There has been a marked shift toward more sustainable practices in the global denim industry, from the employment of new finishing technologies that cut water and chemical use to the recycling of post-consumer waste. A speedier move to an all-green denim world is the ideal, but the sector is far from this. The biggest hurdle? No-one is willing to foot the bill. Hannah Abdulla reports.

Denim has built up a bit of a reputation over the years as the fabric and apparel industry bad guy – and it’s not surprising.

On average, 7,000 litres of water are required to make each pair of jeans. And with consumers wanting the latest trends and wanting them now, brands are putting increased pressure on suppliers to deliver more and faster. The resulting cycle is, quite simply, unsustainable. Instead of employing traditional, more sustainable production methods and materials, suppliers have turned to more practical alternatives; chemical equivalents in some cases that are cheaply and widely available. The shift from natural indigo – whose harvest is expensive and slow – to synthetic dyes such as aniline, is just one example of this.

However, globally, denim manufacturers are taking steps to combat the sustainability issues presented by the sector. One of those is Bangladesh-based Pioneer Denim. The group, an exhibitor at this year’s Fashion SVP trade show in London, boasts the second largest LEED-certified denim mill in the country whose effluent treatment plant (ETP) also cleans 6000m3 of water per day.

Adopting green innovations

“We are a sustainable company,” asserts Md Hasibul Huda from the outset. “Our denim technology uses 26% less water [compared to conventional alternatives] and 15% less electricity. Our dye products use less waste. The whole plant is a sustainable project.”

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The company also leverages technological innovations such as laser finish effect technology and foam coating which cuts water use by 30% as well as delivering savings in chemicals. 

A second company, also exhibiting at the show, is Turkish jeans manufacturer Sarp Jeans, which has made “huge investments” in the past two-to-three years in sustainable machinery including a collaboration with Jeanologia on its washing technology, which allows re-use of water over several laundry cycles, subsequently cutting down on the volume of wastewater produced.

Pakistani-based denim fabric mill Siddiqsons Ltd is a third. One of the oldest mills of its kind in the country, having been in operation since 1957, it has a number of major names among the brands it supplies including Levi Strauss and VF Corp. Naturally, the firm has had to up its green-game in order to serve its clients and remain ahead of the competition. But Ahsan Zia, general manager for sales and marketing, tells just-style it is a question of morals as well as a decision that needs to be made to secure future business.

“Being a supplier of garments, we too have a duty to the environment. We are using the resources. We are polluting the water that has to be consumed by our own people. It is my own labour that is affected”

“Being a supplier of garments, we too have a duty to the environment,” he explains. “We are using the resources. We are polluting the water that has to be consumed by our own people. It is my own labour that is affected.”

As a result, Siddiqsons has taken several steps including some to preserve the local greenery and cultivating fruit and selling it cheaply to its labour force. In terms of projects with its customers, it has commenced work on a post-consumer waste (PCW) take-back scheme, servicing clients such as H&M. The scheme involves taking back worn jeans from retailers and running them through a shredding machine which breaks them down into a reusable cotton format. The mills will take back and process up to 5% of PCW for free. For anything up to 10% there is a small upcharge. It sounds great in theory. But there is a problem. Brands are refusing to take any fabrics made using over 10% PCW because of the impact it has on the look and feel of the garment.

“When you mix it there is a reflection of the original fabric in the end fabric,” explains Zia. “While brands like the idea of environmentally-friendly, if the finished fabric or garment looks too similar to the original garment, or not as new as it should, they won’t buy it.”

But the PCW problem is a minor learning curve that will be resolved with time, he believes.

“Currently manufacturers aren’t experts in handing that [PCW] but with time, and through the demand of the customers and pressure from brands, they will become experts. They will be more able to reduce the old sort of look and feel and make it appear newer.”

PCW is not the only sustainable option that struggles to gain customer acceptance for aesthetics reasons. Moving from conventional to more sustainable production methods does mean the end product may appear “different.” Sarp Jeans sales and marketing director, Uraz Batur, says there needs to be a change in attitudes and mindsets on the part of brands and consumers, especially considering the significant benefits of sustainable production on both the environment and people.

“The technology will do its job but slight differences should be acceptable, in shades for example. You can’t necessarily get the shades you could previously with the sustainable washes. The environmentally friendly chemicals are offering a nice bleaching look but you can’t get ice blue. It is a consideration that needs to be made in the design process. These are challenges that need to be considered.”

A second barrier to sustainability – and one familiar to all in the apparel industry – is cost.

The price problem

For a pair of jeans to truly be green, a significant financial investment is needed at every stage of production. Batur says for some customers, higher costs to achieve more sustainable standards is a given and they don’t question it. 

“For our main customers that are Scandinavian, sustainability has been an important consideration for a number of years, so they will push for more sustainable options. It is important for them. As a result, our sustainable production has risen from around 20% to more like 65% or 70%. That comes from the brands pushing the manufacturers to invest in it.”

But customers are not always willing to pay more for green. Pioneer Denim notes there has been a surge in demand from brands and retailers for manufacturers to offer more options that have been produced sustainably – but Huda says the “sad part” is they are not willing to pay anything extra for it.

“Fabric manufacturers can’t absorb all the hits from sustainability. Like everyone else, we are keen to give back to the environment and contribute to society. But at the end of the day it is business, so how much of a hit we can take is the question”

“Price is such a challenge. As a raw material producer, we get pressure to reduce price all the time. That is a big challenge. In Bangladesh, the wages are being raised every year, and in a labour-oriented industry it is very difficult to keep up with this [sustainability, without increasing costs]. As a fabric manufacturer its not always feasible financially – it is business at the end of the day. Fabric manufacturers can’t absorb all the hits from sustainability. Like everyone else, we are keen to give back to the environment and contribute to society. But at the end of the day it is business, so how much of a hit we can take is the question.

So who pays? Should it be the mills, the garment manufacturer or the buyer that invests in getting a fully-green pair of jeans to the end consumer? The answer, according to Zia, is everyone.

“By changing the conventional way of working, it needs a lot of investment, a lot of capital,” he asserts. “You are changing each and every thing. And with new technologies, initially, there is a decline in production. You can’t introduce something new and expect it to work at 100% efficiency immediately – this costs the manufacturer and is a really big investment for them.

“But if companies are ready to pay more, invest more, increase the volume of orders, it is more worthwhile for the manufacturer. They can then take the initiative to invest and change their whole process. But it’s not just one manufacturer and it’s not an overnight thing. Globally more than 4bn pairs of jeans are still being consumed annually; for that, you need changes to thousands of factories.”

Price – around sustainability or not – is always a bone of contention between the buyer and supplier. But generally, the findings among suppliers are the more transparent they are with the buyer about the product – such as what materials it has used, what sustainable production methods have been involved to make it – the easier that conversation becomes.

Having the cost chat

Gulsun Ocak, head of sales at Karachi-based denim mill Naveena, explains: “No one is over the moon about having to pay extras. No one is overjoyed when you talk about upcharges. But when you are open and honest about the upcharges or price changes, when you put it across in the right way and explain why they are there, it is not as much a problem. Their [buyers] reaction is sensible. They see how the 30 cents extra makes a difference in the product and that their customer will appreciate it too, and they’re OK to pay it because they understand it. It’s about having that dialogue with the customer and getting them to believe in the product.”

And then there is the role of the end-consumer, who may ultimately pay a higher price for the item. They too, need effective communication about sustainability in order to appreciate why a particular item commands a higher price point. And that responsibility comes down to brands and retailers.

Mohiuddin Ahmed, director of Pioneer’s parent company, Badsha, says it could be something as small as effective marketing that could drive a more sustainable industry.

“They [consumers] can then question if the item they are wearing is saving the environment or whether the situation is the same as it was ten years ago. If the end consumer is made aware of things like this, it would play a bigger role across the entire industry. The denim manufacturing mills are the bad guys but that shouldn’t be the case. We invest in machinery and the factories to be more sustainable. It’s therefore important the people that revolve around us raise awareness of [our efforts] to consumers, and help get sustainability in the industry to a point where it is even bigger than it is now. The more the world becomes conscious, the more sustainability will play a bigger part in our industry.”

Emily Edwins, founder and head designer at Zola Amour, an ethical apparel brand based out of Brighton in the UK, agrees – adding that when consumers are properly communicated to, they are empowered to make responsible decisions over their clothing consumption habits.

“People do often vote with their money and it is difficult to get people to understand why things cost a bit more if they are produced fairly and sustainably.

“Ultimately the prices have been so low for such a long time because people have been exploited and things just haven’t been done fairly. We’ve just gotten used to a price point that is not realistic”

“But ultimately the prices have been so low for such a long time because people have been exploited and things just haven’t been done fairly. We’ve just gotten used to a price point that is not realistic. The higher price points that are derived from the fact that the cotton is grown organically and ethically for a fair wage is what the price point should be. It’s not expensive really, in terms of the future, and price is a small trade-off over the destruction of the planet.”

Achieving a truly sustainable industry will only come from effective communication at all levels, she adds.

“There is a real requirement for brands to tell a story and be completely honest with the consumer and to get them to understand what happens behind the scenes, how things are done currently, and how they can be done differently. The more people that support that, the bigger the change will be.”