Nearly everyone on the airplane from Israel to Milan is wearing jeans.
Not a surprise. Over two billion pairs of jeans are sold worldwide every year, with the demand always rising. Jeans have come a long way since May 20, 1873 – 150 years ago when Levi Strauss, a German-born Jewish dry goods salesman, and Jacob Davis, a Riga-born Jewish tailor, obtained a US patent on the process of putting rivets in men’s work pants.
The sturdy material was imported from Nimes, France, which is why it is called denim (“from Nimes”). Jeans (still sometimes called Levis for their original brand) went from practical garb for miners and railway workers to counterculture de rigueur, and then into the mainstream. Royal princesses wear them, too.
Although you’ll see activists wearing jeans at environmental demonstrations, this fashion staple has earned a reputation for being an environmental villain. Start with growing cotton which consumes a lot of water and is often multi-sprayed for insect control. To aid in the weaving of the fabric, the yarn is usually coated with microplastics which ultimately end up in the wastewater. Most jeans are manufactured in Bangladesh and China using coal-fired power plants. The dye poisons rivers.
But stop: Even if you now feel guilty wearing jeans, don’t throw them out. The presence of metal pieces makes them hard to recycle, so they are dumped in landfills.
I’m thinking about jeans – and truth be told I’m wearing a jeans skirt and jacket manufactured in Israel – because I’m on the way to PureDenim, a company factory on the outskirts of the world’s fashion capital Milan, Italy. The sibling owners Luigi and Ilaria Caccia are determined to fix the environmental problems in producing jeans, and to accomplish this with the help of an Israeli company.
The Ramat Gan company Sonovia – the people who made the popular techy masks for the pandemic – wants to disrupt old-fashioned methods of dyeing.
Huge spools of cotton yarn and archives of material samples and manufacturing machines are housed in a spotless building 15 minutes from the Malpensa airport. It’s about the size of an Israeli high school. Luigi Caccia, 56, a slim, blue-eyed racket-ball playing manufacturer, is wearing dark denim jeans and an indigo-colored top. We sit at a design table in a room surrounded by jeans in every shade of blue and a few in off-white.
This is where high-end Italian buyers shop for quality materials that carry “Made in Italy” labels. Ilaria does the sample designs. On the table is a scanner that can trace the origin of every pair of jeans from fiber to retail. It’s the same technology used by police departments to detect fake passports (made of cotton – who knew?), but for the Caccias it reveals the biography of every fabric in the factory – and they are fussy.
Luigi and Ilaria’s father, Mario Caccia, was an accountant and bank officer from a rural farming family. Half a century ago, he bought a bankrupt jeans workshop for its real estate value. But when he met the soon-to-be unemployed workers, he changed his mind, and instead updated the old looms to produce denim in Italy.
Studies vs. Soul
LIKE HIS father, Luigi studied accounting, but his “soul is more technical,” he says. His passion is to make jeans manufacturing sustainable. “Such old-fashioned methods are being used and are doing untold damage to the environment,” he says. Of all the polluting problems, he’s most concerned with previously life-sustaining rivers going from fresh to saline because of the hydrosulfite that is used in the multiple washes of the fabric and then dumped into the rivers.
“Small farmers in West Africa – Benin, Togo, and Ivory Coast – used to be major producers of cotton, fed by rainfall,” he says, “But the big brands have moved to China and Bangladesh, and the chemicals used in the fabric’s dyeing and washing kill the rivers, turning fresh water saline.”
Caccia is already using Good Earth Cotton, which through crop rotation, sequesters more carbon than it emits. He has also replaced the plastic coating of the yarn with environmentally friendly pectin.
A friend told him about a Tel Aviv-based technology that could revolutionize the dyeing process. “It’s the Tesla of dyeing,” he says. Although he hasn’t been to Israel yet, he’s been cooperating with the Israelis for the last year.
Sonovia is an Israel story. According to Chief Technology Officer Liat Goldhammer, “Bar-Ilan University scientists working with ultrasound discovered its impact on textile, by chance, although Israel has very little textile-related production these days worldwide; only food production is greater than textile manufacturing. The company’s mission statement is to solve the massive pollution caused by outdated dyeing and finishing practices.”
It works by using sound waves to create high-energy cavities – bubbles that implode with high velocity and are embedded into the textile. In practice, it promises to vastly reduce the number of baths denim undergoes to turn blue without hydrosulfite. That will solve the chemical pollution problem and reduce water and energy waste.
How can we, the consumer, know if the jeans we want to buy are made by this process? “You can’t yet,” says Caccia, “unless a brand advertises this.”
One of Italy’s top international brands – he can’t yet say which – is lined up to be first to commit to embrace this process.
“Jeans should be forever,” philosophizes Caccia, whose newest catalog features a gray-haired woman on the cover – allowing, of course, for the change of girth that might require a different size. “The best jeans should never wear out. The jeans of the past actually accrue value,” he says, “so save your old jeans.”
I check – vintage jeans are sold for high prices on the Internet.
The average American is said to have seven pairs of jeans but to wear only four of them regularly. I couldn’t find statistics for Israel.
So what to do with those jeans in our closets that we may never fit into again?
The resale shops are glad to have them. I seek out the resale shops linked with goodwill and charity organizations.
And, like that old Yiddish folksong Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl (I Had an Overcoat), sometimes they can be repurposed, to use a modern word. My husband‘s current tool bag was made 65 years ago from a pair of his jeans.
How pleasing it is to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the invention of jeans by two Jewish immigrants to the US with an Israeli company teaming up with Italian world fashion-setters to save the world’s lakes and rivers.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.