MILANSustainability is galloping forward among Italian textile makers as business incentives follow in its wake, Italian fashion executives avowed at a conference organized by the technical trade association Associazione Nazionale Tecnici Professionisti Sistema Moda that was hosted by the Italian textile firm Eurojersey here.

The executives, all of whom had invested substantially in reducing the environmental impact of their companies, agreed that the world should know and care about the virtues of Italian industry in a sector that has the reputation of being one of the world’s dirtiest and most chemical intensive.

The Milanese conference highlighted the efforts of leading companies such as Eurojersey stretch fabrics, Herno outerwear, Canepa precious fabrics, Albini cotton and Candiani denim.

“Today, every company must offer the right balance of quality, service, price and product. Tomorrow, the fifth value will be sustainability,” said Andrea Crespi, general manager of Eurojersey. “Our vision is for it to become as great a value as the others. Today it is still an added value. Tomorrow it will be the ABC of every company.”

Crespi declared that Eurojersey has invested 50 million euros, or $56 million at current exchange, over the last 10 years to drastically reduce its environmental impact. On a tour of the facilities, giant mechanical looms meshed ephemeral veils of white thread onto massive, spinning bolts of snow-colored jersey fabric under the meticulous watch of infrared cameras.

The factory drew energy entirely from renewable sources and the offices ran off the grid thanks to solar panels. Each year, 30 million liters of water, or 7.9 million gallons — the energy equivalent of 200 tons of crude oil — were saved thanks to Eurojersey’s advanced treatment for fume emissions. Meanwhile 8,000 kilograms of polyethylene cellophane and 9,000 cardboard tubes weighing six tons were spared in warehouses packed with black plastic-wrapped bolts through a packaging system that recycles materials. Textile scraps were also salvaged and recycled to the tune of 55,000 kilos, or 60.6 tons annually.

Eurojersey produces the Sensitive line of soft, elastic performance fabrics made of polyamide nylon and Lycra spandex that is used in swimwear and lingerie, as well as in the growing ath-leisure category and a new generation of wrinkle-free, comfortable ready-to-wear. Brands supplied include La Perla, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan for lingerie; J. Crew, Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren and Speedo for swimwear, and Lululemon, Tory Sport and Theory for ath-leisure and rtw. The U.S and Canada account for 22 percent of Eurojersey’s 2015 sales of 53 million euros, or $59.5 million.

Crespi admitted that the Greenpeace Detox campaign that began targeting the fashion sector in 2011 has accelerated change through shock and shaming tactics, but said the environmental organization was unrealistic in many demands, such as its plea to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals and heavy metals that are still necessary for making enduring garments with true colors, and for sparing the environment other damage.

As an example, Crespi pointed to a steel machine about the size of a tugboat with portholes to view its internal workings. Inside, he said, there were 5,000 liters of solvent used and reused to purge freshly made fabric of impurities. He said the company paid 600,000 euros, or $673,000, for the giant washing machine that releases no emissions into the environment, unlike the local dry cleaner. His alternative would be to use vast quantities of water and detergent.

“It would put 50 tons of industrial detergent in the water that would flow into the rivers,” Crespi said. “Sustainability is not just about what, but also how.”

He added that environmental and social concerns could not take precedence over the bottom line.

“If you do not succeed in making a profit, you are not sustainable [as a business],” he added.

Business matters were also an issue for Claudio Marenzi, president of Herno and of the Italian textile and clothing federation Sistema Moda Italia. As the head of SMI, Marenzi has been working with the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana to come up with sustainability guidelines and standards for the industry. As head of Herno, he has overseen investment that cut the company’s energy needs by 40 percent, solar panels that now cover its energy needs, the planting of rooftop greenery, implementation of systematic recycling and other measures that have turned Herno into a “zero impact company” camouflaged in the surrounding countryside.

Marenzi complained that while clients appreciate sustainability, they are not yet willing to pay for it.

“People always buy the cheaper product,” Marenzi said on stage to the conference audience.

He explained that while clients are willing to shell out money for textile performance, sustainability “is a subject that is still too little felt downstream.” For example, eliminating Teflon from the company’s water-repellent textiles added two euros a meter to costs, or a $2.30 outlay that could not be passed along to the end consumer. This said, he saw big brands undertaking a fundamental shift toward supply chain oversight and accountability as they increasingly engage consumers.

He told a press gathering that Italy’s fashion manufacturing sector was remarkably virtuous compared to other countries, largely due to regulatory compliance, and that he made this discovery during research with CNMI to develop sustainability standards.

Luca Buttarelli, Italian sales director for Cotonificio Albini, reported that his company was one of those that has made efforts in sustainability in advance of any commercial demand. He called his company’s first organic product, introduced some years ago, a “spectacular failure” in terms of sales. Until clients ask for environmentally responsible products, he said, the only investments that make sense are those with industrial value for the company, like reducing energy use and eliminating waste.

“If [investments in sustainability] are not reported to the final consumers, they are only costs with no return,” he added.

But Canepa SpA, a maker of fine tie, scarf, furnishing and tricot textiles, has turned its resource savings not only into cost savings, but also a new business arm.

Canepa’s supply chain and sustainability director, Alfonso Saibene Canepa, explained that a process devised to avoid using polyvinyl alcohol also eliminated the need to wash out that chemical, saving 90 percent of water normally used. The method, called the SaveTheWater Kitotex process, is now being offered to noncompeting textile makers and Canepa inked its first license with Italian denim maker Italdenim SpA this spring.

Canepa’s head of marketing, Maurizio Ribotti, said the company has developed five or six patents now that are in the process of commercialization, including one that completely eliminates the use of chlorine. Canepa is deploying the latter in the manufacture of ultrafine cashmere for a global luxury fashion brand.

Reducing its environmental footprint has been good for Eurojersey’s business, too, even if it is not yet a major driver for client demand, Crespi said.

“It is making us more efficient,” he said. “If it weren’t for the investments we have made in these years, we would not have been able to maintain our margins.”

Nevertheless, he hopes that appreciation for his advances and those of other Italian fashion manufacturers reaches a broader audience.

“We are the only country that expresses beauty from beginning to end of the production process and it would be a shame to waste it,” Crespi added.

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