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How the denim industry is keeping itself green

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With the global denim segment projected to hit $95 billion by 2030, it poses a dual threat to both society and nature. Here are ways to render the industry more greener…

Bengaluru: The denim industry stands as a cornerstone of fashion. Every year, more than 260 million pairs of denim products are produced and sold worldwide, according to a study from the 11th Global Conference on Global Warming, held in 2023.

The global denim jeans market is projected to reach approximately $95 billion by 2030, up from $64 billion in 2022, as per the data analytics platform Statista.  According to  Textile Insights India – commanding an 11% market share – is the third-largest exporter of denim fabric worldwide, just behind China and Pakistan.

Beneath its stylish exterior lies a complex web of sustainability challenges that demand attention. With escalating production volumes, the risks to both society and nature are mounting increasingly bringing denim makers under scrutiny by global sustainability organisations. From water-intensive production processes to chemical usage and labour practices, the industry grapples with issues that threaten both the environment and social equity.

Denim v/s Sustainability

A report by Levi Strauss & Co. highlighted that 3,781 litres of water are consumed in the production of a single pair of Levi’s 501 jeans. This figure includes the water demands for growing cotton, known for its high thirst, as well as the water necessary for fabric processing such as dyeing and washing stages.

The global production of cotton is estimated to consume a staggering 222 billion cubic metres of water annually. In India, the production of one kilogram of cotton – one of the main raw materials in denims, demands an average of 22,500 litres of water, according to research done by the Water Footprint Network.

It’s alarming that garment manufacturing contributes to approximately 20% of industrial water pollution, with 85% attributed to the dyeing processes alone, amounting to an annual consumption of 1.3 trillion gallons, according to Cotton, Inc. Harmful chemicals, including pesticides, fertilisers and finishing agents further exacerbates the issue.

Intensive energy consumption, particularly during spinning, weaving and fabric finishing stages, poses another threat. The reliance on fossil fuels for much of this energy contributes to both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Carbon emissions produced during manufacturing jeans are comparable to flying a plane around the globe 2,372 times or a petrol car travelling more than 21 billion miles, says Oxfam, a British-founded non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Textile waste, including denim, makes up almost 5% of all landfill space, as reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additionally, studies reveal that the annual amount of waste jeans generated is estimated to be 2.16 million tons.

What brands are doing to alleviate the situation?

Denim makers have recognised the demand for ethical and ecological products driven by heightened consumer awareness. Brands have moved beyond mere declarations of intent and have adopted practices such as circular design, eco-friendly dyeing, solar water heaters, and use of sustainable raw materials.

“Implementing water-saving techniques such as zero discharge finishing and Ozone treatments reduces water consumption during the denim manufacturing process. Additionally, energy-efficient machinery and renewable energy sources help minimise carbon footprint,” said Dhruv Toshniwal, founder of The Pant Project, a D2C brand specialising in custom-made bottom wear for men.

The upcycled denim products market size was $392.5 million in 2021 globally and is estimated to reach $838.6 million by 2031, as per a report by the market research store Research and Markets.

Brands are indeed making strides to reduce the impact. For example, Levi Strauss came up with a laser dyeing method, which is targeted to reduce water consumption in dyeing by 71% while Wrangler’s Dry Indigo denim eliminates 99% of the water used to dye denim.

“When considering the garment sector’s significant contribution to landfill waste, denim stands out as one of the least contributing segments due to its longevity,” said Sanjay Vakharia, chief executive officer of Spykar Lifestyles, a Mumbai-based youth fashion denim brand.

“In my opinion, denim can be considered as part of the ‘slow fashion’ movement rather than fast fashion, given its enduring nature and lower disposal rate. It has been leading the charge in sustainability efforts, implementing eco-friendly practices at every stage of manufacturing,” added Vakharia.

As suggested by a report by Maersk, about 50% of denim worldwide is produced in Asia, specifically China, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Hence, it is imperative for Asian brands to intensify their efforts towards environmental and social responsibility, as the repercussions of inaction ultimately fall upon them.

“Despite the efforts, challenges remain in terms of cost, infrastructure, and consumer awareness. The industry needs continued investment in research and development to achieve wider adoption of sustainable practices,” shared Pramod Hebbar, vice president – design and product at Bengaluru-based retail tech platform Ace Turtle

“Educating consumers about sustainable denim options and encouraging responsible consumption are crucial for long-term success,” he added.

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