By  on July 9, 2009

Brands seeking to improve their environmental credentials can look beyond the use of organic cotton to a range of new products and technologies that lower the levels of chemicals, water and energy needed to manufacture denim.

Although the denim industry has long been known to be resource intensive, a full picture wasn’t known publicly until Levi Strauss & Co. shared results of its life cycle assessment on what went into making one pair of its iconic Levi’s 501 style.

Examining the 2006 production year for jeans headed to the U.S. market, Levi’s found that making one pair of 501s required almost 920 gallons of water, 400 megajoules of energy and expelled 32 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Levi’s said this was equivalent to running a garden hose for 106 minutes, driving 78 miles and powering a computer for 556 hours.

Using organic cotton, while quick and easy, does relatively little to change these types of numbers. Suppliers are now responding with the types of products that could carry a larger impact, but progress is slow.

“Everyone is trying to uncover ways to save money and energy,” said Andrew Olah, chief executive officer of Olah Inc., a U.S. agent for foreign contract manufacturers and textile and hardware vendors targeting denim designers. “The chemical companies who supply dyestuff are making it more and more irresistible. Change is happening, step by step, mill by mill.”

Spanish denim research and development company Jeanologia has launched two products aimed at significantly reducing energy and water usage. Its most recent product, an industrial washing machine dubbed the G2, was introduced in April after two years of development. Rather than relying on the traditional combination of water and chemicals to create various shades of denim, the G2 uses a process that relies on air. In addition to eliminating the use of water and chemicals, the G2 rids the finishing process of toxic emissions and dumping, and reduces overall energy usage. The company also estimated that the G2 cuts production time, energy consumption and cost per garment by more than 50 percent.

With the introduction of the G2, Jeanologia also offered its own assessment of the impact of the denim industry. The company estimated that 158.5 billion gallons of water and 1.3 million tons of chemicals are used each year in the denim finishing process. Were the entire industry to adopt the G2 process for denim and other garments, Jeanologia believes the amount of water saved would supply Spain with enough drinking water for eight months.

In 2001, Jeanologia introduced a textile laser to achieve distressed and vintage looks. Technologies have advanced to such a degree that the system now can scan a vintage pair of jeans and reproduce the exact look, down to the holes and abrasions, in less than a minute. The system eliminates the time and hand labor traditionally needed to achieve these looks in the factory, but more important, can eliminate the use of chemical abrasives.

Chemical providers have been introducing lower-impact products, as well. DyStar, one of the largest suppliers of indigo to the denim industry, created a line of low-impact dyes last year. Novozymes has pioneered treatments utilizing enzymes that are environmentally safe. The company introduced DeniBleach last year, a process that decolorizes indigo using an enzyme rather than bleach.

Lenzing Fibers has been working with denim mills to blend its cotton with between 20 and 25 percent Tencel, a cellulose fiber produced from eucalyptus. Spain’s Tejidos Royo is combining organic cotton with Tencel for a collection of fabrics called HybriDenim. Lenzing asserts that by using 25 percent Tencel in denim, the acreage and water required for cotton cultivation is reduced by 25 percent.

Tricia Carey, Lenzing’s U.S. merchandising manager, believes progress on the environmental front hasn’t been rapid, but for good reason.

“I think they’re slowly stepping into it,” said Carey. “We’ve been very distracted the past nine months with what’s going on at retail, so that’s put a halt to things.”

Carey added some companies already may be using improved practices but not be marketing those efforts out of fear they could be accused of making exaggerated claims or green washing.

Replay has worked with its suppliers to take advantage of some of these new production and manufacturing processes, and is showcasing those efforts in a collection called Just Add Water that will begin selling for fall. The company worked with chemical provider Clariant International on a new dyeing agent that lowers the yarn dyeing process from 12 trips through dyeing vats to just four. The process also keeps the waste water from being colored, eliminating the need for further chemical treatments to rid the waste water of harmful substances.

“In an environment where you have less and less commodities available, and water is one of them, we want to make a commitment as a company and an industry,” said Gaetano Sallorenzo, Replay’s ceo. “We should commit to use less water.”

He also acknowledged the denim and fashion industry as a whole has been slow to adopt sustainable practices.

“Most of the time you give priority to the aesthetics and how to get certain finishings,” Sallorenzo said. “We’ve been behind as an industry. I think a lot of companies are now realizing that we have to make a commitment.”

Brands pushing an environmental message may face skeptical store buyers. Leah Eckelberger, owner of Boston’s Jean Therapy, said her early experiences with green lines have not been positive. In some cases, fits were off and washes weren’t consistent.

“We do have customers that come in and ask for it, but what trumps the eco-friendly aspect is the fit, wash and style,” Eckelberger said. “We’d love to find a brand that can do it, with a fit that just works really well, but we have yet to find that.”

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