LOS ANGELES — The denim industry is stepping up efforts to reduce its environmental impact and save money in the process.
Brands and manufacturers are employing a wide variety of strategies to gain efficiencies and lower their footprints, from using ozone washes to purchasing high-tech cutting machines and even using green vines to absorb radiant heat emitted from factory walls. These efforts are coming at a time when consumers and businesses are reassessing their priorities and watching their budgets. But one thing is clear: The economic slowdown has spurred deeper thought about surviving for the future.
“The hot topic is the environment,” said Michael Morrell, executive vice president of Olah Inc., a New York-based firm that represents mills, laundries and factories that are integrating sustainable business practices into the chemically laden denim industry. “It’s an issue that everyone has a conscious perspective on to a degree. People want to buy organic and be environmentally conscious. The ultimate question is, How much is the trend worth?”
Vietnamese denim factory and wash house Saitext is building a second plant in Ho Chi Minh City with the assistance of environmental consultants. Set up as a vertical operation with capabilities to cut, sew, wash, pack and ship, Saitext’s new operation will open in April with solar panels on the roof to heat water for the bathrooms, exterior walls covered in vines to absorb radiant heat and keep the building cool, and motion sensors that turn off the lights automatically. The 100,000-square-foot factory will also use wastewater from hand sinks to flush toilets and enable natural ventilation through windows on opposite ends of the building and through the roof. With about 500 employees, the factory will be able to manufacture 550,000 pairs of jeans a month.
“They’re trying to make themselves an environmental benchmark for what a 21st-century business should be,” Morrell said of Saitext.
Modern developments in technology also help Seven For All Mankind, the premium denim label owned by VF Corp., to improve efficiencies with marking and cutting fabric. The Los Angeles-based label uses equipment made by Gerber, which yield an efficiency of more than 90 percent.
“When the cutting process is done, we have our cutting and paper waste picked up by a recycle company, which grinds up the scrap and uses it for filler or stuffing,” said Steven Guy, vice president of operations for VF’s contemporary brands coalition. “We reduced fabric waste by 4 percent this year — a little over $1 million a year annualized — which means less waste for landfills.”
Koos Mfg. is moving to produce all the jeans sold under the AG Adriano Goldschmied and Big Star labels with ozone technology. Koos chief executive officer Yul Ku, a 31-year denim veteran, installed an ozone generator at the company’s South Gate, Calif., headquarters, where it makes the jeans for premium label AG, and two machines in its factory in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where it produces jeans for Big Star, a moderately priced brand sold at stores such as The Buckle. The first styles to be treated with ozone will hit stores as early as December for the holiday season. AG’s coming spring collection will be treated entirely with ozone.
Ozone is proving to be a popular method because of its versatility and environmental impact. Conventional denim treatments requires rinsing with large amounts of water to get rid of the excess indigo from the garment, and chemicals like potassium permanganate and lacasse are applied to fade the jeans and clean up the indigo that has bled onto the white pocket linings. Ozone, on the other hand, acts as a bleach to disinfect the garment, kill bacteria and clean up the indigo. Ozone also can fix the indigo for dark rinses or tint the fabric with a dirty yellow haze.
“It helps in every denim wash,” said Janet Choi, AG’s international sales manager.
Laundering with ozone requires the gas to be pumped from an ozone generator into a tumbler. Less water is used, bleach is minimized if not eliminated completely and energy consumption is reduced. Koos said it expects to reduce its consumption of water, chemicals and dirty energy by about 25 percent annually. The ozone process also takes a fifth of the time as a traditional laundering method does.
However, the company is using ozone only for blue indigo denim. Its khaki, black and overdyed pieces will undergo conventional processes. But considering that ozone is ideal for achieving the worn-out vintage looks that helped boost AG’s wholesale business by 58 percent from a year ago, the company is ready to bank on ozone.
“By using this new technology, we could save more water, electricity and chemicals,” said Kathy Kweon, AG’s brand manager.
Ozone has picked up the endorsement of a number of other denim veterans.
“All the other things, honestly, they’re a lot of blah, blah, blah,” said Adriano Goldschmied, executive vice president of design at Citizens of Humanity. “The only thing that in my opinion is happening right now that is serious is ozone.”
Citizens of Humanity, based in Huntington Park, Calif., recently spent between $150,000 and $200,000 on two machines that use ozone technology.
“It’s an investment that you can get back quite fast if you use properly,” he said.
Goldschmied, whose career in the denim industry spans more than three decades, recalled first seeing ozone generators in the early 1990s when it was a reliable process for making huge volumes of jeans sold at mass retailers such as Wal-Mart. Nowadays, the ozone technology has improved to a point that makes it acceptable for the premium denim industry.
“Nobody buys a jean that doesn’t look good because it has a ‘green’ wash,” Goldschmied said. “The big goal with us today is to make the look better with a green process. It’s a long way to go — four to five years.”
Denim-Tech LLC, a washhouse in Vernon, Calif., is also studying how to use ozone in its washes after first employing the technology to clean its waste water when it opened its doors four years ago. Shinzo Suzuki, owner of Denim-Tech, is working with a Japanese laundry called Howa Co. to use a particular ozone technology under the trademark name of Air Wash. While in the research phase to determine how Air Wash works and how consistent it is, Suzuki said he likes Howa’s policy in Japan of donating 10 cents for every Air Wash-treated garment sold to a charity that plants trees in developing countries in Asia and Africa.
“That’s a good concept,” he said. “We’ll have some savings. That’s why some savings I want to donate to the nonprofit organization. You use less chemicals, less water.”
Goldschmied is taking his quest for a more natural product a step further. He scans the world for mineral colors — yellow and red from Italy, black from Germany and a rainbow of tints from India — that cost the same as chemical dyes but pose as an earth-friendly alternative.
Revel Seven, a denim line that launched last fall with jeans retailing for $175 to $195, eliminated the use of potassium permanganate and chlorine. In lieu of these caustic substances to weather the jeans, it used sea salt. The company also skipped filling a sandblaster with silicone and opted instead to have workers distress the jeans by hand. The label is also developing fabric stains derived from coffee, berries, saffron and persimmon.
“We know that we can achieve the same results without using the same chemistry and using as little water as possible,” said Joe Tomlinson, founder of Revel Seven, which has offices in Park City, Utah, and Los Angeles. “Every little bit helps.”