Nearly half a century after François Girbaud started his career in the denim industry and pioneered the first stonewash, the French designer now is leading the fight for designers to embrace environmentally friendly techniques for the treatment of denim.

This story first appeared in the May 18, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Opening his presentation with a video emphasizing the importance of saving water, and various means to do so, Girbaud shared his insights on alternative treatments for aging denim and touched on the ethics and social responsibility that designers and manufacturers should maintain for the industry’s 2 million workers.

“Buying a jean is also a political act,” Girbaud said. “There is still time to invent a new tomorrow.”

According to Girbaud, laborers face risks from manual scraping, which entails repetitive movements; sandblasting, which can lead to pulmonary disease, and potassium permanganate sprays, which can damage lungs even when employees wear face masks.

“I was always against the sandblasting,” he said, noting that factories in Turkey stopped sandblasting after some workers died from related ailments.

Girbaud said the denim industry currently faces a series of colliding “truths” involving costs, efficiencies, energy and ethics. “It is our collective responsibility to consider the social impact of what we do,” he said.

One solution is laser technology, which Girbaud began using in 1995. He claimed that laser machines use almost 98 percent less water than conventional aging techniques. Furthermore, the output from using a laser machine to create whiskers and lighten parts of jeans is higher than what could be accomplished with manual scraping, potassium permanganate sprays and sandblasting, he said.

A denim factory can finish 10 pairs of jeans an hour through manual scraping, 30 pairs an hour via sandblasting and 60 pairs an hour with potassium permanganate spraying, he said. In contrast, a laser machine can process between 60 and 120 pairs an hour, he said.

Another way to age jeans is to use ozone. In a conventional wet process, 20 gallons of water, one kilowatt hour of energy and 0.33 pounds of chemicals are used to treat a single pair of jeans, Girbaud said. Ozone, on the other hand, uses 70 percent less water and cuts the amount of energy and chemicals by 60 percent and 80 percent, respectively, he said. In other words, the amount of water that ozone technology saves would equal two years of water consumption in Paris, and the energy rate would equal two years of general consumption in Nepal.

“We are reinventing everything,” he said.

He’s already distanced himself from the stonewash process that he created. “I refused to do stonewash like everyone else,” he said. “I didn’t want to make jeans like that anymore.”

Ever since he started his company in 1964 with his wife, Marithé, Girbaud has been constantly growing his business and exploring new territories. He opened his first store in China in 2008 and unveiled last year a new shop in Paris that, for the first time, groups together all the brands in the Marithé + François Girbaud portfolio.

“It’s important for me to be here,” Girbaud said at the end of his presentation. “I share the love here.”

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