Alberto Candiani on the Future of Sustainable Denim

While Italy may perhaps be well-known globally for its family-run companies, especially the ones whose focus lies on craftsmanship and Made-In-Italy, it isn't mainly known for its innovations in sustainability. And, in a day and age where the discussion on this particular theme is becoming more and more urgent, Candiani, the denim mill hailing back to 1938, has, over time, stood out due to its devotion to clean and green production. Today, Candiani is known as 'the greenest textile company in the blue world' and produces for the most prestigious names in the market. In an exclusive interview with Nowfashion, Alberto Candiani, the company's Global Manager, weighs in on sustainability, innovations in denim manufacturing and the future of production post-COVID-19.

Have you always worked at Candiani? Can you tell us about your background?

Well, I had no choice, really. Candiani is my family's company, started by my great grandfather so, from the day I was born, I was exposed to the World of Denim production. I practically spent most of my childhood using the family mill as a playground. Of course, I did have a bit of a rebellious streak in my teenage years, but I was quick to realize that being a DJ and producing music while fun, was not my destiny. I quickly began to develop an interest in product development and fabric engineering, which I consider to be one of the best parts of my job.

 

Why are you based between Italy and LA?

I spend the majority of my time in Italy, of course, that's where our primary operations are, but I do consider LA to be my second home. Not only is it my wife's hometown, but it's essential for Candiani to have a base in LA because over 30% of our business is there, and it grants us access to the entire US, which is our biggest market.

In 2016 we opened a Design Center in downtown LA to assist our American clients, often in the form of workshops. This space also supports our R&D and sales.

When did you start producing sustainably?

We've been producing this way from the very beginning. You have to understand that Candiani is located in a nature reserve about 50km from Milan (called Parco Del Ticino). This particular geo-localization fostered Candiani's desire to adapt to higher standards because of the local environmental regulations.

These regulations challenge us to become a cleaner facility every decade. We must continue to invest in new technologies and smarter materials to stay efficient, competitive, and in compliance with the stringent regulations imposed by the authorities. We are the only massive textile operation in the World that is located inside a nature reserve. The better question for us is actually, "when did you start communicating sustainably?" and that was about ten years ago when sustainability became a marketing tool.

 

Do you think the word sustainability is losing its credibility nowadays, as social and environmental exploitation are often rewarded economically?

Unfortunately, yes, and that is just because of the crazy greenwashing that's taking place amongst the fashion industry. Too many brands are "spray-painting" their facades in green just to look good, and their marketing activities are not genuine. Because of this, the consumer gets confused, loses its interest in sustainability, and eventually become sceptical - and I don't blame them.

We need more clarity and transparency to identify the real and tangible sustainable innovations from "fake" ones. 

I know this is going to take time. Fortunately, traceability and a growing interest in transparency will motivate reliable solutions sometime soon. 

What innovations will the denim industry have to engage with to reduce the use of chemical products and waste?

There are many new technologies available to reduce and optimize the consumption of water and chemicals.

Ultimately, it's about efficiency, which we consider to be the real ancestor of "sustainability." Why should we want to waste essential resources like water? And why would we contaminate it with nasty chemicals when smarter ingredients are available? For instance, at Candiani we obtained the license to use a specific technology called Kitotex® which applies Chitosan, a natural biopolymer, on our yarns instead of PVA, a liquid plastic that eventually gets discharged and creates micro-plastics. We have drastically reduced the salinity caused by sulfites with our Nitrogen dyes so that our sludge can be used as a bio-fertilizer and we are now looking at massive water savings from the washing baths required to stabilize the dyestuff.

 

What brands have you worked with that have used Candiani denim stock?

We have over 250 customers. We have been historical suppliers of Levi's and Lee, today things have changed, but we still work with those big guys. The LA premium industry has become our number one market with brands like 7 For All Mankind, Citizens Of Humanity, Hudson, J Brand amongst the others. I can also mention Scandinavian brands such as Nudie and Acne or our long time German customers, including Hugo Boss and Cambio.

We have also rewarded a small selection of our super-customers, who share our values of Made in Italy, Sustainability, and Innovation, with our Golden Rivet. These brands include Closed, Denham, Circle Of Friends, Benzak, Hiut, and other bespoke brands that are loyal to us. They deserve all of our innovation and service, despite the size of the business itself.

 

 What innovations are you currently working on? 

The big deal now is COREVA, our latest patented technology based on bio-degradable stretch Denim. We replaced synthetic elastomers with "smart" natural rubber yarns that won't interfere with the capability of the garment to bio-degrade in mature compost. COREVA is the perfect example of how we can achieve a positive impact and full circularity with stretch denim. You could even use the same fertilizer to bio-fertilizer the field from where we source our cotton! This technology that we have personally developed is a real game-changer, or maybe we should say "a loop closer" for an industry that has overproduction and abundance of waste as two of its most significant problems.

 

What is your goal in the long run? 

The long-run goal is a positive impact and full circularity. COREVA is probably the most relevant example, but there are many other details to consider starting with water savings and intermediate wastage. We are now accomplishing things that were deemed to be impossible only five years ago. I expect that in the next five years, we will have a Denim 2.0, which completely changes the rules and demolishes the negative reputation of the Denim 1.0 version.

 

How do you think this crisis will affect you and the industry in general? Do you think sustainable production will increase?

This pandemic has forced the industrial World to slow down and reduce its production. As I said earlier, the most prominent issues the fashion industry is facing are a mix of landfill overflow, water waste, contamination, and industrial pollution.

We can talk about recycling and regenerating forever. Still, we also need to reduce the number of garments produced and aim for a "less is more" mentality, where less also means better; better quality, durability, longevity, and circularity. I am not against the capitalistic concepts of "welfare and growth," but if we can create welfare and growth by producing less and better while staying competitive, then we can turn this challenge into great success for our industry, companies, brands, and the environment too.

I keep thinking of the satellite pictures showing how beneficial this lockdown has been. There are fewer emissions, less pollution, more consciousness, and awareness of the need for better products with a much lower impact on our gorgeous Planet.

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