Our first batch of denim arrived today. It's been a long, arduous process to try to find the best denim supplier out there. Our standards for "best" are different than other companies. For us, best means that a supplier is committed to cleaning up the whole process of denim production, and ensuring that the textiles it produces, as well as the working environment it maintains is as safe and healthy as humanly possible. Best also means that the manufacturer makes a kick ass product. We were looking for a denim that would inspire us to create beautiful things. Denim should have strength woven into its fibers, and a richness in color and texture that is the hallmark of good denim.
For the first three months, we were talking back and forth with a Brazilian company who claimed to have produced completely natural, chemical-free denim. They claimed that their cotton came from 60 farming families in Brazil and Peru, and that their dyeing process used no chemical auxiliaries. And it was true, the smell of their material did carry the smell of ferment that we had experienced in our own organic indigo bath. Unfortunately, though they had Brazilian certification to prove the organic origin of their cotton, they could not provide any information about their dyeing process and the chemicals that went into the production. Further digging revealed that the company was not even manufacturing the denim in-house, but had been outsourcing it with a manufacturer that had since gone bankrupt. Another casualty in the world of sustainable fashion, and hopefully one that they will be able to bounce back from. For SOURCE, the lack of communication, transparency and information on material inputs was enough for us to start looking for other suppliers.
That search led us to India, and to Italy. A large denim manufacturer in India with strong ties with Europe and one notable client in the US seemed to be a good contender. The representative for the denim product lines was forthcoming on the phone, and spoke about the many eco-friendly denim offerings they had available. They produced denim using the Clariant Advanced Denim technology, said to cut 92% water, 30% energy, and 87% cotton waste through its Pad/Sizing Ox Process. The company also produced denim with plant-based indigo, though the chemical auxiliaries and caustic agents were the same as conventional denim. They could produce textiles with both BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) or organic cotton, though he was quick to point out that organic cotton often consumed more water. He also mentioned the company was underwent self-evaluation based on the Higg Index, a tool used to help companies evaluate the environmental impact level of their supply chain. They were fast and efficient with their communication as well as delivery of samples. Their work in improving their denim value chain was admirable, though the eco-friendly element of their denim seemed to be just another one of their many product offerings.
At the same time, we were also talking to the head of a small premium denim manufacturer based in Milan, Italy. Self described as a company "focused our production on Real Sustainable Denim with particular attention towards avoiding the utilization of chemicals and reducing water consumption", they are the first and only (as of writing) denim manufacturer to have signed on to the Detox campaign led by Greenpeace. An earnest exchange proceeded between us, as the head of the company excitedly shared his company's process and innovations on sustainable denim manufacturing. The cotton they use comes from the USA, Greece, and West Africa, with 20% of it categorized as BCI cotton.
Their dyeing process uses DyStar pre-reduced liquid indigo. We expressed some hesitation at the dye being a synthetic colorant, but he came back immediately and told us that this was the most sustainable way to dye denim, as plant-based indigo required a lot of water and chemicals to force the reduction and fix the dye to the fabric, and could not achieve the depth of color that was expected of modern denim. Using the DyStar pre-reduced indigo, it not only cut down on the transport necessary, but also required 60% less hydrosulfite and caustic soda as compared with normal synthetic or plant-based dyes.
The most exciting thing about this denim was its use of chitosan in the weaving process. Developed by an Italian research firm, chitosan, a completely natural, non-toxic and biodegradable material derived from the discarded waste of fishing companies, is incorporated into the weaving process of the cotton yarns. The coating of chitosan eliminated the use of harmful PVA (similar to latex), which in typical denim production is used for "sizing" to stiffen the yarns for weaving and then has to be washed from the yarns using harsh chemicals and creating harmful water pollution. Because fabric no longer needs to be washed and dried after weaving, it eliminates a significant portion of water use and energy consumption for every meter of fabric. Because chitosan naturally coats and protects the dye on the yarns, there is no need for toxic fixing agents or mercerization with caustic soda and acetic acid, and again, less water and energy consumption. In total, the use of chitosan in the weaving results in 50-80% less water and 40-60% less energy consumed to produce each meter of material. "These are only a few points that we can discuss," the head of the company told me knowingly, "the rest are industrial secrets."
All of these initiatives have allowed the denim supplier to be closer to reaching 100% of the targeted Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals commitment, even earlier than 2020. Not only that, but the company has invested 2.5 million euros in a cogeneration plant and has proclaimed a reduction of their carbon emissions by 6,500,500 kg since the start of their environmental campaign.
The enthusiasm and genuine earnestness this company had for revolutionizing the denim production process for the betterment of the world won us over. Though on paper, both the Indian and the Italian supplier produced denim that had some environmental improvements (especially in water and energy) and some environmental drawbacks (synthetics), the latter seemed to have the most heart. So we placed our first denim order with them.
And within days, we were overjoyed that we did. Bolts of wrapped denim arrived on our doorstep, and we laid it out on the table with breathless anticipation. Peeling away the tape, the denim was slowly revealed. The rich dark blue with the slightest hint of slub was mesmerizing, and running our hands across it it was hard and strong, yet smooth. At 11.5 ounces, it was beautiful.