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Factory Tour: Inside the Denim Factory Your Favorite Sustainable Brands Use Loyally

There's a reason Everlane, Eileen Fisher, G-Star Raw, Madewell and more produce at this world-class facility.
Inside Saitex, laser technology is used to create a worn-in look on a pair of jeans with minimal environmental impact. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Inside Saitex, laser technology is used to create a worn-in look on a pair of jeans with minimal environmental impact. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Welcome to our series Factory Tour, where we take you inside the manufacturing facilities of some of our favorite brands to find out how the clothes we buy are actually made. Next up: Saitex, an innovative, sustainability-focused factory that produces denim for brands like Everlane and Madewell.

If you're going to produce new clothing in an era that's seen multiple nations declare a state of emergency due to climate breakdown, you'd better be doing everything in your power to minimize your impact on the environment. Since most brands don't own their own manufacturing facilities, that means partnering with a factory known for sustainable production — of which Saitex is a premium example.

Located in Vietnam, Saitex is the denim partner of choice for a host of labels including ethical favorites like Everlane, Eileen Fisher and G-Star Raw, in addition to Madewell, J.Crew, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Outerknown, American Eagle, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein Jeans and more. Built in 2012, Saitex's current facilities were founder Sanjeev Bahl's response to the human rights and environmental injustices he encountered over a decade of global denim sourcing.

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"He saw modern slavery and a lot of environmental damage," explains Saitex's Sustainability Project Manager Virginia Rollando when I visit the facility outside Ho Chi Minh City. "That's why he decided to do his own thing and set up his own factory."

Since its founding, Saitex has grown to accommodate five different facilities and now employs over 4,500 people and produces 20,000 pairs of jeans a day. Along the way, it's collected a lengthy list of ethics-centric certificationsFair Trade, Oeko-Tex, LEED, Bluesign, the Higg Index and B Corp have all given Saitex their stamp of approval.

It's Saitex's innovative, technology-forward approach to sustainability that's led to it being described by partners like Everlane as "the world's cleanest denim factory." Read on to get an inside look at how it's accomplished this — and how it's continuing to evolve.

Inside the Saitex fabric warehouse. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Inside the Saitex fabric warehouse. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Saitex stores 5 million meters of fabric in this warehouse, all of which will eventually be made into jeans, denim jackets and more. At the moment, fabric is brought in from outside mills, but Saitex is currently in the process of building its own mill.

"When you do a lifecycle assessment of a garment — analyzing all its impacts in different phases from raw material extraction to end of use — you will notice that a lot of the worst impact is in fiber and fabric production," Rollando explains. "So even though we tried really hard to make Saitex sustainable, garments made here could still be not sustainable at all because there were so many steps earlier in the supply chain where we didn't have any decision power."

The Saitex mill, which should be up and running by 2020, is being built to LEED specifications and will be "fully covered in solar panels" that will be used to power the machinery. 6,000 trees are being planted in the adjacent lot to offset the plant's carbon emissions, and Rollando hopes that by designing fabric directly with brands, Saitex will be able to minimize excessive fabric finishing processes that can be harmful to the environment. 

Perhaps most exciting from a brand perspective, the mill will have no minimums, which is often a huge barrier for small labels that don't need to order large runs of fabric.

Denim rolls waiting to be cut and sewn. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Denim rolls waiting to be cut and sewn. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Saitex owner Bahl has also invested in Fibertrace, a technology that creates fabric that can be scanned — no hangtag required — to reveal information about who farmed the cotton or sewed the piece. Though it was initially developed as a way to fight luxury counterfeiting, Bahl is excited about the prospect of using Fibertrace in collaboration with a carbon-positive farm in Australia to make information about supply chains fully traceable and available to curious customers. 

"It's really going to be revolutionary. One issue in sustainability is that so much information is lost," says Rollando. "This technology works with pigments and minerals you find in bank notes and with a scan, you can detect these pigments in the fiber. They're inserted in the ginning process of the cotton. So you will be able to scan your garment and get all the information about the materials, where the cotton comes from, is it Fair Trade, is it B Corp."

All of that's in the future for now, as it's not yet commercially available in pieces that come out of Saitex. But it's just one of the ways Saitex is working to expand its sustainability cred.

For now, though, Saitex works with a whole range of conventional denim. Before the fabric in the warehouse can be cut and sewn into garments, it goes through the "relaxer," a machine that unspools the fabric so it's not stretched out of shape when it's cut. (Though the machine earned its name due to the effect it has on the denim, watching the denim pile up in these folds is hypnotic in a way that's pretty relaxing for any onlooking humans, too.) After it's unspooled, the fabric is left to rest for a bit before it moves onto the factory floor.

Once fabric has been relaxed, it's ready to be cut. There are a couple of different ways this can happen: Some pieces will be cut by hand by Saitex employees who lay paper patterns over the top of the denim, others will be cut by machines that are pre-programmed and can cut through many pieces of fabric at once.

A Saitex employee individually distressing pieces of fabric that will become pockets. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

A Saitex employee individually distressing pieces of fabric that will become pockets. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Though some fabrics can move straight from being cut to being sewn, patch pockets may require special steps. 

There's a lot of work that goes into giving your jeans a worn-in look before you buy them, and if the factory is using manual abrasion to accomplish that look, then fabric that will become an outside pocket needs to be pre-ground before it's sewn onto the back of your jeans. Otherwise, the grinding process could wear down the stitches affixing the pocket to the garment. 

Before they're sewn onto pants, pockets may also be pre-embroidered (think of the simple V-shape often found on back pockets). Here, one Saitex employee sets up a machine that can automatically embroider a whole set of pockets at once, while another screenprints a logo onto pieces of fabric that will eventually be sewn into garments.

After all the components are finished, the pieces of denim are ready to be sewn together. Like many aspects of production at Saitex, sewing is done through a combination of human and machine power. Specialized machines bring increased efficiency and accuracy to the table, but they still require skilled humans to operate them and program them afresh for each new style.

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A Saitex employee making quality control checks. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

A Saitex employee making quality control checks. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

One job that still requires a human eye is quality control. Every piece that passes through the Saitex floor is carefully measured to make sure that sizing and proportions are consistent and match what was asked for by the brand. Here, a Saitex employee uses a measuring tape to ensure the proper dimensions were achieved during the sewing process. 

The metal blocks on the top of this machine apply heat and pressure to achieve a worn-in look. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

The metal blocks on the top of this machine apply heat and pressure to achieve a worn-in look. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

After jeans are sewn and pass through quality control, they're ready to be treated and finished. This part of the process looks wildly different depending on the style — some brand partners want to bring customers jeans that look so worn they could be vintage, while others might opt for fewer finishing processes.

Here, an employee bunches jeans up on a machine that creates the creases found at the back of the knee by applying heat and pressure to the wrinkles the employee created.

There are a number of different ways to soften and fade denim to achieve the worn-in look that so many brands ask for. Stone washing involves tumbling jeans with natural pumice stones, which uses manual abrasion to soften and fade the jeans. A chemical called potassium permanganate can also be sprayed onto the denim directly to create a "local bleaching" effect for when a brand only wants to lighten certain parts of the jeans.

Both methods have environmental pitfalls: stone-washing leaves particles of stone behind on the denim, which then requires more water to remove and pollutes the water it lingers in; potassium permanganate is toxic in high doses and should be kept out of waterways. But since some companies demand these processes because of the look they achieve on denim, Saitex hasn't completely phased them out. Instead, it's tried to minimize their impact. 

It all comes down to water. Saitex uses an ETP (Effluent Treatment Plant) system for cleaning the water that passes through its facilities. The system combines reverse osmosis, bacteria nanofiltration and evaporation that cleans water so thoroughly that it can be totally reused in a closed-loop system. (Though founder Bahl wasn't present for my visit, he's famously willing to drink the water after it passes through this filtration system to prove how clean it is.) Two percent of Saitex's water is lost through evaporation, but every other drop of it can be reused.

"This filtration system was a massive investment in 2012," says Rollando. "But it was paid back in five years and now it's a source of savings, because we barely have any water bills." 

She's quick to note, too, that Saitex has the only Bluesign-certified laundry in the world, a further testament to how it's fighting toxicity. All the heat and steam in the laundry are created using biomass waste material from the furniture or agriculture industries, so that Saitex doesn't have to rely on fossil fuels or gas for energy. And jeans are hung out to air-dry — a seeming no-brainer that's almost unheard of in the industry — to save even more energy.

In addition to trying to minimize the impact of the industry's usual methods, Saitex has also invested in next-generation technology that can create the appearance of wear with a much lower environmental impact. Jeanologia technology uses lasers to remove a fine layer of indigo pigment from the top of the jeans, while Ozone allows for bleaching without the use of any water at all. 

Saitex also has machines that can perform manual sanding and grinding, taking over work that's less than pleasant for humans. People are still needed to teach the machines how to sand every new style, which means that their jobs aren't being totally eliminated, but they're required to do less of the physical labor.

At the moment, Saitex's floor features a mix of all of the above — stone washing and Ozone, laser technology and chemical bleaching, human and machine-run sanding — but the goal is always to offer more and more sustainable options so that it's easier for brands to make the switch.

There's a constant tension for the Saitex team between trying to push for sustainable measures and trying to leave the door open for brands that aren't all the way there yet. 

Case in point: the facility has a no single-use plastic rule for its staff and employees, and everyone is encouraged to bring their own reusable containers and water bottles. But many companies still require that Saitex wrap their jeans individually in plastic polybags. It's not the ideal, says Rollando, but at the end of the day she hopes that Saitex can help lead brands into more sustainable options by advocating for better alternatives.

All the furniture pictured was made using tiles created from old denim and textile waste. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

All the furniture pictured was made using tiles created from old denim and textile waste. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Like any sustainability-centric fashion company worth its salt, Saitex has caught onto the buzz around circularity and is trying to take more responsibility for the products it creates after they've outlived their initial purpose. Bahl has invested in Atelier & Repairs, a brand dedicated to upcycling clothing, to try and extend the life of any garment that comes out of Saitex. In the past Saitex has also collaborated with brands like Puma to create shoes made from denim scraps.

Saitex's founder is also setting up a factory in Thailand that will create tiles from textile waste that can be used in furniture and flooring. Unlike some comparable products, the tiles are made using a binder that has hardly any petroleum-based product in it, keeping the environmental impact at a minimum. So far, the tiles have been used to create a facade for a Christian Louboutin store and to make furniture within the Saitex offices.

"The goal is to empty landfills, reduce incineration of fabric and reduce deforestation because this can replace wood," Rollando explains.

A greenhouse under construction at the Saitex campus. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

A greenhouse under construction at the Saitex campus. Photo: Whitney Bauck/Fashionista

Though much of what Saitex is known for is its environmental consciousness, it's also made treating people well a central part of its way of doing business. The campus features a greenhouse and hydroponic crates to grow fresh food for employees, the company has raised money to build orphanages in the area and its Fair Trade certification serves as an assurance to buyers that it's paying decent wages and making sure employees have a voice in their workplace. Part of the reason Bahl chose to start Saitex in Vietnam is that he was impressed with the way the culture respects women, and he's proud that women are well-represented in Saitex's leadership, not just on its factory floor.

And this factory is just the beginning. Besides the fabric mill and textile waste tile factory, Saitex is also preparing to open another factory in Los Angeles this fall, which will be used to help American manufacturers very quickly sample smaller batches of products before ordering large runs from the Vietnam factory. 

If it sounds like Bahl is building an empire, that's because he is. For those that think the best thing for the environment would be to shut down the entire fashion industry tomorrow, that might not be good news. But for those that want to see sustainable factory options made more accessible — and appealing — to brands of all sizes, it's a reason to rejoice.

"The aim is to have the most sustainable technology available," Rollando says. 

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