Making Jeans Is Bad for the Planet, This Factory Could Change That

Original Source: Bloomberg

A river of toxic blue sludge flows through a factory 18 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City, one of 165 plants inside a massive industrial park that makes everything from shoes to food and electronics. The ooze swirls into a hazy mixture as it wends its way through giant vats and filters. Nearby, Sanjeev Bahl puts an empty glass up to a spigot, where the now cloudy, colorless liquid trickles out. He lifts it to his lips and gulps it down. 

“It’s great stuff,” he says. “It’s cleaner than World Health Organization water standards.” 

The 55-year-old chief executive of Saitex International was there on one of his regular visits, a very long flight from his home in New York. Dressed in a blue denim shirt and white jeans, Bahl explains that his jeans-making operation recycles 98 percent of the water it uses. But that’s just one aspect of what he considers a tectonic shift for an industry that dumps waste all over the globe.

Saitex invested $2 million in the water system alone to prove it’s not only possible to make environmentally safe blue jeans, but you can turn a profit doing it. And it’s not just recycling: His solar-powered plant doesn’t use fossil fuels, relying instead on biomass generators that burn wood shavings and coconut husks. Eco-friendly washing machines bleach fabric with minimal water. In sum, Saitex uses less than a liter to make a pair of jeans where traditional processes require 80 times that much. The factory even received LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the only jean-maker in Vietnam to earn it, Bahl says.

Sanjeev Bahl's goal for Saitex was to make clothing that makes money without poisoning the environment. That meant recycling lots of water.

Saitex (named for the guru Shirdi Sai Baba) isn’t some new startup—its products bear the tags of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. What Bahl wants now is to spread the news about a manufacturing strategy he hopes all textile makers will adopt.

“This is what we want to deploy in the U.S.,” he says as he walks among some of his 4,500 employees during a November check-in. They rush around him, crisscrossing a spotless factory floor illuminated in part by natural light from transparent panels in the roof.

And the bottom line for all this high-mindedness? Saitex’s green strategy is in the black. The company saves $1.7 million each year compared with similar-size competitors, Bahl says. “It would be quite easy for other entrepreneurs to follow this methodology,” he says, “if they understand that this is profitable.”

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