Using organic cotton, while quick and easy, does relatively little to change these types of numbers. Suppliers are now responding with the types of products that could carry a larger impact, but progress is slow. 

“Everyone is trying to uncover ways to save money and energy,” said Andrew Olah, chief executive officer of Olah Inc., a U.S. agent for foreign contract manufacturers and textile and hardware vendors targeting denim designers. “The chemical companies who supply dyestuff are making it more and more irresistible. Change is happening, step by step, mill by mill.” 

Spanish denim research and development company Jeanologia has launched two products aimed at significantly reducing energy and water usage. Its most recent product, an industrial washing machine dubbed the G2, was introduced in April after two years of development. Rather than relying on the traditional combination of water and chemicals to create various shades of denim, the G2 uses a process that relies on air. In addition to eliminating the use of water and chemicals, the G2 rids the finishing process of toxic emissions and dumping, and reduces overall energy usage. The company also estimated that the G2 cuts production time, energy consumption and cost per garment by more than 50 percent. 

With the introduction of the G2, Jeanologia also offered its own assessment of the impact of the denim industry. The company estimated that 158.5 billion gallons of water and 1.3 million tons of chemicals are used each year in the denim finishing process. Were the entire industry to adopt the G2 process for denim and other garments, Jeanologia believes the amount of water saved would supply Spain with enough drinking water for eight months. 

In 2001, Jeanologia introduced a textile laser to achieve distressed and vintage looks. Technologies have advanced to such a degree that the system now can scan a vintage pair of jeans and reproduce the exact look, down to the holes and abrasions, in less than a minute. The system eliminates the time and hand labor traditionally needed to achieve these looks in the factory, but more important, can eliminate the use of chemical abrasives.

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