HONG KONG — Sustainability and breakthroughs in eco-friendly technology took center stage at the “Great Ideas in Cotton” conference here.
Several speakers underscored the benefits of green practices, noting that with mounting pressure from governments and increased interest from retailers, producing responsibly is becoming a matter of survival. Hosted by Cotton Incorporated and Cotton Council International, the May 22 event was attended by more than 300 delegates from international apparel brands, sourcing groups and manufacturing mills.
“The issue of sustainability is not going away,” said Mark Messura, senior vice president of global supply chain marketing at Cotton Inc. “It’s not like a color trend where next season it will be different. Companies need to find ways to adapt and improve.”
Messura gave special mention to technology pioneered by Central Textiles (HK) Ltd. and Cotton Inc. The Hong Kong-based textile manufacturer has implemented a new system of recycling up to 70 percent of its effluent water and 100 percent of its dyestuffs. In one year, its factory recovers as much as 24,800 liters of water.
“Water prices and energy prices will increase, so I feel this is a way to compete,” said Pat-Nie Woo, director of Central Textiles, who expects a 10-year return on investment on the project.
At the Crystal Group’s “Walk the Sustainable Talk” session, Tilky Wang, senior officer for corporate quality and sustainability, revealed how the company uses more than 200 eco-practices to produce apparel for clients including Mango, Levi Strauss & Co., H&M and Victoria’s Secret. Strategies range from the use of solar energy for water heating to recycling scraps of cotton.
“I found it quite inspiring,” said Bernd Sauer, head of apparel development at World Cat Ltd., a company that sources products for Puma. “We are keen to work with suppliers who have this mind-set and what we saw in the session is that it can actually be profitable.”
On the technology front, Messura noted that functional finishes continue to be important in the marketplace because “consumers want to know the product can do something, that there’s some value.”
Among the performance innovations unveiled at the conference was Dow Corning Corp.’s Soft Hydro Guard, a new water-repellent finishing chemistry. Utilizing silicone, the company has created a water-resistant finish with a softer hand. In his presentation, Fernando Vazquez, global technical manager for textiles and leather, focused on reducing usage of chemicals such as fluorine, formaldehyde and solvents.
An exhibition showcasing advances in fabrics and machinery featured booths highlighting innovations in denim production. Spanish company Jeanologia displayed fabric finished using its new e-Soft garment-softening technique. Unlike traditional processes requiring as much as 1,000 liters of water for 100 garments, Jeanologia’s machines only require five liters to soften fabric. The company also presented examples of denim treated with its eco-friendly laser finishing technology.
“Now people have started to believe in laser,” said Sergio Dominguez, area manager, citing a recent collaboration with Guess Jeans. “They used the laser to make a collection with animal prints.”
Another one of its clients is Replay, which is capitalizing on lasers as a marketing tool, labeling its jeans as laser washed as opposed to hand washed.
Denim was also a focus in the fashion forecast for fall 2013. Cotton Inc. senior product trend analyst Lauren Deatherage noted that denim with bold prints, allover stud work, floral appliqués and leather appearances are among upcoming trends. Saying that consumers are starting to get more comfortable with color, Deatherage emphasized two palettes: soft peaches mixed with bright orange and lime, and aquatic blues and greens punctuated by deep purples and vivid orange.
“There is also a lot of printing being done rather than weaving or knitting the construction, which would be more costly,” she said. Referring to the Cotton Inc. session on digitally created denim finishes, she added that mimicked textures on cotton are becoming popular.
Some attendees had reservations about the cost of eco-friendly technological innovations.
“Customers are definitely starting to become aware of sustainability, but nobody wants to pay more,” said Chuck Cogswell, fabric research and development manager at Eddie Bauer.
Messura acknowledged that costs are one of the industry’s biggest challenges, adding, “The macroeconomic climate right now in three of the major markets — Europe, the U.S. and Japan — is still very difficult. So it’s very hard to pass any kind of price increase along to customers.”
Until the market is able to absorb costs of innovation, he applauded forward-thinking manufacturers, reminding them that “really good technologies” not only protect the environment but can also offer major cost savings. On a positive note, Messura felt the outlook for cotton was bright. Encouraged by the recent drop in cotton prices, he predicted that global consumption would rise in 2013.