As the environmental impact of the apparel industry increasingly becomes a matter of public discourse, brands and retailers are turning up the pressure on the world’s suppliers to be socially responsible corporate citizens.

The result will be an influx of new machines, chemicals and technical processes aimed at lowering carbon footprints and consumption of energy and water.

The apparel industry’s efforts on the environmental front have shifted over the past several years from a single focus on the use of organic materials to addressing the larger issue of sustainability. The sustainability discussion requires brands and manufacturers to look beyond their products to consider the manner in which they are constructed.

The environmental impact of the industry is significant at the fiber level. Len Farias, a representative of Cotton Incorporated, said during a conference hosted by the American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists in December that the global production of all fibers consumes 1 trillion gallons of water, 33 trillion gallons of oil and 20 billion pounds of chemicals annually.

Even the smallest items found on garments prove to be intensive products. Barry van Dyk, a director at Avery Dennison, said during the same conference that to produce five million woven labels for shirt collars required up to 6,175 pounds of polyester yarn, or the equivalent of 211,550 plastic bottles.

The denim industry’s reliance on cotton and heavy use of washing and dyeing techniques makes it a particularly resource-heavy category. Spanish denim research and development company Jeanologia estimates 158.5 billion gallons of water and 1.3 million tons of chemicals are used each year in the denim finishing process. Examining the 2006 production year for jeans headed to the U.S. market, Levi Strauss & Co. found making one pair of 501s required almost 920 gallons of water, 400 megajoules of energy and expelled 32 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Levi’s said this was equivalent to running a garden hose for 106 minutes, driving 78 miles and powering a computer for 556 hours.

With the level of impact now being made clear and fears the cost of everything from water to energy will only rise, a raft of environmental innovations are being embraced by suppliers.

In 2001, Jeanologia introduced a textile laser to achieve distressed and vintage looks. Technologies have advanced to such a degree the system now can scan a vintage pair of jeans and reproduce the exact look, down to the holes and abrasions, in less than a minute. The system eliminates the time and hand labor traditionally needed in the factory to achieve these looks, but more importantly can eliminate the use of chemical abrasives.

Last April, the company introduced an industrial washing machine dubbed the G2. Rather than relying on the traditional combination of water and chemicals to create various shades of denim, the G2 uses a process that relies on air. In addition to eliminating the use of water and chemicals, the G2 rids the finishing process of toxic emissions and dumping, and reduces overall energy usage. The company also estimated the G2 cuts production time, energy consumption and cost per garment by more than 50 percent.

Low impact chemicals have also been on the rise, particularly the use of naturally occurring enzymes to replace bleaching. Last month, biotechnology firm Genencor added another item to its suite of PrimaGreen eco-friendly denim processing products. PrimaGreen EcoLight 1 is a liquid biodegradable enzyme that can be used in the laundering process to attain a vintage look in denim. When used with other PrimaGreen products that allow for low-temperature denim fading and abrasion, the company believes water and energy usage can be cut by 40 to 70 percent.

“It’s very obvious that [the textile industry] is one of the most polluting industries there is,” said Nico van Schoot, senior global marketing manager for Genencor’s textile business.

The process of washing, bleaching and dyeing garments often requires a lot of water at high temperatures, meaning more energy usage. However, van Schoot said he’s seen brands and retailers over the past several years take more of an interest in how their goods are made.

In 2009, Cotton Inc. released a 50-page report titled “A World of Ideas: Technologies For Sustainable Cotton Textile Manufacturing.” In it, 26 existing and developing technologies are recommended to reduce water, energy and chemical usage.

“The cotton textile industry can reduce the [water, energy and chemical] environmental footprint at least 50 percent by employing technologies currently used in modern plants located in the world’s major textile production regions,” said the report.

Many of the technologies, such as foam dyeing, already exist and simply needed wider adoption. Applying dyes to cotton with a foam requires half the amount of water to be used, greater control of the dye and allows for quicker drying. The foam process has been in use for more than 25 years, but has picked up momentum over the last five years due to technical and chemical improvements.

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