How the Denim Industry Is Tackling Water Waste

December 28 2020
How the Denim Industry Is Tackling Water Waste
When it comes to producing jeans, the denim industry is renowned for its environmental impact due to the washes, dyes, and chemicals used and the overall water consumption needed to make just one pair of jeans.
Samuel Trotman December 28 2020

When it comes to producing jeans, the denim industry is renowned for its environmental impact due to the washes, dyes and chemicals used and the overall water consumption needed to make just one pair of jeans. According to research company Fluencecorp, the largest portion of the denim sector’s worldwide water use is for cotton cultivation and wet textile processes like bleaching, dyeing, printing, and finishing, and global production of cotton is estimated to use 222 billion m³/y of water. It is also estimated that 20% of industrial water pollution is associated with garment manufacturing, and 85% of that is associated with an annual 1.3 trillion gallons for dyeing processes. As one of the most pressing issues, the industry has been taking serious efforts to reduce its footprint through more efficient manufacturing processes and techniques throughout the supply chain that reduce water consumption. Back in 2011, Levi’s began to tackle the issue of water waste and highlighted the denim industry's dirty secret when it released its ‘Life Cycle of a Jean’, which detailed how 3,781 litres of water are used during the production and use phase of one pair of 501® jeans. This includes growing cotton, processing the denim and washing at home. Since then, brands and producers have begun to improve technology and inform consumers about how to think about how they care for their denim. From Everlane’s use of clean-energy factories which reuses 98% of water, to Levis roll out of FLX laser finishing, which is touted to reduce water consumption by 71%, and Wrangler’s new Dry Indigo® denim, which uses a foam process to eliminate 99% of the water used to dye denim, there is certainly a brighter vision for the future of denim on the horizon. While these advances are laudable, most water used for jeans is for cotton irrigation, something which is often considered “virtual water” because it is often overlooked in water footprint calculations. Global textile production requires an estimated 44 trillion litres of water yearly for irrigation, about 3% of all irrigation, 95% of which is for growing cotton. Cotton irrigation makes up 92% of the water footprint of a pair of jeans. Levi’s Better Cotton Initiative is one project that has been tackling this granular level of water consumption. Since 2001, the brand has been training farmers to be more water efficient since, and its “Water < Less” processes have reused upwards of 2 billion litres of water and have included the use of 15% recycled cotton or more in Levi’s jeans. For S/S 20, the brand also introduced its cottonised hemp product, a collection that was hailed as a major leap forward not only for the brand but for the industry as a whole. Hemp crops require significantly less water to cultivate than cotton, with less than half the carbon footprint. However, the drawback with hemp to date has been that it’s a rough fibre, closer to linen than cotton. To solve this, Levi’s Wellthread™ collection has partnered with fibre technology specialists to develop a process to “cottonise” hemp, a method that softens the fibre—using very little energy or chemical processing—to make it look, and more importantly feel, almost indistinguishable from cotton. “We know hemp is good for the environment, but it has always felt coarse,” says Paul Dillinger, VP of Product Innovation at Levi’s. “This is the first time we’ve been able to offer consumers a cottonised hemp product that feels just as good, if not better, than cotton.” This year, Wrangler announced that it had saved more than 7bn litres of water in the production of its jeans. The achievement is equivalent to the daily drinking water needs of around 4bn people, according to Kontoor. The savings surpasses the denim brand’s 2020 global year-end goal to save 5.5 billion liters and as a result, Wrangler plans to announce a new, more ambitious water conservation goal later this year. “From the cotton field to the finishing process, water is essential to creating your favorite pair of Wrangler jeans, and it’s also essential to local communities and future generations,” said Tom Waldron, EVP, global brand president - Wrangler. “We’re incredibly proud of reducing our ecological footprint through water efficiency and recycling, and are committed to continued conservation throughout our supply chain, while also prioritizing product innovation that finds new ways to use water responsibly and return it back clean to the communities who depend on it.” Wrangler manufacturing achieved the water savings by increasing both water efficiency and water recycling in the denim finishing process since 2008. The brand’s manufacturing facility in Torreon, Mexico regularly recycles up to 85 percent of the water through sequential batch reactors, micro-filtration and reverse osmosis. At the brand’s other manufacturing campuses, efficiencies such as merging or removing finishing steps and enhanced enzyme technologies were able to reduce water use without compromising quality. It's not just brands that are making actionable change. Further down the supply chain, fabric mill Calik has been taking an equally holistic approach to its denim production with the introduction of its new “From Seed to Product” initiative. The new transparent framework traces the mill's denim journey across 3 stages: from seed to cotton, front cotton to fabric and from fabric to product. Together with business partner Calik Cotton, the new platform has allowed the mill to develop a number of innovations that are aimed at reducing water consumption and waste. One of the biggest announcements this year was the launch of its Dyepro Technology, Calik’s new dyeing method, which saves 100% water with no chemical waste during the dyeing process. This means no water is used and no wastewater is generated during the dyeing stage. In terms of fabrics, Calik has developed new characteristics which not only improve efficiency within the production process but also improve daily use and care for consumers. Functionage, is a new collection of comfortable articles that feature special technologies like ViralOff® Polygiene Technology, an antimicrobial treatment which promises long lasting freshness in order to reduce the consumers environmental footprint. With Washpro technology of Functionage; Calik promises end-users will need less number of washes for their denim garment’s life cycle and in turn extend product life. Home laundry is documented as one of the most water and energy intensive stages, and Calik have created Washpro with the aim to provide significant saving of resources. Another major factor Calik considered when developing the fabric was helping to reduce microfiber pollution in the oceans since the fabric requires less home laundry. Calik promises the freshness feature offered by Washpro is long-lasting even after industrial laundry treatments. When it comes to water saving during the wash and finish stage, Italian technology provider Jeanologia, has been instrumental. Jeanologia’s dedication to sustainable methods dates back to 1994 when the company first got its start. Since then, its energy- and water-saving technologies are responsible for more than 25 percent of the 5 billion jeans produced worldwide every year. For World Water Day this year, the company used the occasion to highlight its MissionZero, an initiative to dehydrate and detoxify the jeans industry by 2025. Using laser and eco technologies, Jeanologia is able to reduce water and energy consumption while eliminating contaminated waste and harmful emissions, resulting in zero pollution. In 2019 alone, the company said it saved more than 13 million cubic meters of water, which is the amount needed for the annual human consumption of 712,600 people. Outside of laser technologies, brands have been exploring new finishing techniques like faux stone made from clay or polymers, e-flow and nano enzyme bubble technology. E-Flow and nano enzyme bubble technology are a form of ozone technology, which harnesses the natural bleaching capabilities of ozone gas to give a range of overall bleach effects with substantially reduced environmental impact. Fabric performance has been one of the biggest challenges for brands adopting these new technologies at a commercial level, in particular achieving a look and feel that matches the character of the original that consumers have become accustomed to. Wash targets can dramatically fluctuate depending on yarn and fabric structure, with results often coming out more flat. Currently the industry is working towards a more cohesive set of processes that allow certain yarns and technologies to work in harmony so that authentic characteristics can be achieved.

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