LONG BEACH, Calif. — Denim manufacturers, designers and retailers said their efforts to push innovation and promote sustainability are being hampered by a reluctant industry and price-conscious consumers.

A symposium sponsored by the American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists this month at the Hilton Hotel here attracted representatives from Nordstrom Inc., Aritzia, Casual Male Retail Group Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Lands’ End and other retailers, who came to cull information on how to better design their collections and market to eco-conscious customers.

But the ambitions of those attending “Fashion Trends, Technologies and Sustainability in Denim and Garment Wet Processing” were tempered by the recession, which also reduced the number of participants to 112 from 189 two years ago, when the last conference was held.

Executives at the conference had the opportunity to join a new organization, the Center for Economically Sustainable Textile & Apparel Businesses, run by North Carolina State University and the Institute of Textile Technology. Set to launch this month, the group aims to provide information, analysis and resources to promote sustainable, social, economic and environmental practices in the global textile supply chain.

Ninety-two percent of companies expect sustainability budgets to remain flat or increase next year, according to a survey by research and consulting firm Business for Social Responsibility.

The symposium also sought to address misconceptions about fibers and textile processes that have been touted as green or eco-friendly. Executives were encouraged to look beyond the use of organic cotton as the only way to green up their assortments. One alternative involves using cationic cotton, which has a positive charge that allows fabrics to be dyed in less time without the use of salt or alkali. Suppliers of cationic cotton include Cottina Group, National Spinning, Tuscarora Yarns and Buhler Yarns. Producers also can use basic cotton grown in California with some chemicals and fertilizers, but less than what is used in conventional farming methods.

Despite being natural, vegetable dyes aren’t as cost effective as chemical dyes and might contain heavy metals that could damage the environment. Bamboo, which must undergo a chemically intensive process to transform the fast-growing plant into a textile fiber, also was uniformly rejected as an environmentally responsible fiber for the apparel industry.

“We look at sustainability as a methodical process to do what we do better,” said Len Farias, a representative of Cotton Incorporated.

The challenge facing the textile industry to reduce its carbon footprint is significant. Farias said global production of all fibers consumes 1 trillion gallons of water, 33 trillion gallons of oil and 20 billion pounds of chemicals annually.


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