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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Denim designers and manufacturers grappled with the challenges of making their products and practices sustainable while at the same time meeting growing global demand for cotton at the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ symposium last week.
Held at the Courtyard by Marriott here on Dec. 7 and 8, the program, titled “Denim & Fashion Garment Washing: What’s New, Innovative & Sustainable,” drew more than 60 attendees from companies such as True Religion Apparel Inc., Nike Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Gap Inc., Target Corp., Coldwater Creek Inc. and Lenzing. Beyond discussing technical topics such as new enzymes, natural dyes, indigo and organic cotton crops, the 15 speakers addressed emerging issues such as recycling denim and using technology to move the centuries-old industry forward.
Moreover, representatives from chemical companies such as Switzerland’s Clariant International Ltd. and Italy’s Garmon & Bozzetto were able to make sales pitches for their respective chemical processes that they claimed would reduce the amount of water, methane and energy used. While the nonprofit trade group Textile Exchange reported that retail sales of organic cotton surged to $5.16 billion in 2010 from $240 million in 2001, participants agreed that organic cotton was not the single answer to the sustainability question.
In contrast, technology offered some solutions for not only sustainability but also transparency, a new buzzword with consumers and companies.
Andrew Olah, chief executive officer of textile marketing, development and sales agency Olah Inc. in New York, said DNA testing of the cotton genome will help companies identify where the cotton was grown. The testing could come in handy in response to consumers who voice opposition to cotton sources such as Uzbekistan, which is criticized for allegedly using child labor to harvest cotton, he said.
Renato Silva of Spain’s Pulcra Chemicals floated the idea of adopting a way to measure sustainability. “We don’t have a number, we don’t have a unit,” he said. With quantitative measurement, companies “can compare apples to apples.…We can compare what we are doing today and what we do tomorrow,” he said.
Digital printing also served as an answer to creating distressed denim looks without using bleach, sandblasting and other potentially harmful treatments. All one would need is a design, Photoshop, reactive dyes and a digital printer to print directly on the fabric, according to Carly Spano, a print specialist at Cotton Incorporated in Cary, N.C. Using Photoshop to create whiskers, graphics, coloring and other visual effects, Spano printed sewing patterns on fabric that were then cut and sewn into jeans. While the digital prints lacked the depth and dimension that a wearer would get from jeans produced by actual grinding and bleaching, the result is a more environmentally friendly product. Moreover, it opened new ways to printing artwork on denim. For instance, Spano created a fluorescent splash of color on jeans that could be viewed with three-dimensional glasses.
“It’s a totally new direction,” she said. Although she didn’t have an estimate for the cost of making digitally printed jeans, she thought that “it’ll be more on the high end.”
On the other hand, companies also defined sustainability as a means to keep their businesses healthy. While Dave Johnson, who handles product development at Vernon, Calif.-based True Religion, is adopting laser as a new technology, he noted that the more environmentally friendly processes won’t be without its costs.
“If we take away sandblasting, we have to add more people for hand-sanding,” he said. As a result, costs would rise. “That’s not sustainable as far as the owners and stockholders [are concerned],” he said.
Even the topic of what to do with old jeans was addressed through Cotton Inc.’s “Blue to Green” recycling program that turns used denim into insulation for homes. Since the initiative started in 2006, Cotton Inc. said it had collected 777,111 pieces of denim to create 1.7 million square feet of insulation that was used in 1,552 homes. Some of the companies that participated in the recycling drive were Guess Inc.’s G by Guess unit, Gap and American Eagle Outfitters Inc.