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Denim production in Pakistan: Environmental Impacts, Strategies, and Future Directions

Denim is one of the most popular and ubiquitous fabrics globally, and the fashion industry heavily relies on it. However, the production of denim has a significant environmental impact, from water usage to chemical pollution. Therefore, the need for sustainable denim production has become more pressing as the world moves towards more sustainable practices.

In the last Premier Vision Denim fair in Milan we met many Pakistani realities selling denim. This article aims to explore the challenges faced by Pakistan in achieving sustainable denim production and the strategies employed to overcome them.

Denim in Pakistan: A Blue Gold Rush

Pakistan is the third largest preferred cotton-producing countries* in 2019/2020, after Brazil and India. The country is considered as a significantly large producer and exporter of denim, with a long history of textile manufacturing, and is home to several denim mills and factories which produce denim fabrics, garments, and accessories for domestic and international markets.

The denim industry in Pakistan has grown significantly in recent years, thanks to the country’s large labor force, competitive prices, and favorable trade agreements with major markets like the United States and the European Union.

*defined by the list of recognized standards. Includes: ABRAPA, BASF e3, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cleaner Cotton, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Fairtrade, Fairtrade Organic, Field to Market, In-Conversion Cotton (Transitional in USA), ISCC, myBMP, Organic, REEL Cotton, Regenerative Cotton, and the USCTP.

Environmental Impact of Denim Production 

Denim production significantly contributes to Pakistan’s economy but has adverse environmental impacts. Which are five environmental impacts of denim production in Pakistan?

  • Water pollution
    A major environmental impacts of denim production is water pollution. During denim production, large amounts of chemicals are used to dye and treat the fabric. These chemicals can contaminate the water used in production, leading to pollution of nearby water sources such as rivers and streams. The polluted water can harm aquatic life and people’s health relying on these water sources for drinking and irrigation.
  • Energy consumption
    The production of denim requires a considerable amount of energy. The energy is used to power the various machines used in production, including spinning, weaving, and dyeing machines. This energy consumption increases greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change.
  • Land use
    Denim production requires large land for cotton cultivation. Using agricultural land for cotton cultivation can lead to deforestation, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss.
  • Waste generation
    The denim production process generates a significant amount of waste, including leftover cotton fibers, yarns, and chemicals. These wastes can end up in landfills or be disposed of improperly, leading to further environmental degradation.
  • Human health
    The use of chemicals in denim production can have adverse effects on the health of workers and nearby communities. Exposure to these chemicals can cause respiratory problems, skin irritation, and other health issues.
Sustainable Practices in Denim Production in Pakistan 

Like in many other countries, denim production in Pakistan has historically been associated with various environmental and social challenges. Whereas, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the need for sustainable practices in denim production, which can help minimize the negative impact on the environment and improve the social conditions of workers involved in the production process.

Here are some sustainable practices in denim production in Pakistan:

  • Water conservation
    Denim production is a water-intensive process, and in many cases, water is discharged untreated into nearby water bodies, causing pollution. To address this issue, many denim producers in Pakistan are adopting water conservation measures, such as recycling and reusing water in different stages of production, implementing closed-loop systems, and using low-water dyeing technologies. These practices can significantly reduce the amount of freshwater used in denim production and minimize the risk of water pollution.
  • Energy efficiency
    Denim production requires a significant amount of energy, mainly for heating, cooling, and powering machinery. To reduce energy consumption, many denim producers in Pakistan are investing in energy-efficient technologies, such as LED lighting, heat recovery systems, and renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Using renewable energy sources, denim producers can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and minimize their carbon footprint.
  • Chemical management
    Denim production involves the use of a variety of chemicals, including dyes, finishing agents, and detergents, which can have harmful effects on human health and the environment. To ensure safe use of chemicals, many denim producers in Pakistan are adopting chemical management practices, such as using safer and more eco-friendly chemicals, implementing closed-loop systems for chemical recycling, and ensuring proper disposal of hazardous waste.
  • Fair labour practices
    Denim production in Pakistan, like in many other countries, has been associated with labor rights violations, including low wages, long working hours, and poor working conditions. To address these issues, many denim producers in Pakistan are adopting fair labor practices, such as providing workers with safe and healthy working conditions, ensuring fair wages and benefits, and promoting gender equality and diversity in the workplace.
  • Product traceability
    Denim production involves complex global supply chains, making it difficult to trace the origin of materials and ensure responsible sourcing practices. To promote transparency and accountability in the supply chain, many denim producers in Pakistan are implementing product traceability systems, like block chain technology and RFID tags, which allow them to track the origin of materials and ensure they meet environmental and social standards.
Challenges in Implementing Sustainable Practices 

Implementing sustainable practices in Pakistan presents several challenges that require careful consideration and planning. A major challenge is the lack of awareness about sustainable practices among the general population. As a result, many people in Pakistan are unaware of the importance of sustainable practices and how they can contribute to preserving the environment. Another challenge is the lack of regulatory framework and enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with sustainable practices. This creates a situation where many businesses and industries continue to operate in a manner that is detrimental to the environment.

Additionally, lack of resources and funding for implementing sustainable practices can make it difficult for businesses and organizations to invest in sustainable solutions. Finally, cultural and social norms in Pakistan can also pose challenges to adopting sustainable practices, as some practices may conflict with traditional values and beliefs. Addressing these challenges require a multi-faceted approach that includes awareness campaigns, stronger regulatory frameworks, increased funding and resources, and engagement with local communities to promote understanding and acceptance of sustainable practices.

Success Stories in Sustainable Denim Production in Pakistan 

Pakistan’s denim industry has made significant progress in adopting sustainable practices in recent years. Here are three success stories in sustainable denim production in Pakistan:
* Artistic Milliners
Artistic Milliners is a leading denim manufacturer in Pakistan that has made significant strides in sustainable denim production. The company has invested in sustainable technologies, such as laser printing and ozone washes, to reduce water consumption and chemical use in manufacturing. They have also implemented a closed-loop production system that recycles water and reduces waste.
* Soorty Enterprises
Soorty Enterprises is another Pakistani denim manufacturer implementing sustainable practices in its production processes. The company’s dedicated sustainability department reduces water, chemical, and energy consumption. Soorty has also implemented a water recycling program, which has helped the company reduce its water usage by 40%.
* Naveena Denim
Naveena Denim is a Pakistani denim manufacturer that has invested significantly in sustainable practices. The company has installed a wastewater treatment plant that recycles 100% of the wastewater generated during production. Naveena has also implemented a sustainable chemical management program, which ensures that all chemicals used in the manufacturing process are safe for workers and the environment. Additionally, the company has implemented energy-efficient practices, such as using solar panels to power its factories.

The Future of Sustainable Denim Production in Pakistan 

The future of sustainable denim production in Pakistan is closely tied to the fashion industry’s increasing focus on sustainability. Denim sustainability has become a key priority for many fashion brands as they seek to reduce the environmental impact of their products. Cotton sustainability is also critical, as cotton is the primary raw material used in denim production. In addition to environmental concerns, modern slavery is a significant issue in the textile industry, and brands must ensure that their denim is produced ethically. Textile dyeing is another area where sustainable practices can have a significant impact, as traditional dyeing methods can be highly polluting. As the fashion industry continues to prioritize sustainability, Pakistan’s denim producers must adopt sustainable practices to remain competitive and meet the demands of environmentally conscious consumers.
Pakistani textile companies are just beginning to incorporate Sustainable Business Practices. Not only for the pressure of market forces such as competition and demand (in order to compete in the global market, textile producers must satisfy customers’ environmental demands), but also because textile companies are under the regulatory pressure, for example by European Union’s (EU’s) Scheme of Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) to avail duty free export to EU. Textile firms are continuously striving hard to adopt sustainable business practices. Net Zero Pakistan, for example, is a national partnership involving cutting-edge businesses, government organizations, and sectoral specialists to achieve Pakistan’s objective of net zero carbon by 2050. 23 signatories of this partnership have committed and set net zero targets, affirmed to measure and disclose transparently the levels and sources of GHG emissions, vowed to decarbonize value chains and lastly have shown interest in advocating for climate action. The textile sector is also actively engaging in international conventions and platforms such as ‘Better Work Programme’, ‘Decent Work Country Programme-IV (2023-27)’, ‘The Accord on Fire and Building Safety’ (source: All Pakistan Textile Mills Association).
Achieving sustainable denim production in Pakistan requires a collective effort from all stakeholders in the industry. While progress has been made in adopting eco-friendly practices, there are still challenges to overcome such as the high cost of sustainable materials and limited access to technology. To address these challenges, manufacturers must invest in research and development, collaborate with international brands and experts, and prioritize the health and safety of workers. As consumers, we can promote sustainable denim production by buying from brands that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices. We can build a more sustainable and responsible denim industry in Pakistan and beyond by working together.

– From our Pakistani correspondent –

Note: the textile industry in Pakistan has been facing a crisis in the last months of 2022 causing a drop of textile exports.

Other articles on jeans and denim >

Photos: Divazus Fabric Store; Claire Abdo; Jason Leung; Maude Frédérique Lavoie.

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