NEW YORK — The push for sustainability in apparel will need to come from within the industry itself, rather than from consumers, for the foreseeable future.

This story first appeared in the July 24, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That was the considered opinion of three panelists discussing “Denim’s New Frontier” as part of the Lenzing seminar series at Texworld USA, held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here last week.

The panelists were Michael Kininmonth, denim project manager for Lenzing; Manon Clavel, U.S. marketing manager for Spain’s Jeanologia, and Sarah Ahmed, creative director for DL1961 Premium Denim.

In addition to their individual views on trends currently running through the denim market, the panel addressed recent actions taken to improve environmental conditions in the apparel supply chain as well as the working conditions faced by laborers around the world, including those lost in the Rana Plaza and Tazreen tragedies in Bangladesh.

“I find the actions being taken are really business-to-business, while brands and retailers think that the general consumer will eventually care about these things,” said Kininmonth. “A lot of the actions on environmental issues, as with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, are really businesses that have decided it’s time for them to change the way they do business, which I applaud absolutely.”

He said he detected no groundswell of support among the general public for greater sustainability or even outrage about recent tragedies in Bangladesh and the apparent exposure of workers in low-wage countries to workplace risks. He cited surveys he’d seen in Europe in which the majority of consumers said the events in Bangladesh wouldn’t affect their buying patterns.

Lenzing has aggressively marketed fibers including Modal, derived from beech trees; Tencel, from eucalyptus, and a hybrid of the two, ProModal, touting the performance characteristics of the fibers as well as their relatively lower impact on water and energy use.

“From our point of view as a fiber producer, we have a very positive environmental story for our fibers,” Kininmonth commented. “We are genuinely finding that this is an advantage with brands and retailers. The business that we do today with major retailers, such as Ikea and H&M, for instance, is based on the fact that they think we’ve got environmentally responsible product. This is absolutely the way forward, no matter what you personally believe about it.

“The denim and jeanswear industry definitely has a long way to go before we get close to having a really sustainable industry,” he concluded.

Founded in 1993, Jeanologia has built its business on laser and ozone machines that replace finishing processes deemed harmful to the environment and factory workers, such as sandblasting, hand-sanding and spraying and rinsing in harmful chemicals, while reducing consumption of water, chemicals and energy. It’s recently introduced a software tool called EIM — Environmental Impact Measurement — to help factories gauge the effects of finishing processes on the environment as well as workers.

“We maybe have to send a louder message out there that there are ways to replace [harmful] methods with know-how,” Clavel told the audience. “It’s not difficult. Companies are already doing it in their production without increasing prices. It doesn’t cost any more to be eco-friendly, and it doesn’t have to be a higher-priced product.”

The company is in the process of establishing a demonstration and training center in Bangladesh, where it currently works with about 20 manufacturers, to help speed its entry into the market.

The barrier for entry for the new technologies hasn’t been, as many had surmised, the price point of the product, but rather a factory’s ability to bear capital investment. “Once you’ve invested, it’s going to take you some time — typically about a year — to make it back,” Clavel said. “What you need are orders to fill your machines and be able to leverage your investment. Once that’s done, this is a big help in keeping your costs down in the face of rising labor and material-fabric costs. It will help you reduce the amount of water, chemicals and energy you use in the finishing plant, and it’s also going to help you automate many of the processes within the plant.”

DL1961 has employed both Lenzing fibers and, in its parent company’s plants in Pakistan, Jeanologia’s equipment. “Yes, we’re employing sustainability,” said Ahmed. “The consumer really doesn’t think about it much, but at a business-to-business level, it is the responsibility of us in the industry to make that decision for the consumer and to give them a product that isn’t higher in price that would deter them from buying.

“At every stop along the way,” she remarked, “we have to start making those choices, to be more sustainable, to use better technologies.”

Such considerations are always tempered by salability, she pointed out: “From a brand perspective, we need to hold to a certain price point. We don’t want to make it unattainable for the consumer.”

Lenzing’s Kininmonth added that consumers, already in the habit of recycling their bottles, cans and newspapers, have shown some interest in recycling their jeans. “The problem is, we’re building garment mountains and we’re not sure what to do with them,” he said, citing the difficulty of building short, weak cotton fiber that’s been put through shredding and decontamination into quality fabrics.

“There’s a will to have that technology,” he said, “but it really doesn’t exist today. We’re working on it, but we’re not there yet.”

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