The green denim

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Updated: April 19, 2015 1:40:08 AM

Did you know that the pair of jeans you are wearing was made using over 40 litres of water? But now the industry is seriously relooking its intensive water consumption, with efforts ranging from new machinery to ad campaigns

Denim, jeans, jeans manufacturing, jeans water consumption. Levis, Denim jeansLevi Strauss & Co, known worldwide for its Levi’s brand of denim jeans, for instance, began a marketing campaign in 2010 to encourage people to wash their jeans less often to save water.

WATER, WATER everywhere and not a drop to drink? That’s in part because every product we buy or use has an indirect water footprint that stems from its manufacturing, the harvesting of its raw materials or even the process of displaying it on a store shelf near you. In fact, as per the World Bank, textile dyeing and treatment alone are responsible for 17-20% of industrial water pollution in the world. An average pair of jeans, for example, uses around 42-45 litres of water just in the finishing process, as per industry figures.

But now, some denim manufacturers have begun to take note of this and are taking steps to correct it. Levi Strauss & Co, known worldwide for its Levi’s brand of denim jeans, for instance, began a marketing campaign in 2010 to encourage people to wash their jeans less often to save water. The company has also started working on ways to use less water in the manufacturing of its denims. “Sustainability is the start of any manufacturing process. It cannot be added mid-way. It requires a paradigm shift in thinking,” says Michael Kobori, vice-president, sustainability, Levi, adding, “The usual thinking in the apparel industry is what can we add to make our clothes look different. At Levi, we flipped that thinking on its head by asking what can we take out (from a sustainability point of view) and still get the same iconic look that is quintessentially Levi?”

The standard process of distressing jeans, which gives the denim a rugged look, involves washing them with pumice stones repeatedly, using roughly 45 litres of water per pair. Around five years ago, Kobori’s team experimented using no water at all, but with no success. “We learnt that if you put a lot of stones into a dry machine for one hour, you’ll end up with rags,” he says. So they brought back the water—but this time less than 10 litres. Eventually, by using ceramic stones and rubber balls in place of pumice stones, and changing the filtration system of the washing machines, their engineers came up with denims that, on an average, use only around 4 litres of water (which can go up to 9 litres for the complete manufacturing process) per pair to achieve the distressed look.

Their ‘Water<Less Jeans’—Levi produced 1.5 million pairs in 2010—produced using the water-saver, or air-wash, method, were introduced in the US in 2011 to great success. This year, Levi plans to send 29 million Water<Less Jeans to its stores globally. In India, the price for a pair of Levi’s Water<Less Jeans can range from R3,000 to R12,000. As per Kobori, their Water<Less Jeans have saved 360 million litres of water since they started manufacturing them around five years ago.

Closer home, Kewal Kiran Clothing, the manufacturer of Killer Jeans, claims it uses 80% less water than it was using earlier to manufacture each pair of its ‘water-saver’ denims. “There is growing awareness about eco-friendly products and consumers are supporting this cause.

Although we have been employing water-saving techniques since long, we have not overtly promoted them,” says Kewalchand P Jain, chairman and managing director, Kewal Kiran Clothing, adding, “The response to our water-saver denims has been very good not just in India, but also in countries where we export the product. With our water savings between 70-80%, it will help add to the global awareness towards the environment.”

Agrees Santhosh Jayaram, director, sustainability advisory, KPMG India, “India is among the high-risk nations when it comes to water and this poses a business continuity risk for water-intensive industries. Hence employing a water-saving technique isn’t just a responsible manner of manufacturing any more, it’s a necessity now. The industry is waking up to the risk related to water in India, but it has a long way to go still. An organisation should not only reduce its water footprint, but also engage in partnerships and collective action to address this issue.”

Haryana-based Numero Uno Clothing, a lifestyle brand offering casual wear, including denims, says it has been offering ‘water-saving’ jeans for quite some time now, but didn’t promote them much—till now. “Every garment from Numero Uno Jeanswear comes from nature-friendly surroundings and technology. We have adopted eco-friendly production systems and are actively involved in contributing to save the environment. We also employ G2 technology, wherein we bleach the garment without using bleaching agents. It’s a unique technology from Spain, one which uses just air and no chemicals or water. We also recycle the water we use—we have installed solar heaters and an effluent treatment plant to clean the waste water,” says Narinder Singh, managing director, Numero Uno Clothing.


Numero Uno Clothing’s ‘Air Wash’ denims, produced using the water-saver, or air-wash, method, will hit stores in September this year across India. “The technology that we use is expensive, but it involves less use of chemicals, water, energy and time per denim, and hence balances out the cost,” Singh adds. Numero Uno also recycles 100% of the water used in the washing process, which is then used for the purpose of gardening, watering, etc, at the manufacturing plant.

Traditionally, during the manufacturing process, denims go through a lot of human hands. It’s the wash that’s the most important aspect in its creation, say experts, as both the colour and shade of the garment depend on it. For washing, it first goes through a dry process wherein every jeans is manually scraped by hands or blasted by sand to get that worn-out look. It then goes for washing with chemicals, stones and water.

Typically, jeans are washed in large washing machines—dryers are later used to create a unique look and feel—and an average pair goes through 3-10 wash cycles.

The new finishing process being employed by these companies uses the same materials and techniques, but finds new ways to apply them. Changes include using dry (for example, ceramic) stones in place of wet (pumice) ones and reducing the number of wash cycles by combining multiple cycles into a single one. The end result is just as effective, but far more efficient.

For water’s sake
* G2 is a ‘waterless’ washing machine—it employs the G2 water-saver technology being used by many companies such as Numero Uno—that washes jeans with about 60% less water than standard levels and almost no chemicals

* Under G2, air from the atmosphere is transformed into a blend of active oxygen and ozone molecules called ‘Plasma’. This is used to wash and ‘age’ the garments. Plasma is transformed into purified air before being returned to the atmosphere

* The G2 machine has a capacity of 50 kg, that is, it can wash about 3,000 pair of jeans in a day

* As per a recent case study conducted in the US, G2 can save 67% energy and water, 55% of time and 85% chemicals

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