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Colombian Manufacturers Move Toward More Sustainable Products

When it comes to manufacturing, Colombia has been known for its high-quality product and quick turn times, but less so for sustainability.

Now, however, that may be changing as the country works to get its textile and apparel producers to incorporate more sustainable processes, with innovative—and at times reused—raw materials, to make more sustainable products.

As Lafayette, a manufacturer pioneering sustainable manufacturer in Colombia, puts it, companies have little other choice than to at least start thinking about sustainable manufacturing.

“Companies that do not carry out development-friendly products with the environment are not only losing recognition of their clients, but the opportunity to create a sustainable eco business philosophy,” Lafayette said. “The main focus should be on the growth of the organization from a holistic movement, especially properly using the resources of their immediate environment, such as the reuse of waste in production processes.”

Sustainability is a global trend. Consumers are demanding more ethically sourced and produced goods and brands are beholden to respond in kind.

Here are three Colombian companies leading the charge toward a more sustainable apparel sector.

Lafayette

Lafayette, a Bogota-based vertically integrated textile company has been developing sustainable eco fabrics for more than five years, and are continuing to innovate around these friendlier fabrics in answer to the increasing demand from consumers.

The company produces fabrics from recycled polyester made from post-consumer plastic bottles, and even fiber from coffee beans.

Dubbed Café, Lafayette’s line of fiber made from the skin of coffee beans, goes into fabrics that naturally provide UPF and odor protection, plus wick away moisture.

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“It’s a highly sustainable product, as waste from coffee production processes are harnesses to generate natural fibers that can be integrated with our synthetic fabrics to create a fabric of high performance and high added value for the market,” Lafayette lead specialist Juan Pablo Villamizar Echeverri said.

The company’s fabrics are often used for high-end athletic apparel designed to help athletes achieve peak performance. Lafayette counts Under Armour, Disney and Patagonia among its clients.

Since water is its main resource, Lafayette works to reduce water consumption by 43.5% for every 36 meters of cloth and recycle 50 percent of water used in dyeing machines. The company also invests in technology that uses less energy.

“We understand sustainability as the balance between social, environmental and economic, and in this sense we advance projects that impact the various stakeholders in the three areas,” Echeverri said.

The company is in the process of exploring uses and products made from more recycled materials but are still in the research and development phase.

“Colombia is making significant progress on sustainability issues for the production of eco-friendly textiles,” Echeverri said.

Enka de Colombia

Enka, which produces polyester staple fibers and PET resin from post-consumer recycled bottles, said Colombia is coming into its own as a source for sustainable manufacturing.

“Colombia is just starting to work on sustainable sourcing, we have a long road ahead,” Enka’s Paula A. Arango M., who works in international sales, said.

The company has been producing polyester since the ‘80s and applied that knowledge to start producing what it calls bottle to fiber (B2F) products in 2009, sensing the rising trend in the sector.

“Enka saw that the market tendency worldwide was oriented to the consumption of sustainable raw materials and we also felt that was the case in Colombia with our customers,” Arango said. “This global tendency was aligned with Enka’s strategy that sustainability is the future.”

Fibers made from recycled materials using its state-of-the-art technology allow Enka to produce sustainable products with the same characteristics of virgin raw materials. Plus, the products are also cutting back on waste considerably.

“We are cleaning up Colombia by recycling 850 million PET bottles out of the 1.5 billion PET bottles that contaminate Colombia each year and end up in rivers, oceans, lakes and landfills. We are the leader of PET recycling in Colombia,” Arango said.

With its eco-friendly processes, Enka has been able to reduce CO2 emissions by 72 percent (or the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road) compared to the production of virgin resin. Using recycled polyester instead of virgin, Enka cuts energy consumption by 92 percent (or the equivalent of what 262,000 households would use in a year).

For companies that point to too-high-cost as the reason they haven’t adopted more sustainable processes or raw materials, Enka says there are other things to consider.

“Sustainability shouldn’t be looked at under cost terms only, it’s a conviction and a responsibility towards the planet. Additionally, prices of our fiber and resin are close to the virgin raw material,” Arango said.

Cost aside, sustainability has become a consumer demand, whether retailers are prepared to pay for it or not.

“Customers are now more informed and are prone to purchase products that come from brands that are committed to social responsibility and environmental sustainability,” Arango said. “Major sportswear and apparel brands are now using recycled raw materials.”

C.I. Jeans

At C.I. Jeans, preserving the environment is a core value.

“For us being green is important because as we see all the nature that surrounds us, we want it to be preserved and taken care of, and also because our procedures directly affect future generations,” C.I. Jeans CEO Tomas Navarro said.

The full-package garment manufacturer has been in business for more than 20 years, producing jeans for clients like Levi’s, Lord & Taylor and Macy’s from a 300,000-square-foot facility with 3,000 employees.

“C.I. Jeans has multiple eco processes and many companies located in Colombia do it as well, but we think these kind of processes need to be used in a more conscious way and need to be spread more,” Navarro said.

The company is using a technology it calls eco patterns to develop vintage hand applications along with conventional finishing methods for a more flexible development process. It is also using ozone technology—which takes less time, saves water and reduces chemical applications—for finishing.

C.I. Jeans has an entire team of engineers dedicated to finding solutions for water reduction, and currently the company is using 79 percent less water than it did in 2010.

According to C.I. Jeans, 40 percent of its jeans product is produced completely sustainably and the ongoing goal is to raise that number. Staying a step ahead has been ingrained in the company ethos.

“We have an environmental culture inside our company, where we use the chemical management system and make a study of the chemicals used in the process. That gives us the opportunity to choose those which have low environmental impact,” Navarro said. “We also have alliances with different suppliers for strategic improvements of the products we use daily, and we work following the Safer Chemical Ingredient List from the EPA-EEUU to achieve green products.”

Costs haven’t hindered C.I. Jeans when it comes to sustainability investments either.

“Costs on sustainable technologies are really worth it and we think it is a huge investment,” Navarro said, adding that while you might pay more for the machines, you’ll save down the line with fewer chemicals, less water and reduced energy use.

Consumers have not only become more likely to demand sustainability from the brands they spend on, they also appreciate it—which could foster greater loyalty.

“Some brands have been using sustainability as their core ID, and others started to include sustainable pieces on their core products. But we think sustainability has the opportunity to grow even bigger and to become more important for the brands, as well as the customers, in order to build a better world,” Navarro said. “We are always looking for new technologies and ways to improve what we do for the environment, combining our knowledge and new technologies to achieve even better results and keep working in a responsible, eco-conscious way. Right now we are doing what 10 years ago we couldn’t even imagine, so we think we are in the right path; innovation.”

These sustainable companies and more will be part of the Colombia country pavilion at Sourcing at MAGIC Aug. 15-17. For more information or to schedule visits during the show, click here.