AMSTERDAM — Sustainability ranks high on the list of topical priorities at every Kingpins show and this year the continuing battle between jeans and water dominated its seminar programs and its first full-day conference on the subject.

Dubbed “The Transformers — Denim, Jeans and Water,” the program served as a chance for retailers, manufacturers and mills to work with firms openly looking to improve on the jeans industry’s customary high water consumption, and often accompanying high levels of pollution, associated with the manufacturing of jeans.

“Let’s face it, textiles leave one of the largest water footprints on the planet, touching underground water, and rainwater as well as fresh water, which is required to dilute pollutants,” observed Alberto De Conti of Garmon Chemicals, billed as the first company in the apparel industry to have obtained GreenScreen certification, a testimony to its ability to pass assessments of hazardous chemical representation in products and processes, developed by U.S. NGO Clean Production Action (CPA).

It took the company four years to get 40 products approved, including an alternative bleaching agent for indigo as well as a range of eight pigments, the only GreenScreened colorants currently on the market, according to the company.

“It didn’t come without internal friction,” said De Conti, explaining that the firm had to disclose all its products’ ingredients and molecular structures to obtain the GreenScreen green light. ”It’s like giving somebody the keys to your company. But in the end we took a calculated risk and are very happy. We encourage other companies to do the same. Sustainability is the single biggest issue to affect business in the next five to 10 years,” he noted.

“Colorants are still the biggest challenge, and indigo is no different,” said Thorsten Huels, head of global denim at DyStar, which offers pre-reduced indigo liquid instead of the indigo powder that currently accounts for 70 percent of production. “But without indigo we would have no denim. The market is about 65,000 tons a year,” he added.

DyStar’s solution is based on a formula that allows a 60 to 70 percent reduction of sodium hydrosulfite, a reducing agent used for indigo powder, which ends up in the wastewater polluting the environment.

With the denim market remaining highly sensitive to price, the question of cost came up whenever sustainability was discussed.

Miguel Sanchez, global head of special dyes at Archroma, which developed a dye method that saves up to 92 percent of water, noted: “It takes 11,000 liters of fresh water to produce one pair of jeans. In 2014, 3.5 billion denim articles were produced. Consumers need to know that what they are wearing is special and cannot cost as much as a Big Mac. And it’s important that brands communicate that.”

A study by Boston Consulting found that customers were willing to pay between 7 and 9 percent more for a sustainable garment. But in the end, said Sanchez, it’s in the brand’s own interest to adopt environmental strategies before people start asking for it. “It’s an investment with good and fast payback, because it makes brands more attractive, not to mention the costs of saving energy. In the end, there will be a separation between good and bad brands,” he predicted.

Enrique Silla, chief executive officer of Jeanologia, which creates machinery and software for sustainable textile finishing, remarked how dramatic economic times were actually conducive to making advancements. “In the last years, three technologies completely changed the industry: laser, ozone and e-flow,“ he said.

He predicted that laser, which gives character to the fabric in the same manner as more hazardous hand- and sandblasting, would account for 50 percent of global production within the next two years, versus 25 percent today, while the e-flow technology could make the use of water as a carrier for chemicals redundant altogether.

E-flow, he said, entails a cloud of nano-bubbles, transporting properties into the fabric via air. “One glass of water is enough to wash 100 jeans. Only 3 percent of jeans are produced this way. This is nothing. But in five years from now, this will completely change the industry.”

But the final word belongs to the consumer. “I’m amazed at how everyone is trying to save water in production,” noted Ronald Gladon, sales manager at Polygiene Technology, “when only one-third of water [associated with the life cycle of a pair of jeans] is used in production and two-thirds are on the consumer side.”

Polygiene Technology’s solution: Antimicrobial finishes for garments that prevent odor and reduce the need for home washing.

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