit New York 2018. “It’s a journey. It leads to continuous improvement, which needs continuous investments.”
Why are you drawn to denim?
There are very few types of clothing that are as personal to a consumer as denim. Similar to a wallet or a pair of shoes, jeans come to us in perfect form, and it’s through living in it day after day that we give it personality and life. The strength of the material, the simplicity in style, the function of pockets and durability of the zippers make a pair of jeans an item that feels like it lives a very long life. The timelessness, the history, the never-ending passion of the artisans who make it, the constant innovation in the denim industry around manufacturing, and the ability to recycle and up-cycle all makes denim the brightest star in the fashion constellation.
How can the supply chain improve the way they communicate sustainable technology to brands?
The communication from the supply chain to the brands needs to be very honest and transparent. Every drop counts, so an incremental but measurable approach versus a ‘big bang’ would be recommended and more realistic. The most important part is that all communication needs to be clear and consistent, from the factory to the brand, and from the brand to the consumer. It needs to be very clear that at every step, every opportunity, there has been a thoughtful approach and responsibility has been adhered to. That goes beyond the use of chemicals or water consumption; it extends to the treatment of workers and the impact of the supply chain as a whole. Responsibility needs to be present at every touch point.
How do you predict the denim supply chain will change in the next 10 years?
The biggest changes in the denim supply chain will be in transparency, the development of circular business models, the return of manufacturing to U.S. soil and digital manufacturing.
Saitex has personally invested in new technologies that are going to make tracking within the supply chain more robust and allow for the information to flow directly to the customer. This will put knowledge right into the hands of the consumer where it belongs. It will raise the bar of accountability and finally address the greenwashing that’s rampant in the supply chain.
The emergence of circular business models as an important part of the denim supply chain will also be significant and much needed. As an industry, we need to address the overwhelming amount of unworn or discarded clothing. Saitex is quickly closing that loop with a “circle project” that we are preparing with our friends at Atelier & Repairs. With our example, we hope to see wider adoption of recycling across the fashion space.
I became very [aware of] the amount of jobs being lost in the U.S. as the industry shifts production to emerging countries. The shift has had positive and negative outcomes. Working within emerging markets has allowed Saitex to innovate and invest within our sustainability processes and bring that sustainable product to the market at a lower, more accessible price. This has come at a cost. The once very strong heritage of denim in the U.S. has dissolved under the global manufacturing competition. American mills and factories have closed, and very skilled artisans and workers are losing their jobs.
Saitex is opening facilities this year in Los Angeles and next year on the East Coast. We are eager to see a renaissance of the iconic American denim dynasty for a new generation. It’s going to take some time, but we will see a significant return of American made denim in this next 10 years.
Long term, I’m envisioning a big change as we embrace artificial intelligence into the industry, especially at the supply chain. Brands desperately need to shift into better management of inventory levels, and this could be impacted by a predictive digital manufacturing model. This type of AI could keep production focused and stock levels low, which would make companies more agile to innovate, yet still be customizable at scale.
What makes the denim supply chain unique from other apparel sectors?
Most important to note in the development of denim is that denim never goes out of style, and the core look has not changed dramatically in over a century. The stability of the pattern gives our sector more space to test, refine and restructure the back end to constantly innovate and better the processes of creating one of the most popular and widely worn garments in our closets.
What’s exciting you about denim in 2019?
I’m excited to see so much young talent flocking into the denim space. I have met so many emerging designers who are bringing new ideas, a careful approach to storytelling and a sense of responsibility to the design table. The future is now in their hands, and we are learning so much from these bright minds. It gives me a tremendous amount of hope that we are on the right path. I urge the denim industry to support them.