Denim manufacturing doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to creating excessive levels of waste, but an innovative process spearheaded by the US jeans brand Wrangler may change that.
The company has partnered with Texas Tech University (TTU) and the Valencia-based fabric mill Tejidos Royo to create a foam-dyed, water-free process, eliminating the waste generated from the traditional dyeing processes.
To put this in perspective, the usual way to dye denim that traditional James Dean blue uses a repetitive dip-and-dry method to transfer indigo on to yarn. Multiple vats of water – up to 12, each containing thousands of litres of water – are used and then discarded. By the time they reach a shop, one pair of jeans can have used gallons of water.
Under the new process, Indigood, foam that is created from a chemical-free soap agent will transfer indigo dye on to yarns in an oxygen-deprived environment sealed by a nitrogen hood.
Roian Atwood, the senior director of global sustainable business at the parent company Kontoor Brands, describes it as “an elegant one-process step” that “removes 100% of water from the dye process” as well as reducing energy and waste by 60% each. The technology has been in development for a decade, but achieving the depth of colour for indigo denim has only been achieved in the past three years.
“We want this to be adopted by as many brands as possible because it transforms our industry,” says Atwood. While water is still required to grow the cotton yarn in the first place, the brand says it has partnered with several organisations – including the Soil Health Institute and Cotton Connect – to help farmers adopt best practices. The pieces in its first collection using the technology are made from up to 30% recycled cotton. It is a case, says Atwood, of not waiting to be 100%, but to take small steps.
“Sustainability is a journey to making improvement – you can have a small initiative that is seen as a key priority,” he says.
While initially used for the brand’s autumn/winter 2019 Icons collection, priced between £80 and £130, the technology will be rolled out across the brand’s cheaper ranges so that “sustainable products aren’t a choice between basic needs and doing the right thing”, says Atwood. There are also plans for Lee Jeans, also owned by Kontoor, to release Indigood collections later this year
The announcement comes as the fashion industry is having a major reassessment of processes throughout the often complex supply chain after intense scrutiny of past exploitation and polluting practices. Atwood says that Wrangler conforms to the “buy less, buy better” school of thought. “We will have to clothe ourselves, but at the same time be mindful of how we do that,” he says.
“The fashion industry must do far more to reduce its huge environmental impact – which includes vast water usage and chemical and micro-plastic pollution,” says Emma Priestland, a Friends of the Earth campaigner. “Innovation and new technology have an important role to play – and it’s encouraging to see a number of firms looking for ways to reduce their eco-footprint, but we also need government intervention to ensure that the whole industry reduces its impact on the environment. We can all play our part too by rejecting the fast-fashion, throwaway culture and the damage, pollution and waste it causes.”
Atwood says that “durability is by far the No 1 sustainable tenet” when it comes to being a retailer. “If you have a jean jacket for 30 years, that’s a real testament to its construction. If something blows out in eight months, it increases the need for continuous consumption. At the same time we have to mitigate the very real impacts happening up and down the supply chain.”
This has to be done “at an urgent rate in order to meet the global imperative – from climate crisis to lack of biodiversity and good workplace standards to the international manufacturing community”, says Atwood. “There is a way in this resource revolution to make products with far fewer impacts; that is what [Indigood] represents. To take the water footprint in dyeing and take it down to zero is the type of technology upheaval we need.”