ROBECCHETTO CON INDUNO, Italy — In an industry obsessed with trends, no other word seems more fashionable at the moment than sustainability. Green capsule collections are sprouting like mushrooms; brands brag about their water and energy savings on social media; “natural” and “organic” have become premium accessories.
It is curious then that one of the most sustainable denim manufacturers in the industry has kept a low profile. “So many brands are greenwashing, using sustainability as a marketing tool,” complained Alberto Candiani, fourth-generation weaver, sitting in the office of the mill his great-grandfather Luigi founded in 1938 at the feet of the Italian Alps.
“Most guys will say: ‘Oh, let’s do organic cotton,’ or ‘We use 30 percent less water.’ It means nothing. Thirty percent of what exactly?” he shrugged, adding: “Why don’t you show the consumer how you make things instead? We live in the communication era, there are so many ways of doing it. Most is fake.”
Instead, Candiani advocates complete transparency. “Take people to the mill, to the laundry,” he said. “Make a mini-movie. Everybody should have the balls to say, ‘We used to do it this way, now we have improved, don’t point at me because I cared less. Now I care more.’”
Following his own advice, the weaver published a pamphlet titled “The Greenest Mill in the Blue World.” To illustrate his point, the company produced two pairs of jeans — one made the “conventional way,” the other using a set of new, greener technologies.
The result: While the conventional pair required 90 liters of water and 0.62 kilograms of chemicals at the dyeing and washing stages of manufacturing, the sustainable pair got away with only 22 liters and 0.2 kilograms, saving 75 percent and 65 percent, respectively. The reduction in water and chemicals, both responsible for denim’s large ecological footprint, were achieved via a combination of two technologies: Candiani’s own dyeing innovation called Indigo Juice and Kitotex, a novel, fully biodegradable sizing agent. Sizing refers to the process of stiffening the yarn for more resistance during the weaving stage, preventing it from breaking. This is normally done with starch or polyvinyl alcohol and other chemicals, which Candiani said will end up as micro-plastics in the water, where they “never go away.”
Kitotex is derived from Chitosan, a naturally occurring polymer obtained from recycled shrimp waste. Being antibacterial and antimite, it not only comes with health benefits to the consumer, but also allows operating at lower temperatures, thus saving energy, and helps purify the discharged water organically during the de-sizing process, which is needed to wash off the protective coating. “This is a major revolution,” contended Candiani, who is exclusively licensing the patent belonging to Canepa, a fellow Italian textile manufacturer, for denim applications for the next five years.
The Indigo Juice, meanwhile, penetrates the yarn only superficially, and therefore washes off more easily in the laundry, making it the ideal choice for those vintage looks that are so coveted in fashion. It is also made to be compatible with sustainable finishing treatments such as laser and ozone.
To illustrate the difference: According to Candiani, the conventional pair required 11 steps in the laundry, including stone washing, bleaching and potassium permanganate spraying, consuming a total of 0.12 kg of chemicals and 70 liters of water. The Kitotex and Indigo Juice combo, on the other hand, slashed the chemical consumption by 60 percent to 0.05 kilograms and squeezed the amount of water by 83 percent to 12 liters, which is a little more than one toilet flush.
Even skeptics might agree there are no visual trade-offs between the two pairs.
The mill, which supplies brands such as AG Jeans, Seven For All Mankind and G-Star, is slated to present over 25 articles prepared with Kitosan at the next Kingpins trade show in Amsterdam, running from April 19 to 21, and double the amount the following season. Within one year, it plans to extend the Kitotex application to at least 50 percent of its total production.
Candiani said it was “our geo-location” that forced him to go green. “It’s not just that we are located in Europe or Italy, we are based in a natural reserve, and we have to stick to the natural reserve rules. The parameters are not comparable to any other region in the world, as far as I know. What I discharge into the environment has to be clean, which is why I got Chitosan on board.”
Candiani is a rebel in his own right. He refuses to pay for additional green certificates, preferring to spend the extra cash on new technologies. Over the last 12 years, since the 34-year-old started pushing his business’ sustainability agenda, the family mill invested 100 million euros, or $105.9 million at current exchange, into research and development.
“Our yearly turnover is about 120 million [or $127.1 million], that means all profit goes into new investments,” he said, adding: “I’m not part of anything, because what they do does not include how much water was wasted to be within the parameters.” He explained: “If I put a drop of a toxic substance into this glass of water and I discharge this glass of water, the ratio toxins-to-water would be pretty high. If I put the same toxins in a swimming pool, the toxic material will still be the same but on top of that I have wasted a lot of water. This area is full of tanneries and they have been doing it forever to prove to local institutions that they are complying [with regulations]. I call it toxic dilution.”
Water remains the biggest concern for textile makers, said Candiani. “To achieve a normal navy blue on our 23 million linear meters [a year], we need to consume the standard 130 cubic meters per 24 hours a day, except for Sundays [when the mill rests]. Mills not using pre-reduced indigo [which is the majority] would consume up to double. The consumption of water is something horrific.”
By 2020, Candiani plans to reduce its all-over water consumption to 25 cubic meters per hour for every fabric and recycle its wastewater entirely. But its most ambitious goal, perhaps, is to be “100 percent hydrosulfite- and microplastics-free.” Sodium hydrosulfite is a chemical agent needed to prepare indigo powder for the dyeing process, which ends up in the wastewater, polluting the environment.
“We already work with pre-reduced indigo from Dystar, which has allowed us to play with way less hydrosulfite. We were the first mill in Europe to use synthetic pre-reduced indigo. Never even tried another way,” said Candiani, adding that leaving hydrosulfite entirely out of the equation “is doable.”
“We are experimenting on that with another mill next-door — yes, we have a collaboration with a competitor, which is kind of funny,” he admitted, citing fierce competition in the industry, but allowing: “When it comes to R&D you have to collaborate to come up with something good. My point is: I want to make sustainable items compatible against non-sustainable ones. It does cost more, yes, because you have to invest in order to make sustainability, but you are making a better product, and when I say better I mean cleaner and nicer. It does mean that we are taking hits along the way, but we do it with a long-term strategy in mind. I think that in five to ten years we will have a more competitive advantage, and long-term it will not cost more.”
The price difference between the sustainable and conventional pair of jeans is currently about 15 cents a meter, said the executive, who sees sustainability as “the new premium.”
“A premium is something you pay to get something extra, an added value. The whole environmental issue is becoming a great matter of public importance,” he argued. “Consumer organizations are pointing fingers, NGOs are revealing [hazardous] working conditions, and the young kids — those who are in high school and college right now — are really into this. When you look at [our generation] it feels like no one gives a s–t about sustainability, but the 20-year-olds are really into it; they grew up with organic chicken and green smoothies. So if you are a big corporation and you are scared of sustainability because it is interfering with your non-sustainable product, then you belong to the past century.”