It takes 7,600 litres of water to make your jeans

Rina Mukherji | Updated on February 21, 2020

Green is the new blue: Instead of harmful chemicals, laser technology is used for whiskers and other designs

But manufacturers are now trying to reduce their carbon footprint with eco-friendly denim

Looking for a pair of jeans? Slim-fit, low-waist or baggy? Choose what you like, but make sure that it’s not taking a heavy toll on the environment. According to researchers, a pair of jeans requires 7,600 litres of water to make it through production line. Not surprisingly, across the world, ecologists are looking at jeans — once a symbol of rebellion, and always a youth must-have — with considerable concern.

The water-intensive manufacturing process is especially worrying at a time when the world is running short of freshwater, thanks to climate change. India currently faces a 52 per cent average decline in groundwater levels across all states, as a recent Central Groundwater Board survey shows.

But here’s the good news: Jeans manufacturers in recent times have been vying with each other to reduce their carbon footprint through fundamental changes in production.

The old process demands multiple washes and the heavy use of chemicals. Once carded and spun into cotton thread, the resulting yarn is dyed with indigo. It is then coated with starch to make it stiffer, before it is woven with white yarn. This cloth is called denim.

To give a pair of jeans a worn-out or faded effect, the garment is bleached and washed. Acids and chemicals are used to lighten the colour. Pumice stones are rubbed on the fabric. The chemicals, acids and the fine stones have to be thoroughly and repeatedly washed off before the jeans are ready to use.

Now leading international and Indian brands are bringing down their electricity and water consumption, besides halting the use of chemicals. “For us, being ethical is a form of sustainability,” says Karishma Shahani-Khan, a pioneer of eco-fashion who has been experimenting with denim for both western and Indian silhouettes since 2011. For her Ka-Sha Creations, her team has been upcycling denim fabric — that is, using old material creatively.

She sources the used denim fabric from second-hand markets or from customers, and refrains from using coloured and bleached denim fabric. Instead of colouring it with indigo using chemical baths in huge water drums, she uses natural dyes and smaller vats.

Kontoor Brands, the US-based manufacturer of Wrangler jeans, has come up with its Indigood Icons collection made of 28 per cent recycled cotton yarn — that is, yarn spun out of the denim waste left over during jeans manufacturing, as it explains on its website. The yarn is foam dyed, wherein the dye is transferred to the fabric using air instead of water. This additionally cuts electricity use and waste by 60 per cent.

Green Indigo: Cotton is recycled from used jeans to reduce the environmental cost of production   -  IMAGES: RINA MUKHERJI


Another means to reduce water use is the e-flow technology, where nanobubbles (really tiny bubbles) and ozone are used to soften the material. Yet another eco-friendly step is the use of lasers to add streaks and fading lines to the denim fabric, instead of harmful bleaches.

A range of jeans launched in 2011 by Levi Strauss — the maker of the iconic Levi’s — uses 80 per cent less water in the finishing process. It established a Restricted Substances List (RSL) in 2000, forbidding the use of harmful chemicals and enforcing stringent standards for the wastewater leaving its supplier factories. It uses ozone processing instead of multiple washes, and lasers instead of stonewashing, cutting water use at the finishing stages by 96 per cent in some of the latest products, says Levi’s managing director (South Asia and MENA) Sanjeev Mohanty.

It is also reducing water use at the sourcing stage. “We conducted a lifecycle assessment on a pair of our jeans, in 2007 and then in 2015, and found that the maximum water was used at the cotton-growing stages and during consumer care [through repeat washes], that is 68 per cent and 23 per cent,” says Mohanty.

Levi’s then embarked on educating farmers on judicious use of water. It currently sources 67 per cent of its cotton from farms connected with Better Cotton Initiative, a global not-for-profit organisation working to make cotton production more beneficial for farmers as well as the environment. The company also explained to consumers how fewer washes not only save water but also result in better care for the fabric.

Local brands in India have been dealing with ecological concerns, too. Killer Jeans, manufactured by Mumbai-based Kewal Kiran Clothing, has been easing out chemicals since 2012. “We have been buying foam-dyed fabric for our jeans from our suppliers, Arvind Mills,” says chief manager – merchandising Vijay Panjwani. They use organic enzymes for bleaching, instead of chlorine and other chemicals such as potassium permanganate. Laser technology is used to give the worn-out look, rather than chemicals, sandblasting or pumice stones.

“Doing away with pumice stones has particularly helped us limit the use of water, since copious amounts of water were needed to wash the stones off the fabric,” Panjwani says. Killer Jeans has also opted for e-flow technology, with which a pair of jeans needs just a single wash, cutting water consumption to one-tenth of the earlier requirement.

Numero Uno of the Gurugram-based Numero Uno Clothing says it has cut electricity and water consumption by 60 per cent and chemicals by 90 per cent through the use of ozone technology for fading effects, laser technology for streaks and e-flow technology for softening the material.

Additionally, it is using eco-friendly cold dyeing for its fabric and a zero-effluent discharge technology to clean the water used in its facilities, says Numero Uno chief product officer Manjula Gandhi. Since 2018, it has been selling jeans manufactured using just one glass of water per pair, she says.

While greener manufacturing has entailed the use of more expensive machinery and bio-enzymes, there has been no increase in the retail prices of the end-products, thanks perhaps to the savings on water and labour costs in the long term.

Make peace, not war, said the proud jeans-clad rebels in the Seventies. Make peace with nature, says the current lot.

Rina Mukherji is a Pune-based journalist

Published on February 20, 2020

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