It takes 75 litres of water to make your jeans. Can it be brought down to zero?
Textile is one of the largest water consuming industries, next only to power and steel. Manufacturing clothes is water intensive, but technological innovations can make it possible to manufacture your favourite pair of denim without a drop of water.
Synonymous with the quintessential Indigo dyed denim clothing, Arvind’s first denim manufacturing plant came up in 1986 in its Naroda unit in Ahmedabad. By the end of 1987, the company rolled out high value cotton shirting in its manufacturing as well.
If there is one common thread that has been constant in the company’s lineage, it is the utilisation of existing resources in a way which led them to develop intellectual property around a host of their unique inventions.
The company, which has acquired more than 30 global patents by now for its environmental solutions, has been taking the lead in water saving technologies.
Consider this: while, on an average, it takes 75 litres to make one pair of jeans, Arvind can get it done in 15 litres using foam dyeing and different finishing technologies. Their aim, in fact, is to move towards waterless dyeing of denim in the next few years.
The company has been geared towards eliminating the use of freshwater sources for production processes. The Santej manufacturing facility near Ahmedabad which came up in 1998 to produce high value cotton garments and knitted fabric, is spread over a massive 450 acres. The plant has a wastewater treatment plant which recycles up to 98% of the effluent.
Source – Arvind Ltd. Illustrations by Ashmeet Kaur
Punit Lalbhai, the elder son of Sanjay Lalbhai and Executive Director of the $1 billion conglomerate Arvind looks back at his journey with a wave of nostalgia taking over. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in conservation biology and a master’s degree in environmental science from Yale University, the glint in his eyes is unmistakable as he narrates the company’s philosophy of being ‘fundamentally right.’
“The water business was born out of our own need to manage our water consumption better. We were one of the first companies around to use recycling technologies to reduce our water footprint. It was challenging in the beginning and also very expensive and, over the years, we have built a lot of internal competence to manage the sustainability of that operation,” he says.
Incidentally, textiles is one of the largest water consuming industries, next only to power and steel. In the midst of finding solutions, the company found that others were faced with similar problems. This is when Arvind Envisol was started in 2011 as a different business that dealt in water treatment, industrial wastewater treatment, sewage treatment and zero liquid discharge solutions for others in the industry facing similar issues.
Eventually, it all fell into place. “From consulting it went to equipment sale and then to solutions and innovation where we started filing patents and developing intellectual property around how to better treat water. One thing led to another and it’s proven to be a successful and high value potential future business for us,” reveals Lalbhai.
In 2014, Envisol secured a global patent for its Polymeric Film Evaporation Technology, which helps to save 80% energy cost for Envisol’s Zero Liquid Discharge water treatment system. Lalbhai points to their need for saving water, which is going to be in tremendous scarcity going forward. “It makes sense for someone who has struggled and innovated in the space to take that business further ahead. That’s the classical definition of reinvention,” he shrugs.
This drive to disrupt the market while also remaining ecologically compliant made the company mull a future course of action using their core competence of textiles. Three areas have been the primary focus at Arvind Ltd in this domain - human protection with solutions that protect human life through fabric technology such as flame retardant wear, splash protection, high visibility and industrial work wear - essentially all kinds of fabrics and garments that can protect in potentially hazardous situations.
Another vertical, advanced composites, makes use of reinforcement fabrics and resins through various processes for products in building construction, and mass transport, sports and industrial processes.
The company - Arvind PD Composites – manufactures glass fabrics for wind energy, marine and other industrial applications. A joint venture with one of the leading glass fabric manufacturers in Germany, the ‘glass fabrics’ is considered an ideal solution for applications where strength and weight restrictions combine.
The third group is industrial application where the focus is predominantly on filtration of gases and liquids.
Source – Arvind Ltd. Illustrations by Ashmeet Kaur
The technological innovations comprise unique aspects such as specialty fabric processing, stretch bonding, coating and lamination among others. Lalbhai recalls how the advanced materials division was envisioned. “We are trying to build the future of textiles through this division. The aim is to develop new businesses that match our core philosophy of fashioning possibilities contributing to society and yet creating a business that is needed,” he asserts.
Survival amid ecological threats
Lalbhai doesn’t think that India is anywhere behind in the call for action as far as its environmental responsibilities are concerned. In a country like India, Lalbhai reasons, organisations are bound to face the need for sustainability far more acutely as it is a large population and a severe shortage of resources such as climate change and water scarcity is being experienced.
“I don’t subscribe to the view that Indians do not care about sustainability. I think we are selling ourselves short, if we perpetuate that thinking,” he avers.
Lalbhai illustrates his point by drawing attention to how costs will go up dramatically when there is no clean air or water. While fresh water was earlier relatively freely accessible through ground water and other sources, today's industries have to buy fresh water supplied.
He cites the example of industries in South India paying Rs 60 a cubic metre now for freshwater, up from Rs 4 a cubic metre earlier. “Rs 100 a cubic metre is also not uncommon. So as the prices go up, it is going to make extreme business sense to become more resource efficient and to reuse, recycle. That’s where the sustainability angle comes in. So it’s not about thinking how I can be good with sustainability. It is about how I can use these concepts that sustainability brings to the table to do my business better,” he candidly states.
Lalbhai flips the argument and says that it is not about making sustainability part of the business practice, but rather it is about making one’s business practice sustainable. “Everyone wants to earn a profit 10 years from now - that is sustainability. So what do I need to ensure that I exist 10 years from now? I will need to ensure that I will have water to use, be the most cost effective company, thereby my material consumption must be efficient. I must have the best people and treat them well; otherwise I will lose my competitive advantage. I must use as little energy possible to produce the maximum result - that is sustainability,” he adds.
The future augurs well for this textile conglomerate which has been betting big on its innovation-led technological processes. In fact, Lalbhai doesn’t shy away from calling the new business verticals billion dollar ideas. “It’s just about how fast we can get to that. The purpose is about making them large, profitable, sustainable and such that can benefit society. They are at very high rates of growth. Presently, the advanced materials is at Rs 800 crore and water business stands at few hundred crore, but both are growing at 30% plus growth rates,” he reveals.